Many recruiters, HR professionals, and leaders dedicate their careers to “cracking the code” on employee satisfaction and employee retention. In addition to reward and recognition programs and flexibility in the workday, many executives are discovering the importance of having diversity in the workplace. More and more, it has become a priority and is being acknowledged as a necessity for success in recent years.
But what does “diversity in the workplace” really mean, and how should companies approach the topic?
What does it mean to have workplace diversity?
Often when people hear the phrase “workplace diversity,” they envision a group of employees with various skin tones, enjoying each other’s company. Though that’s not entirely wrong, it is a one-dimensional idea of diversity and what advocates have been championing.
According to Indeed, “Diversity in the workforce refers to the individual characteristics employees have that make them unique. These characteristics can include gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, physical abilities, and political views.”
And this isn’t limited to physical characteristics, someone’s lifestyle and interests play a part in who they are, and a company should take that into account. For example, company outings should rotate between various activities, from happy hours to sporting events to outdoor adventures. This variety alleviates the level of exclusion that comes when suggesting a team bonding event (e.g., someone always skips happy hour because they don’t drink; someone with a disability can’t be part of the company volleyball team.)
Fostering a healthy workplace culture that promotes diversity in both people and thought allows for a psychologically safe environment and encourages employees to do their best work because they bring their most authentic self to work. Leadership scholar and author Amy C. Edmondson explored this hypothesis in her book, The Fearless Organization. In a review by Harvard, Edmondson explains that “inclusion happens when people of different backgrounds feel that their voice matters and are included in the important meetings. It’s possible for people to be at important meetings, even to be speaking up, and still do not feel that people like them belong there. Inclusion means this is a place where I can thrive; I feel that I am truly a member of the community.”
Knowing how to approach diversity, equity, and inclusion can be intimidating. Indeed.com suggests bucketing company diversity into the following categories:
- Cognitive diversity: Employees have different styles of thought in recognizing problems and finding solutions.
- Lifestyle diversity: People lead various lifestyles outside of work that influences their professional life.
- Brand and reputation diversity: Some companies are more inclusive in their hiring practices and assembling a diverse team, which often attracts a more diverse clientele.
This grouping can help when building programs, implementing policies, and looking toward the future of your company.
Common misconceptions about workplace diversity
Championing for diversity in the workplace is not a recent fad. In a Penn State journal, it was recorded that the first modern equal employment legislation was “introduced in Congress in 1943. In 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the armed services, which some scholars cite as the first diversity initiative in the workplace. The Executive Order 9981 required equality of treatment and opportunity in the armed services; however, it did not expressly forbid segregation. As a result of this order, by 1953, 95% of African American Army soldiers were serving in integrated units.”
It was brought into greater focus in June 2020 after #BlackoutTuesday and other social justice movements. Many conversations centered around how little was being made to amplify Black voices at work. By introducing, reexamining, and updating existing policies and programs, companies can see where their D&I efforts need work.
Although many companies are working hard to get diversity right, companies often get it wrong and cause harmful damage in the process.
According to Dana Brownlee, a Senior Contributor at Forbes: “It’s also important to remember that diversity and inclusion efforts should be tailored to the needs of each specific organization. While D&I efforts are typically focused on engaging underrepresented minorities within an organization, those groups can vary depending on the setting. I worked with an American university that had certain graduate-level science departments that were overwhelmingly populated with international students and had very little U.S. student participation. Their D&I efforts focused in large part on attracting more American students to create more diversity for that specific department. Indeed, D&I efforts are not automatically focused on one particular group but instead, the intent is to cultivate a diverse environment that is also inclusive. Ultimately, inclusion requires everyone’s participation and excludes no one.”
The benefits of workplace diversity
Workplace diversity isn’t simply an ethical approach to workplace culture. There are numerous benefits that companies realize when they establish a diverse workplace. Inclusivity and equity affect a company’s bottom line, the authenticity of their mission, and employee engagement.
Companies with a more diverse employee make-up outperform competitors and expand the company vision. And it’s not by coincidence. When an employer hosts a diversity of thought, they are more engaged in the consumer market. Having an inclusive culture — especially one where its employees feel empowered to speak up and be authentic — allows leaders to be surrounded by experts and a workforce who can identify areas for improvement and opportunity. According to one 2018 BCG report, “Companies with more diverse leadership teams report higher innovation revenue—45% of total revenue versus just 26%.”
One of the greatest strengths of a company is its community of employees. Equity at work is indispensable for employee engagement. Employees do not want to be seen as a number or faceless figure pushing tasks. In a recent ERE article, Limeade CEO Henry Albrecht commented on SAP’s “Autism at Work Program,” and said offering jobs for autistic employees can “be a huge plus for their general well-being and happiness, something that goes well beyond just getting a paycheck, and can make them highly engaged in their work.”
The consequences of neglecting workplace diversity
Because diversity and inclusion can feel intimidating, especially to smaller teams, some companies will make the grave error to resist acknowledging it at all. It’s detrimental to a brand to ignore diversity and not consider it a pillar of the company.
In the modern age, we hold brands and companies more accountable than we did in the past. When consumers see that a company profits off groups of people, but doesn’t acknowledge groups of people, there is a noticeable distance between the company and its continuity. Such a disconnect could result in a lack of brand loyalty, poor public perception, and a lack of consumer support. People need businesses to “walk the walk,” not just give good lip service.
Outside of public perception, the inner workings of a company can crumble at the lack of diversity and inclusion. Without it, employees can begin to feel the need to perform at work, for instance, the act of code-switching. No matter the outcome, it is born from a result of feeling psychologically unsafe. As Forbes explains, “The uncomfortable truth is that diversity without inclusion may be perceived as “tokenism,” which can ignite a negative boomerang effect on the most well-intentioned organizations. Indeed, those individuals from underrepresented communities placed in positions of senior leadership (or other areas previously lacking diversity) often feel like tokens once they realize that they may be “on the team,” but they’re not really in the game.”
Finally, a lack of diversity hurts the business’ bottom line, the money. A company without inclusion fosters an echo chamber of the same voice. This will stifle creativity and innovation, result in employee turnover, and open the company open to potential lawsuits. “Damage awards, class action suits that allege that companies are aware of misconduct and fail to act or disclose, activist and institutional investors, stock price drops, product and service boycotts are just some of the fallout from organizations that do not have strong diversity policies and programs. Approximately 55% of professional women surveyed by #MeToo at Work are less likely to apply for a job, and 49% are less likely to buy products or stock from a company with a public #MeToo allegation,” as reported by the World Economic Forum.
The workplace diversity programs to consider
If you are looking to implement new diversity programs, it’s important to think about your approach and the metrics you’ll be measuring. The most common D&I programs found in most companies relate closely to recruiting operations, human resources, and leadership development. However, it is imperative to note that D&I is not an HR problem; it’s something that should be cared about by all teams.
Your company can begin to introduce recruiting programs like career fairs, virtual recruiting fairs, and establish partnerships with community colleges and universities in an effort to recruit more talent from all backgrounds, interest groups, and communities to your company.
Look at your job postings and the requirements in which they demand. Many companies are beginning to reconsider qualifications that could exclude groups. For example, instead of a “4-year degree required,” companies are now calling for a “4-year degree or four years of experience” in their job descriptions. This is a result of the understanding that not everyone can or wants to go to college.
Employee resource groups
Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are employee-led and executive-sponsored community groups to promote an inclusive culture and are a safe space for groups. Common ERGs include People of Color, LBGTQ, and Veterans. Together, the group hosts thoughtful discussions, coordinates events, and is part of a task force to drive equity initiatives in the company.
We are seeing more companies invest in leadership development and mentorship programs for their employees. It allows the opportunity for all team members the accessibility to thought leaders and company sponsors. This is particularly helpful when fostering collaboration and cross-team work.
Measuring diversity at work
It's important to avoid treating diversity as a box to check off. When setting out to incorporate new programs or measure the success of existing initiatives, it’s important to define and report on the right metrics to see what, if any, progress is being made.
Decide which metrics you want to track. This will vary by program and company, but consider the problem you’re looking to resolve. One example from Culture Plus Consulting is, “A start-up seeking to improve retention through the implementation of a flexible work policy extends its diversity metrics to track employment status and tenure.”
Let your employees shine
Diversity in the workplace is important. It provides a safe space for all employees to shine. It’s essential to know that few have all the answers. There will be times a program isn’t well-received, or a mark is missed. But by making the effort and being intentional about diversity, you can determine what works at your company.