Managing Diversity: Organizational Change, Part One

by Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T.

Managing Diversity Third in a Series of Five Articles


When the United States Congress passed the Immigration and Reform Act of 1965, senators, house members, and President Lyndon Johnson had little idea of the chain of events they were setting into motion. Senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota told constituents, "It is a limited measure, since it does not make any substantial increase in the number of immigrants who can enter each year." He was wrong.

Prior to 1965, the immigration system had been modified several times throughout the country's history, yet the end result was always a preference for those from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany. This preferential system came to a halt as the result of the 1965 Immigration Reform Act. Created during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, this Act initiated a groundswell of immigration from other than non-Western European countries. In completely unexpected numbers, the country began to see an increase in immigration from Asia, South America, and the Caribbean. As the 1965 law allowed these new citizens the opportunity to bring their family members to the States, the immigration population has continued to rise.

The net result of this immigration reform was nothing short of establishing the United States as one of the most diversified countries in the world. The societal changes wrought by this influx of diversity continue to confound us to this day. Thirty years after this reform act, even arch supporter McCarthy explained, "The 1965 changes to the immigration laws discounted the human factors that ultimately resulted in effects no one had anticipated." In other words, the current diversity of this country is unintentional.

The unflinching reality is that there is no master plan for diversity. We do what we can for now and create stopgap measures until we have a better idea of just how to work with diversity. Both as a country and on an individual level, we are dealing with diversity through experiential means. We keep what works and throw away the dross. This happens in politics, the legal system, our workplaces, and in our personal lives. Through trial and error, etiquette, and observance of mandatory diversity regulations, we discover how to interact with "others," whether they are co-workers, customers, or new neighbors. There is no final set of rules for diversity, and as the United States and Canada stand as the paragons of diversity for the en tire world, there are no other countries that we can look to for guidance. Indeed, as most countries find themselves coping with diversity, they look to the United States for advice.

The first two articles in this series on diversity presented facts indicative of the pressing need for camps to address the expanding demographic diversity in the United States and then described the need for competent leadership to initiate and sustain the diversity process. One concern that I have is not to mislead anyone into thinking that reading these articles will suffice as the final word for a camp diversity initiative. Fostering diversity in our camps is a process that will take time. And this time will not be measured in weeks or months, but years. In addition, it will take patience, diligence, and a long-term perspective. And nowhere will this be more evident then when we attempt to change our organizations. Recall that the first step was to groom ourselves to be competent leaders for diversity, but the effort exerted in that endeavor is nothing compared to organizational change.
When we attempt to interact with another demographic group, a series of organizational challenges arises. Indeed, a building consensus in the diversity field is that organization/ institutional change is the most taxing and fault-laden aspect of a diversity initiative.

The Psychology of Group Differences

A 1993 issue of TIME Magazine featured a computer-generated composite of a woman fashioned from fourteen different racial-ethnic models. Thirty-five percent of this female's features were southern European, 15 percent Anglo-Saxon, 17.5 percent were Middle Eastern, 17.5 percent African, 7.5 Asian, and 7.5 percent Hispanic. The article that went along with this portrait was titled "The New Face of America" and described the effect of intercultural marriages and resulting children were having on the visible demographics of the United States.

Unfortunately, the interactions between different cultural groups on a day-to-day basis are rarely as successful as this computer-generated amalgamated outcome. And let's not limit ourselves to ethnicity; we can broaden our examination to encompass a myriad (and probably endless) listing of group differences that can be considered under the general category of "diversity." For example, a noted current concern is that a focus on ethic diversity in the United States has led us to underestimate another increasing contentious diversity issue: religious differences.

The formation of groups is a human trait stretching back to our earliest ancestors. And even in the most artificial of situations, we will find a separation into groups based often on nothing more than the most superficial of characteristics. Unfortunately, this division often comes with consequences, especially for the less powerful or influential of the groupings. This separation can sometimes lead to an internecine battle. One of the most powerful examples is a classic study known by most individuals in the youth-development field. At a summer camp, twelve-year-old boys were randomly divided into two groups. Within the first few days, the bonding between the members of these two individual groups was solidified, and they soon began to seek out ways to derogate members of the other group. The antagonism that developed between the two groups eventually escalated into mutually destructive behaviors (Sherif 1966). Not only did this study demonstrate an almost-inborn human propensity for group formation, but it also gave us insight into the conditions that are conducive to conflict between groups, including competition and frustration of goals.

Another experiment is also informative for our purposes. In the infamous Zimbardo prison study (Zimbardo, Maslach, & Haney 2000), young adult males—all volunteers—were assigned to the role of a prisoner or a guard in a fake prison for two weeks. The study was decisively cut short by more than a week when those assigned to the guard role began to torture the "inmates" through such means as stripping them naked, forcing them to simulate sexual activity, and extreme use of solitary confinement. This experiment is most often cited as evidence of the ability of the environment to influence aggressive behavior, but it is also empirical support of the ability of people to treat others of a separate group very differently—even if these "others" are in no way different than the majority and/or power wielding group except for a randomly assigned and purely fabricated label. This experiment also added more credence to the already established finding that leadership (or the absence of such leadership in this particular study) plays a pivotal role in the ultimate success of interactions between groups perceiving one another as somehow different.

Psychological research has found that once we create group divisions, three cognitive processes naturally follow. The first insidious process is that we tend to favor our own group. In general, group favoritism results in self-perceptions of group superiority as well as an overestimation of similarities between members of the same group. The end result is that even though our own group is comprised of individuals with vastly different personalities and characteristics (possibly numbering more than the putative differences between two different groups), we will tend to overestimate just how similar we are to our fellow group members while at the same time overestimating how different we are from other groups' members.

Another consequence of group identification is the tendency to downplay or even disregard the strengths of another group while, at the same time, excusing the mistakes of one's own group. In daily life, when one group supersedes another in some form or fashion the outcome is immediately explained away by the less successful group as a result of preferential treatment, favoritism, or luck.

The final cognitive process is that out-group derogation occurs when group identity is threatened. We see this in the current immigration battle. Many Americans feel threatened by immigrants' willingness to work longer hours for less pay. Instead of seeing these characteristics as positive qualities (which many pro-immigrant individuals and groups do), entire populations of immigrants are instead abhorred. In more general terms, when one's immediate group is somehow threatened, humans respond by lashing out at other co-existing groups.

The Four Outcomes of Differences

Group formation is an inevitable human process. The resulting challenge is how to create mutually successful collaboration. For once disparate groups have formed—whether on the most superficial or on the most profound of attributes—it takes much effort to bring them together. Diversity research has determined that there are four outcomes that occur when groups comprised of different cultures attempt to interact.

The first outcome is genocide. The history of the world is replete with systematic extermination of one group by another, but, in the United States, we will see genocide played out in a far less overt method. As a current example, one of the sticking points in the battle over immigration reform in the United States is whether to allow illegal immigrants the possibility of citizenship. Those that oppose this strategy instead want all illegal immigrants to be sent back to their countries of origin. In addition, another proposed piece of legislation will make it a federal offense to hire illegal immigrants. Genocide as it is being played out currently with the immigrant population in the United States focuses on ridding the country of these "others" by both forced deportation and the creation of an environment that is inhospitable.

Even though the most recalcitrant and prejudiced staff member of a camp will not make purposeful attempts to eradicate staff members or children considered different, a camp administration that does not wish to deal with diversity in general or one demographic group in particular can still make no attempt to welcome "others" or change the facility's structure and/or programming to be more hospitable to their needs. In practice these administrators are making it impossible for diverse groups to succeed and thrive in a camp environment.

Segregation refers to a policy of separate development. In contrast to genocide, which proactively seeks to destroy another group, segregation is an attempt to keep two different groups apart—either purposefully or through sheer neglect. Thus this can occur because of antipathy or to uncertainty of how to approach and interact with each other. We also cannot ignore the fact that many new demographic groups purposefully avoid contact with us. The perception of "others" cuts both ways. Some of our colleagues and administrators in the youth service field may lack the interest or skills to work with a new population, but these same new populations may also lack the desire to work with us. Even more, they very well may see us in a negative light due simply to the human trait of group separation. Even if we do manage to attract a few members of a specified demographic group to attend our facility, it should come as no surprise that these children and/or staff do not mix well with the majority population of camp and form their own cliques.

In a highly exaggerated form of segregation in camps, we might see a camp that caters only to African-Americans, another to whites, another to those from Hispanic backgrounds and so on. Or even more extreme, a camp may host Laotian children for one session, Cambodian children for its second, and gay and lesbian youth for the third. Notice that there is no attempt to find the commonalities that could open the door for a shared camp experience for all groups. I hope readers don't find these examples too outlandish as this is already happening in other youth serving agencies whose goal is to work with highly circumscribed demographic groups. In my own neighborhood in Philadelphia, now pejoratively labeled "Little Mexico" because of the number of Mexican immigrants living there, a day camp created specifically for Mexican children opened this past summer.

The third outcome is assimilation in which a group adopts (or is forced into acceptance) the culture of the majority. This was discussed in the first article of the series. We should not expect new groups to shoulder the full brunt of adjustment to our camps, and we should instead prepare our camps to deal with the needs of these new groups. Particularly in regards to ethnic diversity, many immigrants do present with a strong desire to assimilate our culture and thus begin to adopt truly Americanized values, lifestyle, and language. But others are less enthusiastic and are more apt to maintain the traditions and lifestyle of their former homeland. This is particularly true for first-generation immigrants.

The final outcome is integration. Such a perspective not only acknowledges that individuals from different cultures can be vastly different from one another, but also have the right to maintain their distinctive features. In short, our customers, most often children and families, are allowed to bring their heritage into our camps. The results are both a more positive experience for participants and a camp that is more capable of working with diverse demographics. This should sound familiar to readers of the earlier articles in this series, as this is a description of the "emerging paradigm" introduced in the second article.

Organizational Considerations for a Diversity Initiative

Assimilation and segregation are far more common outcomes than integration in camps. And while some camps may succeed with assimilation, without actual integration we simply cannot call our camps successfully diversified. If a camp director wishes to approach diversity from the emerging paradigm while concomitantly attempting integration over the other three group outcome possibilities, he or she best begin by examining several pertinent organizational factors:

  • How will the inclusion of new demographics affect our current service population? Diversity can provoke conflict and result in the voluntary withdrawal of other cultures.
  • How will current staff and programming be affected? Diversity can decrease the cohesiveness of a group. Cohesiveness is defined as the degree of attraction and affection amongst group members. The research is pretty clear that the more similarity amongst group members, the more cohesiveness occurs. This results in benefits such as increased generosity, cooperation, contribution, and work motivation. The less similar the group members, the less likely one will find such cohesiveness and its salubrious benefits. It is apparent that efforts at increasing diversity will result in a mixture of individuals with possibly few commonalities. Heterogeneous groups may well have to put more effort into creating environments that foster the desirable characteristics just listed.
  • In addition, diversity may produce conflict. Groups that are more cohesive tend to have better morale and communication skills. Without a well-considered diversity management plan, the inclusion of diversity into a workplace can have a deleterious effect on communication, morale, and result in longer decision-making times. In short, diversity can make a camp more stressful. (And all experienced camp directors know that we don't need any more stress during the height of the camp season.)
  • Finally, we cannot ignore the practical bottom-line costs associated with diversity. Costs include training, the costs associated with turnover and hiring of new employees, research and marketing of new demographics, and the ill will (and possibly negative publicity) incurred by pre-existing service groups.

As a result of the history of the United States, many corporations and agencies have inherited a workplace tradition shaped by Western European white males. And this includes camps. And such an environment is not necessarily diversity-friendly. For example, in many agencies, promotion and job assignments are posited on the use of polished English, or, in other words, being glib or a "good talker." What does this mean though for people for whom English is not a primary language in spite of their competence in all other job spheres? It is also a custom in many workplaces to promote oneself in order to attract the attention of those in power as a means of recognition. But what happens to those individuals that come to our workplaces from cultures that frown upon self promotion? And what about those team meetings in which members are expected to jump in with their opinions and confront others. This doesn't work all too well with individuals from cultures in which direct confrontation is seen as unacceptable, even if they have very valuable information to offer their teammates. In sum, organizations (including camps) uphold a myriad of traditions, some of which are so expected and accepted that they remain unchallenged. But ultimately even these less overt organizational practices must be reevaluated if diversity is to take root.

Organizational Evaluation
Recall from the introduction of this article that there is no consensus on how to succeed with diversity. And as there are no existing data sources pertaining specifically to camps and diversity, we will thus be experimenting for the next several years in order to establish the best practices and recommendations.

But we're not quite ready for interventions yet. Each organization presents its own set of distinct strengths and weaknesses in regards to diversity and thus no intervention—no matter how successful in another agency—will be completely applicable for every camp. Maybe two of the challenges facing the residential camp down the road include a current camper population whose families do not want more camp diversity and a new director that has little time to focus on diversity because of other pressing matters. The camp across the lake might have a phenomenal return rate for staff members, yet these same young adults are unfriendly to first-year staff, particularly those of minority status. In contrast, my own camp might have a board of directors that does not see a need for diversity and additionally lacks finances to research and market to new demographics.

A plan for diversity must be tailored to the circumstances of each camp. Unfortunately, there is not enough space to discuss a cultural assessment of our camps in this article. (Refer to "Evaluating a Good Season," Camping Magazine, September/October 2003 and "A Positive Camp Culture is Key to Preventing Staff Bullying," Camping Magazine, May/June 2005 for more information on general camp culture and evaluations.) A word of advice (and the same that I offered in the article on diversity and leadership), do not assume that you can single-handedly complete a cultural evaluation without input from others, including staff, campers, families, and possibly even vendors. Their input is valuable and often contrasts a leader's own perceptions.

In addition to open-ended questions measuring workforce cohesiveness, creativity, and problem-solving ability (all factors affected by diversity), some questions for which a camp administrator likely has accumulated data include (adapted with permission from Norton & Fox, 1997):

  • What is the ethnic composition of the camp's staff?
  • How many of these ethnic-identified individuals are managers? How many have been promoted in the past five years?
  • How does the length of employment of ethnic or minority staff members compare to majority staff members?
  • How many different languages are spoken by our camp staff? How many bilingual staff members do we have?
  • How many of our staff are sixty-five years or older?
  • What are the statistics on:
    • Turnover among minorities
    • Turnover among women
    • Absenteeism with these above two groups
    • Sick leave/sick days
    • Discrimination complaints
    • Sexual harassment complaints
  • How often (if ever) does diversity training occur?
  • What percentage of funds are utilized for diversity initiatives (such as for printing a camp application in another language)?
  • Does the board consider diversity an issue for the camp?
  • Is diversity part of the camp's mission statement?
  • In regards to our camper and family population, the following questions are applicable:
    • What is the ethnic composition of the camper population?
    • What is the ethnic population of the communities that are served by our camp(s)?
    • What outreach efforts have occurred to non-traditional camp populations?
    • What would be the reaction of campers to diversity? What about the reaction of parents?
    • Is diversity awareness part of the camp's programming?
    • How many minorities attend a camp's open house?

The Ultimate Goal

Organizational change is the most difficult aspect of a diversity initiative. When groups that recognize each other as somehow different interact, the hardwired human tendency to disparage the "other" occurs. And what is an organization but a group of people co-existing in an environment that has a specific culture. Each camp has its own culture. The first step then in organizational change is a cultural assessment to indicate both the pre-existing strengths and challenges that will affect a proposed diversity initiative and its ultimate goal of integration of all camp participants.

Beck, A.T. (1999). Prisoners of Hate. New York: Harper Collins.
Cox, T. (1994). Cultural Diversity in Organizations: Theory, Research & Practice. California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Norton, J. & Fox, R. (1997). The Change Equation. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Shelton, M. (2003). Coaching the Camp Coach. Indiana: American Camp Association.
Shelton, M. (2003). Evaluating a good season. Camping Magazine, September/October, 16-22.
Shelton, M. (2004). Secret Encounters: Addressing Sexual Behaviors in Group Settings. Indiana: American Camp Association.
Shelton, M. (2005). A positive camp culture is key to preventing staff bullying. Camping Magazine, May/June, 58-63.
Shelton, M. (2006). Developing excellence in camp leadership. Camping Magazine, March/April, 22-31.
Sherif, M. (1966). In Common Predicament: Social Psychology of Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation. Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin.
Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furnham, A. (2001). The Psychology of Culture Shock. Pennsylvania: Routledge.
Zimbardo, P.G., Maslach, C., & Haney, C. (2000). Reflections on the stanford prison experiment genesis, transformations, consequences. In T. Blass (Ed.), Current Perspectives on the Milgram Paradigm. New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Michael Shelton, M.S., C.A.C., C.E.T., is a consultant, trainer, and the director of Camp William Penn, a camp owned by the City of Philadelphia Department of Recreation. He is the author of Coaching the Camp Coach and Secret Encounters: Addressing Sexual Behaviors in Group Settings. Shelton can be reached via his Web site:

Originally published in the 2007 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.