Due to increased workforce mobility, migration and internationalisation of education curricula, cultural differences of employees are getting more common in organisations. Ever more, diversity is viewed as a reality and a potential for boosting organisational performance. Organisations appoint diversity managers who are not only dealing with differences linked to the classic categories of diversity management (such as gender, profession, physical ability, race), but also with national culture diversity (expatriates, foreign talents, international client portfolio, etc.). The management of differences is now commonly perceived in the corporate environment as a part of Human Resource Management and leadership development. It unites under the label ‘cultural diversity management’ what used to be seen separately as cross-cultural management and diversity management. We adopt this terminology in this research proposal.
In academia alike, a recent tendency indicates a convergence between the two separate streams of diversity and cross-cultural management research (see Mor Barak, 2011; Holden et al. forth.; Calás et al; 2010). Our research team builds precisely on these two streams that we experience as complementary in their expertises. The streams meet on the fundamental issues that they want to deal with, that is: What are (cultural) differences and how can they be addressed?
Leading cultural differences and diversity in large organisations is quite a successful theme today and rests on well established theoretical and empirical tools and models to leverage this cultural diversity (e.g., Page, 2007; DiStefano, et al. 2000). For example, the successful management of diversity reduces employee turnover intensions (Stewart et al. 2010), increases innovative performances of organisations (Østergaard et al. 2011) and team performance (Homan et al. 2008). Leadership is closely linked to leveraging cultural diversity for organisation’s benefit (e.g., Shin et al., 2012; Østergaard et al. 2011), and promoted either with ‘global leadership’ or an emphasis on inclusive and transformative leadership (Mendenhall et al. 2013; Nishii & Mayer, 2009; Kearney & Gebert, 2009).
Yet, some researchers have recently advanced evidence that the management of differences is not as successful as it seems, despite scholars and practitioners’ best intensions. These researchers are preoccupied with understanding power structures in organisations and processes of social change, in the spirit of ‘critical management studies’. They point to empirical evidences (e.g. Omanovi?, 2013; Embrick, 2011; Zanoni & Janssens, 2004) and theoretical considerations (e.g., Noon, 2007; Ghorashi & Sabelis, 2013; van Dijk et al. 2012) indicating that the definition and management of differences are done in ways that can reproduce power inequalities and thus undermine the entire purpose of diversity and cross-cultural management. This means that the way cultural diversity management addresses its own fundamental questions and endeavour is said to undermine its raison d’être. Worse, some argue that cross-cultural and diversity management are dehumanising employees and thus, are unethical (Rodes & Westwood, 2007; Muhr, 2008).
How is this possible? We aim to investigate this state of affairs, this interconnection between an active leadership of cultural diversity and the alleged reproduction of inequalities and unethical practices. How can cultural diversity management theories and practices contribute to something which is so opposite to their endeavour?