We’ve already got a policy—we’ve done our bit!
“If we hire just to fill a quota, won’t we be lowering the bar?”
“Our recruitment process has worked out well so far. Why would we change it?”
If you are having trouble understanding the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, you aren’t alone. Despite growing research that speaks on the benefits of DEI environments, many organizations are still having difficulty navigating this sensitive subject.
Some companies struggle to understand what DEI is or its potential value.
Others understand the subject but haven’t yet implemented or updated relevant policies. This has prompted many businesses to commit to actionable steps toward making their workplace—and society as a whole—more equitable.
Many are recognizing that there are not only tangible business benefits but that an increasing number of employees, particularly younger generations, seek out DEI programs before finalizing job decisions.
But are organizations really making a difference? Or are they simply just trying to score PR points?
What is diversity, equity, and inclusion?
The word diversity has been used to refer to so many types of differences among people that the most commonly used definition is “any attribute that another person may use to detect individual differences.” While accurate, it is quite broad.
Meanwhile, HR expert Jeff Waldman has defined workplace inclusion as an environment “where every single employee is fully respected and valued for the contributions they bring to the organization, regardless of their individual differences. It occurs when barriers are knocked down so all employees can bring their true selves to work and realize success and their full potential in what they do.”
So when we discuss the topic of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, we mean that all individuals have equal opportunities, regardless of their ethnicity, political beliefs, country of origin, sexual orientation, race, ability, gender, age, location, or even personal interests.
It’s not just about opportunities for employment, but about people feeling safe to be who they are; and that their different experiences, values, and perspectives are appreciated, rather than perceived as something that might get in the way.
As DEI expert, Verna Myers put it best, “diversity is being invited to the party, and inclusion is being asked to dance.”
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The current state of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace
A recent State of Diversity and Inclusion report from the HR Research Institute revealed that while HR professionals agree that diversity, equity, and inclusion are critical to organizational success, many of us are still missing the mark.
This is due to our narrow definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, combined with cited factors such as lack of budget (43%) and a lack of prioritization by top leadership levels (41%). These issues are starkly contrasted by those organizations the report describes as “high performers”, who experienced fewer to no barriers and were more likely to get support from leadership groups that understand the benefits of diversity.
The majority of DEI programs lack maturity or are in development mode with only 20% of HR professionals indicating their DEI practices are in a mature stage of progress. And yet only half of the respondents say their workforces reflect the demographics of the marketplace.
The study further revealed that high performers ensure all employees, including leadership, are responsible for DEI rather than leaving it up to the HR department.
Why are we failing at diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Sometimes, despite the best intentions, our quest for diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace backfires.
We assume that because we hired one person from a marginalized group, our work must be done. Even worse, we treat this employee like an encyclopedia for our questions on DEI, rather than accepting them simply for the role they were hired for. Or, because we lack the knowledge and empathy to approach certain groups, we avoid asking questions altogether because we worry we will be perceived as disrespectful or rude.
Many organizations experience challenges during the hiring process while attempting to employ diverse candidates. For example, a qualified candidate may be overlooked because of their privilege, or others, who are in fact hired, may feel or be treated as though they were only hired to fill a quota.
Hiring issues aside, organizations fail in providing DEI environments simply because they haven’t yet acknowledged that such a problem exists. If we don’t see a problem, we aren’t prompted to change how we do things. And of course, for many people, it’s difficult to admit any biases over certain groups, if nothing else because it is an acknowledgement of our own failings.
Overcoming our own DEI biases
We all have unconscious biases that cause us to view people in certain ways. An employer must consider how preferences could potentially be creating a disadvantage for applicants as well as current employees.
Job descriptions, for example, are often biased towards certain genders, ages, abilities, and cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. You can review your job posting with a fine tooth comb, but you’ll always be limited by your own perspective.
Your website may also be sending out an unintended message. If you preach DEI in the workplace but all your website photos feature white males aged 30 to 50, the image your company is putting out is not consistent with your stated values.
Conversely, many young tech startups have focused on providing perks like foosball tables, nap stations, or kegs of beer. When these organizations hired, they did so by assessing whether potential candidates would fit into this specific culture. However, this approach was problematic because it created an ageist environment tailored to younger employees, and therefore resistant to diversity.
There are also flaws with things like employee referral programs, as they often result in candidates “just like me”, which again, while likely unintentional, can lead to discrimination.
Too much of a good thing?
It’s common to assume the relationship between diversity and creativity is linear, but evidence actually suggests that a moderate degree of diversity is more beneficial than a higher dose.
Focusing too closely on diversity could also potentially create a problem by labelling employees, and placing them in groups, which inevitably creates division.
So yes, the evidence shows us that diversity will lead to increased perspectives and approaches, opportunities for knowledge sharing, and greater creativity and quality of team performance. But to suddenly and carelessly implement new diversity policies and practices without first understanding how diverse individuals can come together to form effective teams is irresponsible.
It’s logical, and profitable to have various perspectives at the table. But hiring someone from a marginalized group just to check that box is not the solution, and in most cases will only lead to frustration.
Workplaces should aim to focus on equity and inclusion rather than just diversity, which ensures every employee has the best chance for success. Diversity is only a third of the DEI picture. Creating and maintaining a workplace culture where everyone is respected and appreciated requires another level of effort that probably isn’t getting the attention it needs.
Where to start
Creating diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace won’t happen overnight. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start taking immediate action. Here are a few things you can do to get the ball rolling in your quest for an authentically diverse and inclusive workplace:
Uncover your own diversity and inclusion biases
Take a look around your workplace. Do you compensate employees equitably? Do your recruitment initiatives allow everyone a fair opportunity? Is mental health still a stigma?
Is your workplace designed to accommodate specific employee needs? Do employees feel comfortable being themselves in their workplace? Can they express their differences without repercussion? How are your unconscious biases impacting the way you evaluate a potential employee or the way you look at their work? Are you assessing others against the metric of being “like me”? And finally, if employees voice complaints, is there a resolution process?
Incorporate DEI into your values
Your values should govern everything your workplace does—from recruiting to managing people, to interacting with customers. When you incorporate values like diversity, equity, and inclusion, employees have a compass to follow as well as a shared purpose of how to operate. For example, (assuming you incorporated DEI values) if a job applicant had a hearing impairment, the interview would be set-up to allow the candidate their best chance for success. It’s also equally, if not more important, to incorporate learning as a core value. Organizations who value learning as an end goal, allow for the possibility of change.
Leverage digital workplace tools for diversity and inclusion in the workplace
As part of the digital workplace, an intranet is a great platform for sharing information and highlighting important key DEI policies. By developing a diversity portal, you can provide employees with self-service access to information, knowledge, quizzes, and surveys. User profiles and biographies, and messaging further promote social connections, giving employees a voice, and foster a more people focused workplace.
Your DEI policy represents your organization’s values related to making your workplace more inclusive. It also acts as a promise, to both current and future employees, of your commitment to foster an environment of equal opportunity. But where is that policy now? Can your employees easily access it? How can you communicate your diversity policy? By leveraging your intranet, you can ensure this policy is easily discovered.
Create employee resource groups (ERGs)
Soft drink giant PepsiCo recently created several employee resource groups including ones for women, veterans, and those with hearing impairments. These resource groups can help open silos while creating communities of practice among those seeking inclusionary opportunities.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace will not enhance creativity or benefit your organization unless there is an opportunity to share knowledge. Studies mapping the social networks of organizations found increased creativity in groups that were interconnected. By enabling people, information, and processes to come together, your intranet provides employees access to more tools and information.
Invest in DEI training
DEI training is a critical component of a DEI strategy, but only when executed correctly. There are a few steps organizations can take to ensure their training initiatives are heading in a positive direction. This includes creating a thorough and integrated approach and focusing on awareness and skills. As for attendance, employees may prefer to attend voluntarily. Making diversity training mandatory could potentially lead to more animosity, and when people feel they don’t have a choice, it can lead to resistance and opposition to any DEI programs. Training must also be authentic, and incorporated into regular employee education, rather than making it a knee-jerk reaction to current events.
There are a lot of organizations making great strides. For example, the NBA (National Basketball Association), one of the most progressive men’s sports leagues in North America, is aiming to hire a female head coach (there are already four females within their coaching staff). And the Vancouver Canucks have hired former player agent Emilie Castonguay to be assistant general manager, making her the first female assistant GM in franchise history.
Walk the talk
It's tempting to use corporate social media or your website to make broad general claims about diversity or anti-racism and assume you've done your part. Unfortunately, without a substantive action plan in place, many may perceive this rhetoric as empty corporate social responsibility propaganda. Take the time now to invest in real transformational change and let your audience know that you are willing to walk the talk. This may include change in your marketing (working with more diverse partners and influencers), change in your community (support of local charities and initiatives), and support within your organization (reviewing recruiting and hiring practices).
The final frontier
There is still a lot more learning to be done around DEI in the workplace. But even those still skeptical will find it hard to argue with the fact that to find new solutions to old problems we must often work with people different than us.
As Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry said it best, “humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2019, and has been revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
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