If there is still anyone out there who doesn’t get the idea that workplace diversity is a good thing I’m yet to meet them. But that certainly doesn’t mean that there is  any universal clarity about how to implement and then manage it to best effect.

The major challenge seems to lie in the fact that, while the HR community knows where it wants to get to in terms of diversity, it doesn’t necessarily know how to map out the route to it.

And now, to make matters more complicated, it appears that the effectiveness of one of the original tools for achieving diversity – affirmative action – is being questioned.

A new exhaustive analysis of research into the effectiveness of affirmative action, conducted by a team from such heavy hitters as New York University (NYU) and  the University of Michigan has found that, in some cases, it may actually cause more problems than it solves.

As one of the report’s authors, Lisa Leslie of NYU, points out, giving any specific group preferential treatment in terms of training, shortlisting or targeting, for example, could end up reinforcing tacit or open prejudices rather than eradicating them. As she puts it, “When you implement policies like this it signifies that certain groups need extra help.” Or to phrase it another way, that they aren’t actually up to the job.

And this, of course, militates against the key message about the value of diversity – that real talent isn’t exclusive to a specific gender, ethnicity, nationality, etc. but can come in any human form.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the analysis also suggests that, unless well managed, some affirmative initiatives may also set up members of the targeted groups to fail. The perception that such employees have enjoyed some sort of unfair advantage apparently leads to harsher judgement from managers in the day-to-day work environment and in the formal appraisal process. The result is a negative downward spiral with the individual losing confidence and not performing to the level of their true abilities.

So does this mean that we should abandon affirmative action completely?

In my view this may be just one step too far. Experience shows that diversity doesn’t just happen spontaneously, it needs to be kick-started in some way. But if not handled properly this can all too easily look like favouritism.

And so we come back to something I’ve talked at length about before – the importance of shaping, managing and communicating the right EVP messages to both your existing workforce and the wider world. Any organisation genuinely committed to creating a diverse workforce and gaining all the benefits it can provide must make it absolutely clear what those benefits are. And, as Lisa Leslie says, it must also clearly demonstrate that the final motivators behind both hiring and promotion decisions will always be capability and merit. No-one should be left in doubt that anything looking like affirmative action is actually designed to give employers access to the very best talent available and that talent access to the best employers and not just to fill some sort of overt or covert quota.

Developing and delivering messages may not be the comfort zone of the HR specialist. But, given the impact that getting this right – or wrong – can have on an organisation, it’s a challenge that simply cannot be ignored or avoided.

As Chief Innovation Officer, Sue Brooks is responsible for overseeing the growth and execution of the company's talent consulting solutions, including Search Solutions and the Employer Brand Practice.

Formerly a founding member of Ochre House, Sue is widely respected around the world for championing the adoption of innovative talent programs that deliver true business impact. Known as a thought leader in talent acquisition and management best practices, Sue frequently is interviewed by the media, speaks at regional and global industry events and facilitates workshops.

Her passion for sharing her experience and expertise led her to create the Cielo HR Director Network—an extended community of more than 650 senior HR professionals and executives who frequently converge at global events to uncover answers to the talent challenges of today and tomorrow.