People respond to the topic of diversity in the office in different ways:
- Are we seriously still talking about this? Just hire the best person for the job.
- Oh yeah, diversity is a great thing. My team isn’t really diverse right now, but we’ll definitely hire someone if they fit into our culture.
- I have actually listened to and know someone from a marginalized group and see the systemic problems, but I can only do so much.
- Diversity is the be all end all of corporate practice.
This article is for people who find themselves somewhere around 2 and 3.
Setting it straight
We live in the most interconnected era in history. Humans have never been more mobile or interconnected. With remote working options, organizations can now hire people regardless of where they live. Diversity is a part of our lives and it’s not changing anytime soon.
However, that doesn’t mean that diversity at your organization happens automatically. While rarely intentional, many companies have invisible or unspoken barriers that prevent them from welcoming a diverse set of people.
On top of that, diversity is only really about demographic information. The deeper topic is inclusion, or how welcome diverse people feel at your organization. Diversity recognizes that people are different; inclusion says that we can treat people the same regardless of those differences. Or, as Vernā Myers says, “Diversity is getting invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Why we are still talking about diversity
From a business perspective, diversity and inclusion are very important topics.
1. Revenue and creativity
On the performance side, it’s easy to find studies that show that diverse teams earn more revenue, (inclusive teams earn a lot more), are more creative, make better decisions, and earn more innovation revenue.
Most of these benefits come from the fact that when you are surrounded by people who are just like you, it’s easy to slip into group thinking and not question things. Homogenized groups get comfortable and feel like they perform better, but really don’t. But when a team is made of people with a variety of perspectives, they think harder about their decisions and lead to better results.
2. Talent wars
Companies are taking diversity and inclusion seriously because it is getting harder to find highly skilled talent. Your hiring practices may unintentionally be hurting you by not exposing you to a more diverse talent pool, limiting the number of applicants you interact with. Much of the younger workforce, even from privileged groups, value working in diverse places and may pass on your company if you haven’t established a commitment to diversity and inclusion.
3. Social change
If you believe in equality and equity for marginalized groups, and want to see some real progress, it doesn’t happen with a national apology, a holiday, a monument, or a lesson in history class. Things become more equitable when marginalized people get power and money, both of which happen first at the workplace. If you are in a position where you can give influence, power, or money to a person from a marginalized community, you will be doing the absolute most practical thing towards creating a more equitable world.
Conversations about diversity involve at least two groups: the privileged, and the marginalized. Over many millennia, we’ve built up a lot of social baggage where one group tends to get the advantages and the other(s) have to survive on what is left. Here are a few of the ways that diversity can be represented.
Gender. In the US and Europe, women make up more than 45 percent of the workforce, but hold only 24 percent of senior roles. In the US, there are more men named John who run S&P 1500 firms than there are women.
Gender is also a quickly evolving topic. Take a look at the dropdown menu for a recent tech conference:
Sexual orientation. Society is slowly accepting the broader and fuzzier definitions of someone’s sexuality to a point where more people are open about their preferences and expect it to not stigmatize them at the office.
Race and ethnicity. Official US government forms minimally require these major race and ethnic groups to be included: American Indian, Asian, Black, Native Hawaiian, White, and Latino. However, there are thousands of racial and ethnic groups around the world, and just looking at broad groups is limiting.
Nationality. This refers to the passport the person holds, which may or may not be a good indicator of their native culture.
Native language. The mother tongue is the language people grew up with, or the one they use to curse someone under their breath.
Religion. While a choice for most people, religion is often a strong indicator of someone’s heritage and home culture.
Age/Life stage. Many industries get criticized for only hiring young graduates and letting go of older workers. Also, certain stages (parents of young children, caregivers for older adults) often require more time at home, restricting the ability to attend social events where team bonding happens.
Economic background. Many companies unintentionally create class differences and don’t have anyone in leadership who grew up from a disadvantaged family.
Education. Degrees and the universities they come from are often unnecessarily used as a gatekeeper to get a position.
Mental and physical disabilities. These groups have always had to face an uphill battle in the office and are often excluded from roles and teams.
Take a moment to evaluate your company (and separately, your leadership) based on these parameters. Where do you have a lot of diversity and where do you have none?
Feeling overwhelmed? This isn’t a checklist that you need to complete in order for your company to qualify as ‘diverse’. While demographic data is a good indicator of action, it starts with the attitude. Where do you have subtle biases? Where do you need to question your assumptions and explore with more empathy.
As a whole, organizations cannot prioritize every area of diversity. Many organizations publicly commit to gender or racial diversity, but other areas are also important and may be easier to start with. Building an inclusive mindset opens you up to many different types of diversity.
Pardon me, your unconscious bias is showing
While overt diversity barriers are usually unlawful, your company probably has a lot of inclusion barriers you don’t recognize that prevent you from attracting and keeping the best people. Rather than deny that you have a problem, it’s better to examine areas where you have unintentionally exclusive practices.
Employee referrals are by far the top source of potential candidates. But most people are likely to refer people from their network, which tends to be pretty homogenous. Establishing quotas for recruiting doesn’t always help because many of the types of diversity are either very difficult (Did you grow up poor?) or illegal (What is your sexual orientation?) to ask. Yet, when your talent pool looks exactly like your existing workforce, you aren’t likely to solve the diversity problem anytime soon.
Most organizations assume that you should just hire the most qualified candidate. This is similar to a best-of-breed approach in IT where you select the best software solution for each individual problem. But as any IT administrator can tell you, this doesn’t always leave you with the best overall software stack. Also, using terms like “culture fit” is often code for just “Is this person like the rest of us?”
3. Day-to-day in the office
Even if you hire people who make your office more diverse, if they don’t feel welcome, they will quickly leave. Much of diversity is seen as an HR problem, but inclusion is an everyone problem. What kind of humor is considered ok to use? Are microaggressions ignored? Do you only celebrate women in the office on International Women’s Day? How much does mansplaining happen in meetings? Who gets picked to travel and represent the organization? Who is asked to work late/extra?
4. Fraternizing outside the office
A true test of inclusion is what people do outside the office. What time do people get together? Do you always meet at a bar? Does it usually have to do with sports? Who gets invited? Is it always in the same part of town?
5. Performance Reviews/Promotions/Salaries
Much of diversity and inclusion is seen in who gets promoted and paid more. This starts with performance reviews where gendered language is common. (E.g. men “take charge” while women are “aggressive”.) The pay gap is also real–those from privileged backgrounds know there is less risk if they fail and ask for more money.
6. Existing leadership
Many organizations can talk a big diversity game, but at the top, they are mostly monocultural. Taking a hard look at board members and CXOs (not including the token Chief Diversity Officer) is an accurate read on how committed the organization is to diversity and inclusion. Homogenized leadership teams will move much slower.
The true signal for inclusion
Like others, Dr. Patti Fletcher notes the difference between equality and equity. Equality means seeing all groups (whether privileged or marginalized) with the same value. That’s a good place to start, but it doesn’t change anything. Equity means that marginalized people share a proportionate piece of the profit, power, and privilege.
Most privileged people are willing to give lip service to diversity and inclusion. The vast majority of white men in leadership and board positions don’t think they are inherently more valuable, but very few of them are willing to step down and be the first to actively share in the privilege that helped them get where they are.
The World Economic Forum estimates that at our current pace, it will take 217 years just for true gender equity in the workplace, and gender is much more advanced than many other types of diversity. This is not a problem that is solved by laws, but by those in privilege who are willing to step aside, share the spoils, and become an ally.
Being an ally
Allies are people who recognize they are in a position of privilege and are willing to leverage that on behalf of a marginalized group. Being an ally is a trendy thing, but the actual practice is requires a lot more than an occasional retweet. Let’s start with what allies don’t do.
Don’t be in the closet. Fake allies notice microaggressions or go to someone in a marginalized group and say things like, “I’m sorry that happened to you.” Real allies are not afraid to publicly align themselves with a particular group. This can mean anything from attending rallies to speaking in an office setting when you notice exclusive behavior.
Don’t wait for the facts. Responding to white responses after a wave of police shootings, speaker Sam Collier said, “Black people are very communal in nature…If I come around the corner and see you in a fight, I’m jumping in the fight. After the fight is over, I’m going to pull you aside and say, ‘Why are we fighting?” Many marginalized groups are equally communal and require you to risk your reputation on their behalf.
Don’t expect them to fix it. Those in privilege often say, “Tell me how to fix this.” This makes the marginalized group responsible to come up with answers. If they don’t have executable, ‘realistic’ ideas, the privileged group is off the hook. Those with privilege can say things like, “I’m going to do this, what do you think about that?”
Don’t claim a group. Jennifer Brown reminds us that, “You’re really not an ally until someone in a marginalized group identifies you as such and kind of thanks you for being that.” Wait to be acknowledged by a group before saying how much you’ve done (or plan to do) for them.
12 actionable ideas for diversity and inclusion
Building a better workplace requires everyone’s participation, but the onus lies mostly on those with privilege. Here are ideas on how to wield your power effectively.
1. Be aware of the power you have. The best starting point is admitting that you have privilege and that you benefit from it. You may not have asked for it, but it is there. No one is asking you to feel bad about it, but acknowledge it and recognize its effect in your life.
2. Be honest about the problem. You need some baseline metrics to see where your team is with diversity and inclusion. You can start with some general demographic information that is most important to you. Use a tool like Crescendo to reveal biased language. Have someone document microaggressions, talk-to-listen ratio, how often someone gets their words summarized or ‘translated’, and who speaks last in a meeting.
3. Commit to making a change. Awareness and metrics aren’t enough to turn this huge ship. 92 percent of companies said a diversity and inclusion strategy was important to them, yet only 33 percent had documented plan. This is hard to do. Companies like Google and The New York Times have publicly shared their diversity stats and spent lots of money on programs to increase, and yet, their progress has been fairly marginal.
4. Start conversations now. If your company doesn’t have a current culture of diversity and inclusion, you need to prepare people for it. Start conversations and point out areas where privilege is apparent. Forcing diversity efforts without conversations often backfires, creating a hostile work environment.
5. Don’t offload this to HR. Diversity and inclusion is not just HR’s issue to solve–the issue is everyone’s. If you are in marketing, what images and skin tones dominate your visual advertising? If you are in sales, which people get to travel or go to conferences to be the ‘face’ of the company? You may think you don’t have the power to change things just because you don’t have the final say in hiring, but you have a lot of influence.
6. Start with your personal network. This advice from Amy Waninger is perhaps the best takeaway of this list. Company policies and practices take a long time to change, but you have immediate control over your personal network. People naturally want to help those in their network, and if your entire network is made of people who are just like you, nothing changes. If you’ve intentionally built a diverse network, you will be eager to help people from many walks of life. Check out Amy’s book, Network Beyond Bias, for more ideas.
7. Recruit in new places. If you have influence in recruiting, there are a lot of simple ways to expand the kind of diversity you are attracting. Consider going to job fairs, college campuses, advertising in newspapers/radio stations and websites where people from different backgrounds come from.
8. Build the best team, don’t hire the best person. As mentioned before, opting for a “best-of-breed” strategy where you only look at qualifications alone isn’t always the right solution when hiring. Sometimes you need to intentionally bring in someone to a learnable position who doesn’t have all the pedigree because you know their experience will round out your team better.
9. Review your written policies. This is a big effort and usually involves asking around for best practices. Here are just a few areas where you can review (or write!) policies :
- Benefits you provide–have you excluded a certain group?
- Thoughtful (we thought this would benefit people) vs. reasonable (we are required by law to do this) accommodations
- Religious accommodations (diet, prayer times, holy days, dress)
- Floating Holiday schedules
- Flexible office hours for primary caregivers
10. After-work get togethers. Think about where people usually meet up. When do office parties happen? Who gets invited? These shouldn’t be regulated with policies, but should be flexible and allow most people to participate.
11. Fast vs. slow change. Lateral leadership hires are often a tough way to inject diversity, as these positions require someone to know the industry and culture well. But if you start today hiring diverse people only at entry-level positions it can take decades to make an impact. Consider other areas such as board members, consultants, marketing agencies, and speakers where you can create an immediate change.
12. Be ready for issues. Bringing in diverse people often leads to more conflict initially if people aren’t used to being challenged. Even if privileged team members seem open to written inclusive practices, putting them into practice is much harder. Get people working together on a common goal as soon as possible and keep communication open (see: any sports movie ever made).
If you are in a marginalized group, admittedly nothing will likely change without the actions of someone in power. But that doesn’t mean you should stop speaking up and asking to be heard as this often bring the issues to the public awareness. And also recognize that most people exist in both privileged and marginalized groups, depending on the type of diversity, and can still find a way to be an ally of other groups.
Towards a more inclusive workplace
Building a diverse and inclusive workplace is not just about altruism, but has now become sound business. But these practices don’t happen overnight. The biggest companies in the world struggle with these issues despite huge budgets and training. Start with your own team and pick a few actionable ways that you can encourage diversity and inclusion in the area you have the most influence.