Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

In the wake of current events and the Black Lives Matter movement, companies are taking a hard look at their previous and current efforts towards building a more diverse and inclusive work environment for their employees. For some, they have long standing programs but are closely examining what those programs accomplish, and how they can better improve their approach. Your company may be reconsidering its diversity and inclusion program but are unsure where to begin. To start, accomplishing those goals requires leadership commitment, a fine-tuned approach unique to your company, and identifying ways to measure improvement. What follows should help further the conversation within your company on how best to approach this effort.

  1. What is Diversity and Inclusion?

First, it is important to understand what diversity and inclusion mean:

Diversity: While there are variety of definitions on what diversity in the workplace means, often it means employing a diverse team of people that is reflective of the society in which it exists and operates. It is the collection of individual attributes that differentiate people and groups from one another, and the respect and appreciation the organization shows for those differences. Cognitive diversity is the inclusion of people who have different ways of thinking, different viewpoints, and different skill sets in a team.[1]

Inclusion: Inclusion is the practice of creating an environment of collaboration, flexibility, fairness, respect, and connection for all employees. A workplace should support the individuality of each person and foster an environment where each individual can feel like their voice and past experiences are important.

  1. How Diversity and Inclusion Efforts have Changed Over Time:

Not only is it important to understand those definitions, but also what those definitions meant in different eras. Those new to the job market have a different idea of what diversity and inclusion means compared to more seasoned employees. Knowing what to expect and how employee perspectives differ on this topic is important in creating an effective program.

In the 60s, with the advent of equal employment opportunity laws, the focus was on eliminating discrimination for protected classes. For businesses, being diverse and inclusive meant avoiding or reducing legal risk by compliance with equal opportunity laws.

From the 70s to the 80s, diversity and inclusion showed up in ways such as affirmative action programs that focused on actively promoting equal opportunity, rather than simply refraining from discrimination. In the 90s, the net of diversity and inclusion was cast even wider, by broadening the definitions to include cultural backgrounds, ability differences, LGBT.  These and other worldviews began to appear in education and training.[2]

Today, diversity and inclusion efforts focus on increasing workplace productivity, innovation, and teamwork by creating an environment where not only people from many backgrounds work, but whose ideas are actively encouraged and supported.

Generational differences are important to include in Diversity and Inclusion programs as this shapes employee views diversity and inclusion. For baby boomers and Generation X, diversity and inclusion mean integrating people of different gender, faith, ethnicity, and physical ability into the workplace. These generations are more likely to see diversity as a reputational issue for their workplace, or a legal obligation, rather than something that makes the workplace more pleasant.[3]

Millennials value diversity more than Generation X or baby boomers, with 47% of millennials saying diversity and inclusion was important when looking for a new job, versus 33% of Generation X-ers and 37% of boomers.[4] Millennials tend to value not only physical differences, but other experiences, identities, and opinions. Blending these different backgrounds and experiences are a necessary part of innovation, collaboration, and better teamwork, also known as cognitive diversity.

  1. Diversity and Inclusion can Positively Impact Your Workplace in Many Ways:

While having a diverse and inclusive workplace satisfies moral and legal responsibilities, there are other benefits when a workplace strives to achieve these goals.

  • Diverse companies are more likely to yield higher revenue;
  • Increasing racial and ethnic diversity in senior positions and board members leads to an increase in earnings;
  • Studies show a positive relationship between diversity and corporate innovation, meaning higher levels of diversity result in more revenue from new products and services;[5]
  • High levels of diversity result in improved recruitment and retention;
  • Diverse companies are more likely to capture a new market audience; and
  • Diversity and inclusion contribute to positive morale, which increases productivity, and employees are more likely to rank their employer as high performing.[6]
  1. How You can Make a More Diverse and Inclusive Workplace:
  • Gather Data

An effective program first requires that your company thoroughly assess its workforce, policies, and metrics. What does your workforce look like? How does that makeup compare to other similar businesses or general statistics for the area? Think of what your workforce looks like regarding age, gender, sex, race, national origin, religion, sexual orientation and veteran status. But also, consider different backgrounds and experiences beyond those characteristics. Where have your employees been? What experience and ways of thinking can they bring to the table to foster ideas and innovation? What do your policies say? How do you evaluate employees? Do employees that belong to different groups and backgrounds perform worse than the average?

  • Identify Where You Need to Improve:

After you understand what your workforce looks like, you can look at what underrepresented groups and areas of deficiencies exist. Do you have a low percentage of gender and racial diversity across senior management, mid-level management, and front-line staff? What does each department look like? What ways would you like to see those positions and departments change and improve? Additionally, consider reaching out to employees with a culture survey or a workplace assessment to identify more discrete areas for improvement.

  • Familiarize Yourself with Your Unconscious Biases:

In order to create change, a workplace must thoroughly analyze where its blind spots are, what systems are in place that create barriers to diversity and inclusion, and what unconscious biases exist. Educating your employees to understand how their unconscious biases impact others and identify what practices in the workplace reinforce unconscious biases. Everyone has unconscious biases; the key is to learn how to identify those biases and manage them.

  • Offer Guidance and Tools to Manage Bias:

Sometimes, a person can become defensive when told that they have biases. Most of us like to think of ourselves as upstanding coworkers who would not negatively contribute to the goal of diversity and inclusion and training on diversity and inclusion may make some employees guarded. Taking the time to adequately train and discuss with employees that having unconscious biases does not mean someone is bad, and that addressing them will help foster a better workplace will result in a more productive conversation.

  • Diversity and Inclusion Training and Practices:

Offer a seminar in person for diversity and inclusion training. These trainings should focus on cultural awareness and competency training, team-building exercises, ongoing dialogue, and one-on-one meetings. Employees may be afraid to speak out against the status-quo, even after receiving training. Ways to help alleviate these concerns include: (1) change workplace policies to better reflect the company’s resolve to fostering more diversity and inclusion; (2) targeted recruitment to underrepresented persons and expand your network so that you are hiring from different schools, job fairs, etc.; and (3) consistently emphasizing the importance of diversity and inclusion and communicating that importance to your employees. The main goal here should be creating a comforting and open space for your employees.

  • Consider a Diversity Committee:

Establishing a diversity committee, representative of the different backgrounds and experiences of your workforce, as well as representative of different positions within the company, will contribute positively to diversity and inclusion efforts. Task this committee with focusing on promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Make this mission clear and well-defined. Some examples of what a diversity committee could be tasked with are:

    • Promoting training and events to bring awareness to diversity and inclusion in the workplace;
    • Engaging co-workers in diversity and inclusion conversation and training; and
    • Reviewing and developing policies and procedures that will promote workplace diversity and inclusion.
  • Mix up your team

Differing perspectives in a team can lead to increased creativity within those teams. Take a look at the makeup of your teams and see if there is a way you can create a more diverse, but productive, group within each team. While this may be to put in place, because employees and managers may already enjoy their current setup, changing up teams in a thoughtful and considerate manner can yield great results.

  • Consistently Review and Don’t be Afraid to Adjust.

A consistent reevaluation of your diversity and inclusion efforts will help ensure your company is getting the best results. Consider periodic reviews of the diversity and inclusions programs and efforts, solicit employees to provide feedback, and don’t be afraid to change procedures and measures to more adequately address your overall goal-a more diverse and inclusive workplace for everyone.


[1] Schindler, Janine, The Benefits of Cognitive Diversity, Forbes, (Nov. 26, 2018) https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/11/26/the-benefits-of-cognitive-diversity/#605794845f8b

[2] Vaughn, B. E. (2007). Strategic Diversity & Inclusion Management Magazine, pp. 11 – 16, Vol.1, Issue 1, Spring 2007. DTUI.com Publications Division. https://diversityofficermagazine.com/diversity-inclusion/the-history-of-diversity-training-its pioneers/#:~:text=The%20goal%20was%20to%20increase,the%20effects%20of%20racial%20inequity.&text=While%20gender%20diversity%20education%20began,inclusion%20for%20other%20identity%20groups.

[3] Millennials at Work: Perspectives on Diversity & Inclusion, Weber Shandwick, (Dec. 6, 2016), https://www.webershandwick.com/news/millennials-at-work-perspectives-on-diversity-inclusion/.

[4] Id.

[5] Lorenzo, Rocio, et. al, The Mix That Matters: Innovation Through Diversity, BCG (April 26, 2017), https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2017/people-organization-leadership-talent-innovation-through-diversity-mix-that-matters.aspx.

[6] What is Diversity in the Workplace?, Builtin, https://builtin.com/diversity-inclusion (last visited July 1, 2020).