Diversity in the Workplace: 3 Guidelines to Help HR Leaders Rethink Their D&I Programs

The importance of diversity in the workplace isn’t news — with decades of supporting evidence, today’s HR leaders are well aware that this issue is important and has real returns for companies that are able to deliver effective solutions. However, that’s an accomplishment most organizations are yet to meet. 

Over the past couple months, the Black Lives Matter movement has shed light and sparked discussions around the pervasive discrimination experienced by BIPOC in almost all aspects of life, work included. With the public holding them accountable, corporate leaders are taking a critical look at the efficacy of existing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) policies — and what they’re finding is that, at best, most of these programs are only working on the surface.

Thankfully, 2020 has leaders taking a second look at diversity in the workplace.
Thankfully, 2020 has leaders taking a second look at diversity in the workplace.

The data makes it clear that traditional DEI approaches aren’t effective. Only 16% of C-suite positions are occupied by non-white individuals. Black men earn $0.87 for every dollar earned by their white counterparts. Black women earn only $0.82. The average Black household in the United States has one tenth the wealth of the average white household. The list of inequities goes on, and it all ties back to traditions of systemic oppression that are as American as apple pie.

Thankfully, today’s leaders want that to change. But to make it happen, we need to start talking about what actually works and stop carelessly reacting with performative statements and one-off diversity trainings that have no proven impact.

Charisse Fontes, Founder of CultureCircle, wisely advises leaders to shift their focus away from diversity in the workplace and instead towards inclusion. She explains, “Diversity is a byproduct, a benefit, the fruitfulness of inclusion” elaborating that the reward (diversity) cannot be reaped unless companies assemble a sustainable approach to inclusion.

Diversity in the workplace starts with inclusion.
Diversity in the workplace starts with inclusion.

This article shares three critical guidelines to keep in mind when working to make your workplace more inclusive, and therefore more diverse. Use them as a starting point to frame the actions you choose to include in your company’s DEI strategy moving forward.

The Benefits of Diversity in the Workplace

To be clear, the biggest benefit of an inclusive workplace is the fact that you are offering all team members the respect, fairness, and opportunities that humans deserve. From a moral standpoint, that should be enough.

There are many business benefits to supporting diversity in the workplace.
Cropped shot of a businessman giving a presentation in a boardroom

However, diversity in the workplace also yields benefits from a business perspective, which makes the call to action that much more compelling. One study found that for every 10% increase in the diversity of a company’s senior executive team, there is an 8% increase in earnings before interest/taxes. Ethnically-diverse companies perform 35% better overall than their non-diverse counterparts. Diverse companies also report higher financial returns and a greater market share in comparison to more homogeneous organizations.

It makes sense when you think about it: varied backgrounds mean more perspectives brought to the table, which interact to create exponentially more creative problem solving and innovative progress. Unsurprisingly, this serves the company well.

As you continue reading, we advise you to keep these benefits in mind. The work that lies ahead isn’t easy, but it is as rewarding as it is essential.

Overt and Covert Discrimination at Work

Many people believe that because they don’t participate in violent acts of racial discrimination, they are not racist. However, racism exists on a scale, and violent acts of racial discrimination are only one component of what comprises racism. This mistaken belief means people overlook the (often unconscious) microaggressions that quietly reinforce systemic oppression. Things like favoring traditionally white styles of communication, prioritizing education over experience, and passing up job applicants because they’re not the right “cultural fit” are all expressions of implicit bias that trace back to traditions of white supremacy. These less explicit forms of racial discrimination are incredibly pervasive, and most leaders are guilty of having committed them at some point in their careers.

Racial discrimination at work is more common than many leaders realize.
Racial discrimination at work is more common than many leaders realize.

When we talk about white supremacy, we’re referring to a tendency to regard white culture as the default, the norm, or maybe even the best. This goes hand in hand with systemic oppression, which is expressed in seemingly innumerable forms — relevant examples include the reservation of elite educational institutions for wealthy students as well as the United State’s history of redlining, which prevents minorities from purchasing property in specific neighborhoods. In fact, the effects of redlining are still felt today, as many impoverished areas of the US densely populated by Black Americans are locations that were previously redlined.

The fact that there are only three Black CEOs in the Fortune 500, or that only 1.5% of women in management are BIPOC, is not a coincidence — it’s the direct result of these silent traditions of discrimination. It’s critical that leaders looking to increase diversity in the workplace understand that just because they don’t see employees practicing hate speech and threatening minority colleagues with violence doesn’t mean their workplace is immune to injustice. More likely than not, racism lurks alive and well just below the surface.

Traditional Approaches to Diversity in the Workplace

Up until now, leaders have mostly addressed these deep and complicated problems with surface-level solutions. One of the most popular solutions is holding an annual diversity training course or making a one-time donation to an organization fighting for racial equality. Although usually well-intentioned, these reactive strategies do little to create lasting change or improve inclusion in any kind of sustained way.

Traditional approaches to diversity in the workplace don't work.
Traditional approaches to diversity in the workplace don’t work.

Empirical evidence confirms these traditional approaches (which have scarcely evolved since the 1960s) don’t work. Companies that require employees to participate in diversity training sessions report no increase in the representation of minorities and BIPOC among management over the course of five years. In fact, the positive effects of diversity training typically fade away after a whopping one to two days. While these one-off training sessions might help companies check a box about supporting diversity in the workplace or alleviate personal guilt, you would be hard pressed to point to any indicators of success. Clearly, it’s time to rethink our strategies.

3 Guidelines for an Improved Approach to Inclusion and Diversity in the Workplace

Leaders driven to create real change must first accept the fact that diversity in the workplace is not a box to be checked. Facilitating inclusion and enabling equitable treatment of all employees will be a never-ending initiative — one that might become continually more effective but can never be completed.

With that in mind, the following three recommendations will help leaders launch that never-ending journey from the right starting point. The suggestions shared below in and of themselves do not constitute a DEI strategy, but they help lend an important perspective to inform your creation of a strategy that actually works.

1. Take Down Your Defenses

When working to build a more inclusive work environment, one of the most important first steps for a leader to take is disarming any instinct they have for defensiveness. This is easier said than done.

Leaders can better support diversity in the workplace when they're not being defensive.
Leaders can better support diversity in the workplace when they’re not being defensive.

Lots of people — especially white people — are desperately attached to the idea that they themselves are not racist. This is based both on a misconception of racism as the most extreme, violent acts of discrimination, as well as on a misunderstanding of the systemic nature of the problem. Even if every last individual within the system were “not racist,” the odds would remain stacked against minorities.

The reality is, most people are complicit in racial injustice in some way. Therefore a critical step to promoting inclusivity and diversity in the workplace is admitting the ways racism has gone unchecked — or in some cases, been enabled — under your leadership. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but equitable reform should take priority over personal pride. The sooner leaders disarm their egos, the sooner they will be able to clearly assess what needs to change.

2. Trust Data, Not Your Gut

An ineffective way to assess whether your DEI strategy is working is by paying attention to whether you feel like it’s working. The problem with implicit bias is that it exists below the surface of consciousness, manifesting in tricky ways that are difficult to recognize with subjective individual judgement.

Data can reveal important insights into the efficacy of efforts to support diversity in the workplace.
Data can reveal important insights into the efficacy of efforts to support diversity in the workplace.

Unpacking those biases is the work of a lifetime, and it’s absolutely essential to take on. But while we do that, leaders need something more reliable and tangible than feelings to assess inclusion and diversity in the workplace. As with most business decisions, it’s best to put your faith in data.

Here are some useful questions that can help evaluate the D&I data in your workplace, all of which can be answered with indisputable numbers:

  • What is the demographic makeup of your overall employee base?
  • What is the demographic makeup of employees in management?
  • What kinds of employees are selected for promotions? 
  • Do trends reveal any preference towards certain genders or races?
  • Do you assess “cultural fit” when hiring? 
  • How do you define cultural fit? Is your definition inclusive?

These are the kinds of questions asked in people analytics, an increasingly popular business practice that replaces emotional decision making with more objective analysis. Using data instead of “instinct” is an important step towards real inclusion and diversity in the workplace.

3. Value the Individual Experience

While data has an incredibly important role to play in your pursuit of diversity in the workplace, sometimes your workplace is so homogeneous that you might not have a big enough sample size to draw statistically significant conclusions about the experience of underrepresented members of your workforce. Rather than use this as an excuse for inaction, if you find this to be the case, turn to the individual stories shared by members of your workforce willing to discuss their experiences.

When employees are willing to share their perspectives on diversity in the workplace, listen and respond.
When employees are willing to share their perspectives on diversity in the workplace, listen and respond.

Maxine Williams, Global Chief Diversity Officer at Facebook, captured the importance of listening to these individual stories, stating plainly, “Statistics don’t capture what it feels like to be the only Black team member.” Validate, empathize with and respond to the experiences your colleagues share willingly (but don’t put pressure on any BIPOC members of your team to bear the burden of these uncomfortable conversations).

Note that this kind of qualitative analysis is not the same as assessing whether you feel like you are supporting a just and equitable workplace. Instead, you’re allowing those who work within the system to share their experiences and assessment of the program’s effects without imposing your own subjectivity. Some companies do this through focus groups and interviews with underrepresented groups, while others extract the information from exit interviews, hiring notes, performance reviews, and other documented exchanges of communication. A healthy workplace is rife with feedback from employees, minority or not, and if you’re willing to listen in the right way, your BIPOC employees can offer a wellspring of information about the state of diversity in the workplace, as well as the inclusion that enables it.

Improvement Is Continuous

It’s essential that corporate leaders take proactive measures to make the workplace more inclusive. This process involves continual assessment and reassessment of DEI program efficacy, active listening, and an ongoing to commitment to compassionate and critical thinking. As you move forward with this journey, it’s okay to feel good about what you’ve accomplished so far, but if you find yourself feeling completely satisfied, it’s time to take a closer look.

Leaders should not think about diversity in the workplace as a box to be checked.
Leaders should not think about diversity in the workplace as a box to be checked.

The active learner will inevitably discover that they were wrong again and again and again. Don’t lose sight of your goals, and don’t let your ego get in the way of doing the difficult, uncomfortable work. Beyond being an important undertaking for the success of your business, as a human, this is simply the only acceptable course of action. 

Perhaps the most important thing for leaders looking to make their workplaces more inclusive to understand is that the process of supporting diversity in the workplace really has no end (at least not in our lifetime). Instead, try to think of it as an ongoing practice — one that will improve the individual, the company, and eventually the world.

Katerina Mery is a Marketing Specialist at Fond with a background in cognitive psychology and a passion for improving the way people live and work. She especially enjoys learning about how to accomplish this through rewards and recognition. In her spare time, you can find Katerina running outside, admiring art, and exploring the latest and greatest local restaurants.