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Behavioral Sciences and the Law

Behav. Sci. Law 23: 21–38 (2005)

Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10.1002/bsl.623

Diversity in Context: How Organizational Culture Shapes Reactions to Workers with Disabilities and Others Who Are Demographically Different

Sandra E. Spataro*

Successfully integrating workers with disabilities into their

organizations is both a challenge and an opportunity facing

managers today. Despite laws and business practices pro-

hibiting discrimination against those with disabilities,

people with disabilities are consistently underutilized in

organizations. This article applies theories of demo-

graphic diversity in organizations to assert that a richer

understanding of organizational cultures and their impli-

cations for workers with disabilities may shed light on the

question of how and why workers with disabilities may be

excluded from mainstream work experiences and career

progression. The article briefly reviews business argu-

ments that support integration of workers with disabilities

into organizations based on their contribution to the over-

all diversity within the organization, and reviews compli-

cations in the research on diversity to date that leave

important questions of the potential gains or detriments

from increasing this diversity unanswered. The article

then goes on to introduce organizational culture as an

underinvestigated but likely potent tool in explaining how

and when workers who are demographically different, in

general, and with disabilities, specifically, may be success-

fully integrated into an organization’s work force. The

article introduces three types of organizational culture:

culture of differentiation, culture of unity, and culture of

integration. Each is explained in terms of its content and

its implications for managing diversity. A discussion of the

implications of culture as a primary tool for managing

the integration of workers with disabilities concludes the

paper. Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

*Correspondence to: Sandra E. Spataro, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Yale School of Management, P.O. Box 208200, New Haven, CT 06520, U.S.A. E-mail: sandra.spataro@yale.edu


The U.S. workforce is becoming increasingly diverse (Triandis, Kurowski, &

Gelfand, 1993; Johnston & Packer, 1987). What has historically been a workforce

composed primarily of native-born, white males has transformed into a hetero-

geneous mix that includes an increasing proportion of workers with disabilities,

women, people of color, older workers, and workers born outside the United States

(See, e.g., Harris, 2000; Hattiangadi, 1998; Towers Perrin & Hudson Institute,

1990). The inclusion of more workers with disabilities and more workers who are

demographically different from the majority implies noticeable differences among

coworkers and has heightened interest in the questions of how such differences

between coworkers impact work performance.

As a result of the changes in the U.S. workforce, the subject of, and concern for,

diversity in organizations today is ubiquitous. Some argue that effectively managing

diversity at work is a business necessity. Others confess they find it a political pain in

the neck. The demographic trends in the U.S. workforce make clear, regardless of

beliefs about diversity, that recent increases in the representation of women, older

persons, those with disabilities, and other minorities in the workforce will continue.

These trends have implications at both the organizational and individual levels.

At the organizational level, the changing composition of the workforce offers

challenges and opportunities. Research shows that noticeable differences among

coworkers are associated with increased staff turnover (Pfeffer & O’Reilly, 1987;

Cummings, Zhou & Oldham, 1993) and workgroup conflict (Ancona & Caldwell,

1992; Eisenhardt, Kahwajy, & Bourgeois, 1997; Jehn, Northcraft, & Neale, 1999),

but differences among coworkers also offer great potential benefits to organizations’

product quality, market reputation, and bottom line. That is, diversity can and

should benefit the way work gets done, as well as the resulting products of that effort

(see, e.g., Helgesen, 1990; Foeman & Pressley, 1987). Yet, a recently completed

5 year study of the impact of diversity on business results found no major advantages

or disadvantages for organizational performance from increased diversity in the

workforce. The best outcomes, according to these researchers, were the ability to

overcome the negative effects of diversity, such as higher staff turnover and greater

workplace conflict (Kochan et al., 2003). The finding that organizations can take

steps to mitigate the costs of diversity is encouraging, and this prospect will form the

foundation for the discussion of organizational cultures within this article.

At the same time, at the individual level, changes in the demographic composi-

tion of the workforce should afford individuals previously excluded from working

the advantages and opportunities of the career of their choice. Yet, studies show that

individuals who are in the minority suffer from greater stereotyping (Kanter, 1977),

more negative impressions from their coworkers (Flynn, Chatman, & Spataro,

2001), and fewer performance opportunities (Spangler, Gordon, & Pipkin, 1978).

Indeed, in recent studies, more than a third of people with disabilities who are

currently employed report they have experienced some form of discrimination based

on their disabilities (Harris, 2000).

Overt discrimination in hiring or promotion is illegal. Thus, the persistence of

systematic disadvantages for traditionally underrepresented workers, in combina-

tion with a general failure among organizations to realize the benefits diversity

should afford them, implies an implicit bias against workers who are different from

22 S. E. Spataro

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Behav. Sci. Law 23: 21–38 (2005)

those in the majority (see, e.g., Tsui, Egan, & O’Reilly, 1992). That is, a more subtle

(and thus potentially more insidious) resistance to increasing minority presence in

the workforce may manifest indirectly, out of a reluctance to share power and

resources that have been traditionally controlled by the white, male, nondisabled

majority. As Anna Duran (n.d.) writes

[A]s a result of any diversity efforts, white males will be required to share valuable resources, rewards, incentives and promotions with a wider range of people than ever before. For some, the reaction may be disappointment, for others, feelings of betrayal and even anger will color their opinions about the fact that the old rules are changing.

Thus resistance to workers who are disabled or who are demographically

different, however unintended, may survive the legal end of overt discrimination.

Where then will we see continued discrimination? An organization’s latent prefer-

ences for certain demographic characteristics or physical or mental abilities may be

observable as shared beliefs and expectations about the “type” of person who makes

the greatest contribution (see, e.g., Owens, unpublished doctoral dissertation;

Ridgeway, 1997). As discussed below, shared values and beliefs among organization

members constitute the organization’s culture (O’Reilly & Chatman, 1996; Schein,

1985). The question then becomes, how does an organization’s culture affect the

work experiences of employees who are different from the majority?

This article looks at the values that comprise an organization’s culture to advance

understanding of when and where incorporation of workers with disabilities and

workers who are demographically different may positively impact organizations. A

discussion of how to manage these types of diversity necessitates consideration of

why one should manage diversity. Thus, the article begins with an assertion of both

ethical and business reasons why diversity merits attention beyond the formal, legal

interventions to discrimination and equal opportunity that exist. This is followed by

a review of existing research approaches to understanding the effects of demo-

graphic diversity in organizations and why these approaches have come up short.

Based on learning from that review, this article offers a model of the effects of greater

diversity among employees in organizations that is based on the content of an

organization’s culture. The article concludes with a discussion of research con-

siderations beyond organizational culture.


Most organizations face externally and internally imposed standards of hiring and

promotion, workplace conditions, and, in some cases, training in understanding

differences. Why should hiring and promoting disabled workers or workers who are

demographically different require further efforts?

For some, fairness is the most compelling reason for diversity to be of concern.

Discrimination in employment practices toward employees with disabilities, as well

as discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, and

physical ability, was outlawed by Congress with the Americans with Disabilities

Act of 1990 and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet, analyses of the work and

career experiences of members of these protected groups reveal that these legal

changes were insufficient to eradicate the systematic differences in experiences and

Diversity in context 23

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Behav. Sci. Law 23: 21–38 (2005)

careers among those who belong to protected groups versus those in the majority.

People from traditionally underrepresented groups populate a disproportionate

amount of low ranking jobs or unemployed status and have difficulty penetrating

the upper echelons of business.

For example, among working age adults with college degrees, 55% of people

with disabilities are unemployed, compared with 14% of their counterparts

without disabilities (Harris, 2000). Poverty rates among individuals with dis-

abilities are more than 50% higher than those without disabilities. Further, in

Fortune 500 firms, women hold 2,140, or 15.7%, of the 13,673 officer positions

(Catalyst, 2004); a small subset of these, or 1.6% of the total officer positions in

these firms, are held by women of color (Catalyst, 2002). Among Fortune 1000

firms, 41% had at least one African American on their board in 2000; 14%

reported having at least one Latino on their board; and 11% reported having a

member of Asian descent on their board (Korn/Ferry, 2001). Not every worker

who wishes to be employed will be, nor will every employee attain a leadership

position in business, but the low rates of employment among the disabled and the

lack of diversity at the highest levels of management in organizations prompt

questions of fairness.

A second compelling aspect of diversity in organizations has to do with managing

costs. When unmanaged, integrating workers with disabilities and workers who are

demographically different from the majority adds costs to everyday operational

issues (arising from increased turnover and conflict), as well as administrative

processes. Most managers already understand the explicit costs of managing

diversity, including up to $8 billion annually for diversity training across U.S. organizations, compliance with EEOC guidelines, and defense against violations

(e.g., charges of racial discrimination have increased more than 500% in the last

decade) (Kochan et al., 2003).

A third argument for the importance of understanding diversity in organizations

rests in the unrealized potential offered by the increasingly diverse workforce.

Beyond considerations of fairness and cost minimization, organizations have an

opportunity to exploit the demographic shifts in the workforce to their own

advantage (Kochan et al., 2003; Ely & Thomas, 2001). First, organizations that

embrace diversity may enjoy positive reputational effects, for example, on their stock

price and recruiting. Additionally, a firm believed to hire and promote the disabled

and demographic minorities will attract the highest qualified candidates from all

identity groups. Third, as the workforce is becoming increasingly diverse, so is the

customer base for United States organizations. For example, the more that

customers with disabilities perceive a firm to reflect their values and experiences

of being disabled, the more likely they are to purchase from it (e.g., Thomas & Ely,

1996). Finally, organizations that embrace diversity will likely be more flexible,

creative, and innovative. Research shows that women and minorities exhibit flexible

thinking in their approaches to problem solving (Kanter, 1989) and workers who

are more different in sex, race, and nationality from others in their organization are

more responsive in adjusting their behaviors to fit different situations (Chatman &

Spataro, in press). As policies and procedures are broadened, organizations must

become fluid and adaptable. Ability to adapt and evolve in a dynamic environment is

one of the hallmarks of longevity in an organization. Thus, the opportunities

diversity presents are many.

24 S. E. Spataro

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Behav. Sci. Law 23: 21–38 (2005)



Research on demographic diversity has failed thus far to chart a path for managers to

follow in managing diversity. Studies have shown that the demographic composition

of one’s workgroup affects both attitudes and behaviors in organizations, but the

results are difficult to reconcile or apply. For example, differences among coworkers

in educational experience have been shown to positively affect creativity and

decision quality (see, e.g., Wiersma & Bantel, 1992). At the same time, researchers

have found that diversity in age and workplace tenure can reduce communication,

social integration, and attachment to the organization and can increase turnover

(O’Reilly, Caldwell, & Barnett, 1989; Zenger & Lawrence, 1989; Tsui et al., 1992).

Research that has sought a simple answer to the question of whether diverse groups

outperform homogeneous groups has been inconclusive (Jehn et al., 1999; Williams

& O’Reilly, 1998). Likewise, answers to the question of whether an individual who is

different from the mainstream does better or worse are mixed (Chatman, Polzer,

Barsade, & Neale, 1998; Tsui et al., 1992). No clear implications for managing

differences among coworkers have emerged.

Various explanations for the divergent array of findings in group diversity and

organizational demography research have been advanced and have shed light on this

broad set of findings. For example, definitions of ‘‘demography’’ and ‘‘diversity’’

vary across studies (Pelled, 1996; Williams & O’Reilly, 1998); there is a lack of

attention—known as a ‘‘black box’’—to process variables such as conflict and

information sharing that may explain how diversity affects group functioning

(Lawrence, 1997); and there is a paucity of studies that consider how contextual

characteristics such as group cohesion or cultural norms moderate the effects of

diversity (see O’Reilly et al., 1989, and Chatman et al., 1998, for exceptions). These

explanations are explored in the next sections.

Definitions of Diversity Vary

What, exactly, does diversity mean? Any differences among coworkers? All differ-

ences? Which demographic characteristics are considered dimensions of ‘‘diver-

sity’’, and should disabilities be included under the rubric of ‘‘diversity’’? Some say

sex, race, and ethnicity have commonly been upheld as the primary dimensions of

difference among coworkers as they represent traditionally maligned groups

(Linnehan & Konrad, 1999), and diversity is only ‘‘managed’’ when individuals

from these groups are fully integrated into the workforce at all levels. To lift up other

characteristics that represent differences but do not embody the history or large

numbers these groups represent may be seen as a disservice to the social and political

causes of equality for women, people of color, and immigrants.

Other scholars argue any characteristic by which coworkers consider themselves

different from one another is a dimension of diversity. That is, other characteristics,

such as physical or mental disabilities, political orientation, marital status, and other

less traditional characteristics of diversity represent salient and consequential

differences among coworkers and should therefore be considered part of ‘‘diversity’’

(see, e.g., Spataro, 2001). The implication of this second approach is that what

Diversity in context 25

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Behav. Sci. Law 23: 21–38 (2005)

constitutes ‘‘diversity’’ differs across situations. Differences of sex or race may be

consequential in one environment whereas differences of physical ability (or

disability) or age may be more meaningful in another.

These two different approaches to defining diversity—sticking to the ‘‘big three’’

(i.e., sex, race, and age) versus letting the situation dictate what is important—are

both potentially valid. Compelling arguments exist from each perspective. However,

for managers who are trying to capitalize on the potential benefits of differences

among employees, the latter definition, which acknowledges the possibility that the

pool of characteristics that may represent diversity in an organization is broader than

sex, race, and age, is both more compelling and quite necessary. Since the goals of

managers are not just social justice but also business outcomes, limiting the scope of

which differences among workers are legitimate aspects of ‘‘diversity’’ neglects the

likelihood that other differences that are salient in the particular work environment

may emerge as consequential.

Regardless of the actual demographic composition of an organization or a

workgroup—that is, whether the group is comprised of 40-year-old white males

or whether it has two African American men, one disabled woman, two Mexican-

American women, and one 65-year-old East Indian man—issues of diversity are

relevant. Even in seemingly homogenous groups, individuals differentiate them-

selves, finding dimensions on which to consider themselves similar or different from

others in the group (Bales, 1951). It is on the basis of these dimensions—perhaps

educational level, or socio-economic status in the group of all white men, perhaps

sex, or race, or age in the more obviously diverse group—that in-/out-group

distinctions and the biases and conflicts that follow will naturally persist (Turner,

1987). If we pick and choose among what may be valid characteristics of diversity,

we overlook meaningful differences that are actively driving behavior. Instead, one

can look to the organizational context, and specifically the shared values of the

organization, to discover consequential differences among coworkers. As discussed

in more depth below, observations of an organization’s culture can provide such

insight into when and how workers with disabilities will be positively or negatively

impacted by attention drawn to their disabilities.

Treating All Differences Similarly

Another explanation for divergent results in diversity research may rest in the way we

‘‘treat’’ various differences among coworkers. One underemphasized aspect of being

‘‘different’’ or working among those who are ‘‘different’’ reflects the actual content

of the salient characteristic. Different characteristics have different meanings,

expectations, and values associated with them. For example, a worker with a

disability is not just ‘‘different’’ from workers who are not disabled. The fact that

he or she is a worker with a disability is also inherently meaningful to his or her

contribution to the organization. That is, a worker with a physical disability may be

expected (correctly or incorrectly) to bring a different perspective and set of life

experiences specifically associated with being disabled. Expectations about whether

those differences will help or hinder organizational goals will play a role in how

nondisabled workers interact with disabled workers. Similarly, with demographic

differences, there are expectations about what women offer in organizational

26 S. E. Spataro

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Behav. Sci. Law 23: 21–38 (2005)

settings, beyond just being ‘‘not men,’’ which shape how others interact with them

(see, e.g., Kanter, 1977).

The theoretical underpinnings for much of the existing research on differences

among coworkers—including similarity/attraction theories (Byrne, 1971), social iden-

tity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), and social categorization theory (Turner, 1987)—

focus on binary distinctions of similar or different and do not distinguish between

differences on one characteristic versus another (e.g. being physically disabled versus

being mentally retarded), nor between the different states of a characteristic one

possesses (e.g. being a disabled worker among nondisabled coworkers versus being

nondisabled among a majority of disabled workers). This emphasis on the mere

existence of difference versus the nature of the difference disregards a major factor in

determining the experiences of those who are ‘‘different’’ (Spataro, 2001).

Insufficient Attention to Context

One additional necessary consideration in an examination of whether differences

among coworkers are consequential to a group’s performance has to do with idiosyn-

cratic factors of the situation and people involved. Situations may be classified as either

‘‘strong’’ or ‘‘weak’’ with respect to the extent to which they focus attention on a

characteristic where there are differences in a group (see, e.g., Mischel, 1971). To

illustrate, in a study of how and when demographic characteristics become salient

dimensions of diversity, a male data analyst characterized his job as working on a

research project for an all-female research team, whose research focus was female

reproductive systems. That situation was strongly focused on gender. It was salient to

all present who was ‘‘male’’ and who was ‘‘female’’ (Spataro, 2003).

In contrast, another subject in the same study, this time a worker in a high-

technology firm, talked about her role in a business strategy meeting where no one

paid attention to personal characteristics. The focus was 100% on structuring a

software package to win the customer’s business. It did not matter what kind of

person was in the room, as long as they were making a contribution to the business

task. In that case, the situation was weak with respect to gender salience. Contexts

thus may be analyzed in terms of the content of the norms and values that make

certain characteristics salient, and, additionally, on the strength of those cues toward

particular characteristics.

In sum, there are many factors that affect how individuals react to working with

people who are similar or different from them, including what is salient in the

environment, how salient characteristics are valued and perceived, and how the

situation is oriented toward the characteristic itself. Contextual factors within

organizations have been shown to affect reactions to differences among employees

(Ely & Thomas, 2001). Organizational culture is one such contextual factor that can

address questions of salience, values, and reactions to diversity.


An organizational culture is a commonly held set of expectations for how people

behave (Martin, 2002; Schein, 1985). Cultures may be observed as a set of norms,

Diversity in context 27

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Behav. Sci. Law 23: 21–38 (2005)

T a b le

1 . A

su m m a ry

o f c u lt u re s o f d iv e rs it y

T y p e o f

W h a t is sa li e n t?

D if fe re n c e s a m o n g

S o c ia l in te ra c ti o n

E ff e c ts

o f p o li c y

Im p li c a ti o n s fo r

o rg a n iz a ti o n a l

c h a ra c te ri st ic s

p ro c e ss e s

c h a n g e /s o c ia l m o v e m e n ts

d iv e rs it y

c u lt u re

D if fe r e n ti a ti o n

C h a ra c te ri st ic s th a t a re

v a lu e d o r re je c te d b y

o rg a n iz a ti o n a l c u lt u re

D if fe re n c e s h ig h li g h te d

b y p o w e r a n d st a tu s

d is ti n c ti o n s

D ir e c te d b y re su lt in g

p o w e r/ st a tu s st ru c tu re ;

se lf -r e in fo rc in g ; re la ti o n sh ip

ra th e r th a n ta sk -b a se d c o n fl ic t

P o te n ti a ll y u n in te n d e d

c o n se q u e n c e s: e x a c e rb a te

p o w e r/ st a tu s d if fe re n c e s

a ss o c ia te d w it h

c h a ra c te ri st ic s (e .g .

‘‘ re v e rs e d is c ri m in a ti o n ;’ ’

w o m e n a s p ro te c te d c la ss )

D is c o u n t c o n tr ib u ti o n s,

re d u c e d o p p o rt u n it ie s fo r

m e m b e rs

o f tr a d it io n a ll y

u n d e r- re p re se n te d g ro u p s

U n it y

C o m m o n w o rk g ro u p /t e a m

m e m b e rs h ip

in st e a d o f

d e m o g ra p h ic

d if fe re n c e s

D if fe re n c e b e tw

e e n

in d iv id u a ls su p p re ss e d ;

d e -i n d iv id u a ti o n

L e ss

c o n fl ic t, u n ifi e d g o a ls ;

h o w e v e r, a ls o le ss

c re a ti v it y ,

fe w e r o u ts ta n d in g in d iv id u a ls

C o m m o n id e n ti ty

w il l

su p p re ss

e it h e r th e ir

im p o rt a n c e o r n e c e ss it y

L e ss

c o n fl ic t a ss o c ia te d

w it h d if fe re n c e s; p o te n ti a l

v a lu e fr o m

d if fe re n c e s

u n d e r- re a li z e d

In te g r a ti o n

P o te n ti a ll y d if fe ri n g

(a n d th e re fo re

v a lu e d )

p e rs p e c ti v e s m o re

sa li e n t

th a n d e m o g ra p h ic

d if fe re n c e s

D if fe re n c e s h ig h li g h te d

a s p o te n ti a l fo r v a lu e d

p e rs p e c ti v e s, c o n tr ib u ti o n s

F o c u s o n ta sk , ra th e r th a n

re la ti o n sh ip

c o n fl ic t

H ig h li g h t d if fe re n c e s,

c o n tr ib u te

to se n se

o f

‘‘ d iv e rs it y ’’

M e a n in g o f ‘‘ d iv e rs it y ’’

sh if ts

fr o m

d e m o g ra p h ic

m ix

to m ix

o f v a lu e s a n d

p e rs p e c ti v e s

28 S. E. Spataro

Copyright # 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Behav. Sci. Law 23: 21–38 (2005)

or implicit rules of behavior, which reflect the central values of the organization and

dictate the appropriateness of attitudes and behaviors (O’Reilly, 1989). An organi-

zation’s culture shapes much of what occurs within the organization, including how

individuals behave, what people pay attention to, how they respond to different

situations, and how they socialize new members and exclude those who do not fit in.

At its essence, culture may be viewed as an informal control system. That is, unlike a

formal control system, in which specific measured outcomes and performance

indicators are monitored explicitly, a culture guides behavior in a more subtle,

implicit manner. As informal social control systems may be more potent than formal

systems in guiding behavior and socializing employees to a particular manner of

behavior and attitude (O’Reilly & Chatman, 1996), an organization’s culture is a

potentially powerful tool available to managers in affecting how employees respond

to coworkers who are different from them.

Cultures of Diversity

Organizational culture can answer questions about a number of factors relevant to

managing differences among employees. First, it guides the definition of diversity in

any given environment. That is, characteristics that reflect the values embodied in

the organizational culture (either in concert with it or in contrast to it) will emerge as

salient dimensions of diversity, and differences on these characteristics will be more

meaningful than differences on characteristics that are not salient (see, e.g., Spataro

& Anderson, 2004). Second, the culture has direct implications for the extent to

which organization members emphasize or de-emphasize differences between

individuals. Third, as culture prescribes the appropriateness of different behaviors,

social interaction processes among individuals who are similar to one another and

those who are different from one another will be affected by the culture (O’Reilly &

Chatman, 1996). Fourth, culture has direct implications for how governmental and

organizational policies regarding diversity will be adopted. Fifth, and based on the

above, different types of culture have general implications for diversity management


In the following sections, three different types of organizational culture will be

reviewed according to these five dimensions: (1) definition of diversity, (2) emphasis

on differences, (3) social interaction processes, (4) reactions to policy, and (5)

general implications for diversity. They will be addressed in order of frequency: first,

culture of differentiation; second, culture of unity; and third, culture of integration.

Table 1 provides a summary overview of the three cultures.

Culture of Differentiation

A culture of differentiation is characterized by highly salient inter-individual

differences that have significant consequences for group interaction and individual

experiences. It is a culture whose content places either positive or negative values on

specific personal characteristics, including, potentially, disabilities. That is, for

valued characteristics (perhaps sex or education), there is a preferred state (likely

the male with a professional degree in these examples), where possession of either

Diversity in context 29

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state of the characteristic has power and status implications for the possessor.

Those who possess preferred characteristics enjoy more influence and respect

among their peers and generally perform better than those without the preferred


The focus, in this type of culture, is on the ‘‘fit’’ between the person and the

organization, where those who fit garner more informal power and status. In a study

of organizations with different cultural value systems, my colleague and I found that

in an organization whose content emphasized social considerations over task

considerations, a consulting firm in this case, extraverted personalities were valued

more than those who were conscientious whereas in an organization where task-

focus was more important than social orientation, a telecommunications firm in this

case, being conscientious was valued more than being extraverted. Those who

possessed the valued characteristics enjoyed more influence and respect among their

peers, as well as higher commitment to their organization and better job perfor-

mance (Spataro & Anderson, 2004). Research on congruence between individuals

and the organizations they belong to shows that congruence between personal

characteristics and organizational values can be an important determining factor in

an individual’s overall success in his or her job—including both performance and

satisfaction (Chatman, 1991).

In a culture of differentiation, what matters in terms of reactions to diversity and

successful integration of individuals who are different from the majority are the

specific values around personal characteristics, including demographic character-

istics and physical and mental disabilities. Where do these values come from?

Certainly, societal stereotypes and impressions play a role (see, e.g., Berger, Fisek,

Norman, & Zelditch, 1977), but processes within the organization also are at play.

The demographic profiles of the influential people in the organization are viewed as

ideal or at least preferential, as they are associated with leadership and success in

that environment (Owens, unpublished doctoral dissertation). This is likely to be

true, even if those characteristics are not what brought the person to power.

First, defining diversity, which characteristics will be salient in a culture of

differentiation? Characteristics that serve as bases for individuals’ evaluations of

one another emerge as significant (Turner, 1987). Specifically, any characteristic

people use to infer expectations about an individual’s contributions to the organi-

zation’s goals distinguish that individual from others (Berger et al., 1977). As a

result, the set of characteristics included in ‘‘diversity’’ is determined within the

organization. Organizational values shape the processes people use to make evalua-

tions, which then determine the salience and consequences of possession of such

characteristics. The relevant dimensions of diversity may be different in each

organization. For example, in some organizations, the culture may value nondis-

abled over disabled employees, and in another organizations disabilities may not be

salient at all (see, e.g., Spataro, 2001).

Second, what effect do demographic differences have in a culture of differentia-

tion? Differences are consequential and self-reinforcing. The emergent status

distinctions that result from demographic differences heighten attention to, and

emphasis on, inter-individual differences. When one state of a characteristic is

preferred over another, knowledge about who has the desired state and who does not

is highly salient (Ridgeway, 1997). The focus in a culture of differentiation is not just

on whether or not differences exist, but rather on the nature of those differences, the

30 S. E. Spataro

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content of the characteristics of interest, and what they imply for one’s informal

power in the organization.

Third, in a culture of differentiation, expectations about individuals’ contribu-

tions develop around the different valued characteristics in the organizations and

shape social interaction processes. Individuals with valued characteristics enjoy

control over group interaction processes (Bales, 1951; Kelley, 1951). The higher

status afforded such individuals is associated with initiating communications more

often, getting a greater number of opportunities to participate in group discussions,

enjoying increased opportunities to evaluate a group’s output, and having a greater

influence over a group’s decisions (Berger & Zelditch, 1985). Further, group

members are likely to accept influence from individuals who are valued or con-

sidered critical to a group’s success (see, e.g., Crozier, 1964; Fisek, 1974).

Next, how will external or internal policies affect reactions to diversity in a culture

of differentiation? Laws and policies directed at protecting people of certain profiles

or lifestyles (e.g. affirmative action, ADA, Family-Leave Act, Title VII of the Civil

Rights Act of 1964) may reinforce and exacerbate the informal dynamics of diversity

in this type of culture. That is, intervention that heightens the salience of a

characteristic and that signals a need for protection could be assimilated into the

culture by negatively affecting the performance expectations of those who possess

the ‘‘vulnerable’’ characteristic and thereby lessening their status relative to others.

The formal benefits of such policies are clear. The unintended negative conse-

quences of such policies, however, establish a question for future research.

Finally, what does a culture of differentiation imply for diversity in general? This

is a particularly important question in the United States, where this is likely the most

common type of culture in both business and social environments. In a culture of

differentiation, advantages to those who possess desired characteristics will persist

and they will be highly consequential. If coming from a traditionally underrepre-

sented group (such as being disabled, or a woman, or a racial minority) is not desired

in a particular organization, the contributions of workers from those groups may be

discounted. They may experience fewer opportunities to succeed or perform, and

they may be cast as followers rather than leaders, at least in the informal social

system. This is all true despite the major fault in the logic that tightly couples

membership in a specific demographic group with performance or leadership


An astute manager in a culture of differentiation will need to examine the

composition of the in-house labor force and ensure that the culture recognizes as

many different represented demographic characteristics as possible. Structural

interventions may be required. For example, if the demographic composition of

the top tier of the organization’s hierarchy indicates what is valued, then that top tier

should reflect multiple demographic characteristics.

Managers also can work within this culture to reverse negative impressions of

certain characteristics. If traditionally female qualities, such as being more colla-

borative and relational, are beneficial to the tasks of the organization, and, therefore,

being female is preferred to being male, then managers might try either to separate

the qualities of collaborativeness and relational orientation from being female by

highlighting males in the organization who exhibit the same qualities, or they may

try to cultivate values around traditionally male characteristics, like analytic ability,

for certain tasks within the organization. Managing diversity in a culture of

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differentiation comes down to managing the value system that guides impressions

and, ultimately, performance of work tasks in the organization.

Culture of Unity

A second type of organizational culture is one based on shared superordinate

identities and the common bonds that are shared by demographically different

individuals (e.g., ‘‘we are all part of the same organization’’), rather than the inter-

individual differences that exist. Uniting employees under a common identity to

suppress any differences among them that may complicate social interaction is the

premise of a culture of unity.

This emphasis on commonality versus individual differences is reflected in a well

studied cultural dimension that puts individualism on one pole and collectivism on

the opposite pole of the same dimension. Collectivism refers to the extent to which

people prioritize collective goals and action over individual achievement and

orientation (Triandis, 1995). In collectivistic organizational cultures, cooperation

and behavior that show satisfaction from collective accomplishments are highly

encouraged and valued (see, e.g., Hofstede, Neuijen, Ohayv, & Sanders, 1990;

Wagner & Moch, 1986). In organizational cultures that emphasize individualism,

individual goals are paramount and rewards come from individual achievement.

Collectivism emphasizes commonality and unity and therefore has significant

implications for managing diversity.

What is salient in a culture of unity? A study of multiple working groups that

varied on this dimension of collectivism versus individualism found an antagonism

between the salience of group orientation and individual demographic differences,

such that demographic differences were less salient as group orientation was higher.

The more people focus on the collective, the less noticeable individual differences

between members become (Chatman et al., 1998). Thus, it is the common group

boundary that is more salient than any specific demographic characteristic or


Further, differences among individuals are suppressed. This may involve a re-

categorization process. Individuals who are more demographically different from

the majority, and therefore considered part of the out-group, are re-cast as in-group

members within the common organizational boundary. This recasting has implica-

tions for social interaction processes (see, e.g., Turner, 1987; Chatman & Spataro,

in press). Generally, perceived differences among individuals depress frequency of

interaction, cooperation, and relationship quality (Byrne, 1971; Ibarra, 1992; Tsui

et al., 1992). However, in collectivistic or ‘‘unified’’ cultures, even when there are

differences among individuals, coworkers interact more, communicate more, and

experience less conflict (Chatman et al., 1998). Thus, one would expect fewer

complications in social processes from diversity in a culture of unity.

Policy interventions in a culture of unity will have little effect. The strength of a

culture of unity will so diminish differences between individuals that the need for

(and therefore consequences of) policy implementation and compliance would be


What are the general implications for managing diversity in a culture of unity?

The exclusion of individual differences from interaction is one of the trade-offs for

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managers of the culture of unity. In general, individual goal orientation and

achievement will be suppressed, along with individual differences. Depending on

the nature of the group’s or organization’s tasks, this may help or hurt performance.

If there is high interdependence required for task completion, a collective orienta-

tion may benefit accomplishment. If individual creativity or motivation is what

success rests on, then the collective orientation may be disadvantageous. For

example, if indeed living with a disability provides an employee with a different

perspective and different set of life experiences than his or her nondisabled

colleagues, focusing on such differences could impede cooperation, as employees

focus more on differences between them and less on what they share. A culture of

unity that depresses the salience of these differences may improve cooperation

among disabled and nondisabled employees and therefore aid cooperation. That

same emphasis on unity, however, may lessen the benefit of different perspectives

being represented in a brainstorming session, as employees may be reluctant to

express ideas that call attention to differences among them.

It is worth noting that the hallmark of a culture of unity is a high level of

identification with the organization, a strong sense of unity among organization

members, and reliable loyalty and commitment to the organization. All of these

benefit the organization beyond just diminishing complications introduced by


Culture of Integration

A third culture of diversity, integration, is focused on valuing differences among

coworkers. This type of culture may present the greatest opportunity for managers

to successfully integrate differences and maintain peak performance with a diverse

workforce. A culture of integration is based on highlighting and seeking out the

potential benefits of individual differences, including bringing new insights into

product or service development, enhancing group decision quality and creativity,

and generally enriching the set of experiences and perspectives that comprise the

work environment (see, e.g., Ely & Thomas, 2001). The arguments that diversity

makes good business sense are predicated on the idea that with disabilities and

demographic differences come differences in values, life experiences, and personal


A culture of integration prizes quality improvements from incorporating different

perspectives into everyday work processes and tasks. Research on minority influence

over group decisions and information sharing in task-based groups indicates the

value of bringing different ideas and perspectives to the work table (Nemeth, 1986).

Even moderate conflict benefits group productivity when related to task ideas (Jehn,

1995). Creativity and decision-making processes benefit from differences among

coworkers (see, e.g., Bantel & Jackson, 1989). If value is placed on being different

from the mainstream, the complications of diversity will be fewer, while individual

perspectives and motivations are not suppressed.

It should be clear to managers that this is a difficult culture to establish. Humans

prefer similarity over differences (Byrne, 1971; Ibarra, 1992). One study of diversity

revealed how complicated this can be. The study examined different attitudes

toward the organization among members of majority and minority groups. As the

minority grew in size and presence in the organization, members of the majority

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were less committed to the organization and were more threatened by the diversity

(Tsui et al., 1992). Their negative feelings were more intense than those of the

minority members. Nonetheless, the opportunities for successfully managing diver-

sity in a culture of integration are immense.

The power differentials associated with characteristics or common group bound-

aries, not the differences themselves, are salient in a culture of integration. These

differences may be on demographic dimensions such as sex or physical disability, or

they may be uncorrelated with demographic differences. Visible characteristics are

the easiest way to recognize such differences (Pelled, 1996; Harrison, Price, & Bell,

1998). However, the benefits outlined above, and the salience of such differences,

will be realized with any differences in experience, outlook, or personal values.

In a culture of integration, differences are preferred and valued. This is in direct

contrast to the culture of differentiation, where the content of the characteristic

matters more than whether one was similar or different from others on it. Here, the

emphasis is on the potential group advantages that accrue with the introduction of

‘‘different’’ group members.

Social interaction involves more conflict in a culture of integration than in a

culture of unity, but the conflict is generally based on ideas about how best to

complete the task (helpful conflict), rather than interpersonal differences brought on

by comparing the value of one group to the value of another (destructive conflict)

(see, e.g., Ely & Thomas, 2001). Individuating information is more likely to be

exchanged in a culture of integration. Classic in-group/out-group distinctions that

naturally emerge when there are salient differences among individuals lead to a

perceived out-group homogeneity (people like ‘‘that’’ are all the same) (see, e.g.,

Vanbeselaere, 1988). In a culture of integration, recognition of individual differ-

ences within the out-group is more likely to emerge, along with re-categorization on

non-demographic dimensions (Turner, 1987).

Policy interventions in a culture of integration draw further attention to differ-

ences and the different life experiences of those who come from protected or

traditionally under-represented groups. This could serve to recouple individual

characteristics with stereotypical perceptions of the characteristics, erasing any

contradictory individuating evidence. However, such heightened attention could

offer opportunities for members of protected groups to contribute, by reminding

members of the majority that workers from under-represented groups do bring

different experiences and perspectives to their workgroups.

The implications for diversity in a culture of integration are challenging and

encouraging. Successfully implementing a culture of integration requires erasing

any power advantages associated with specific characteristics (as in the culture of

differentiation) and replacing them with advantages from making a greater con-

tribution by being unique or different. It is necessary in this setting to attribute

successes to being different, and not to the subject characteristic of the difference.

The success story that ‘‘physically abled’’ and disabled colleagues who work

together would tell in a culture of integration would be ‘‘it took a difference in

perspectives to help us see things a new way,’’ rather than ‘‘the disabled person had

the best idea in this situation, so she will probably be the key to success on our next

team as well.’’

As the culture of integration strikes a balance between recognizing differences

and encouraging individual contributions with productive and synergistic work

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processes, it represents managers’ greatest opportunity to realize the purported

benefits of increasing diversity.


Understanding disabilities in the work place as a dimension of diversity in organiza-

tions offers the opportunity to analyze potential reactions to workers with disabilities

as a function of organizational cultures. Implications of the typology of organiza-

tional cultures presented above exist for managers and workers alike.

The norms and values that comprise an organizational culture will either aid or

complicate the integration of workers with disabilities into the work force. An

organization’s culture will emerge naturally, reflecting patterns of beliefs and values

among employees, unless the culture is deliberately shaped by management

(O’Reilly & Chatman, 1996). A culture of differentiation, where disabled workers

are not as valued as nondisabled workers will most likely characterize an emergent,

or unmanaged, culture. It is therefore important, especially with respect to success-

fully integrating workers with disabilities, that managers attend to the value system

that underlies the culture, specifically emphasizing the potential benefits and

contributions of workers with disabilities. Explicit statements of such values, as

well as training sessions cultivating awareness of issues (and nonissues) with

employing disabled workers, will help to develop a cultural system that welcomes

disabled workers. Further, placement of disabled workers in management and

executive positions can help change impressions and expectations of workers with

disabilities, lessening power and status differences that are the consequences of

preferences for the nondisabled.

For workers with disabilities, the typology presented here highlights the impor-

tance of assessing the cultural system at a potential employer. Research into the

appropriateness of the job to one’s skills and abilities and the cultural environment

and its implications for disabled workers is necessary to maximize the potential for

full integration into a work system. Are disabilities salient in the work environment?

How do ‘‘front-line’’ representatives of the organization, as well as hiring managers,

react to a worker’s disabilities? Are there appropriate work settings and potential

accommodation for the special needs of disabled workers? Do disabled workers hold

positions of power within the organization? Examining questions such as these can

help workers better understand the likelihood of success within a work environment.



Culture is one of the potent factors affecting organizational life, but it is certainly not

the only factor affecting diversity management. First, simple contact among peers

helps ameliorate conflicts or biases that may arise because of demographic differ-

ences. In a study of workgroups in an international financial services organization,

my colleagues and I found that the impressions of demographically different peers

with whom study participants had more contact were more favorable than the

impressions of equally different peers with whom they had less contact (Flynn

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et al., 2001). To the extent there is contact between coworkers who are different,

and exchange of individuating information, the complications of diversity may


The organization’s formal structure or hierarchy may also affect reactions to

diversity among employees within it. The more closely tied the formal and informal

hierarchies the less room there is for separate power structures to form around

demographic characteristics, whereas when organizations are relatively flat or lack a

highly structured hierarchy there is opportunity for demographic characteristics and

demographic differences among coworkers to emerge as important determinants of

influence and value in the organization.

Additionally, the demographic composition of the organization may influence

reactions to diversity. Where more differences are present, as when an organization is

highly integrated, it may be difficult to establish meaningful in-groups to oppose

perceived out-groups, and the complications of diversity may be fewer.

Finally, formally structuring mentorship or stewardship programs for individuals

entering the organization, regardless of their demographic profile, may ease the

integration process one individual at a time. Association with a senior and respected

member of the organization may be what an employee needs to overcome impres-

sions others may form based on his or her demographic profile.


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