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Your Diversity and Inclusion Program: How to Build and Promote Success for Everyone

Employees Discussing their Workplace's Diversity and Inclusion Program

Bring a group of people together, such as employees, and chances are high that members represent different backgrounds, genders, cultures, ages, and identities. Having this kind of diversity, a catch-all word that represents the differences that exist between individuals, can be a tremendous asset to a business. That is, if that business also takes care to foster an inclusive environment. Inclusion is a sense of belonging and equal access to opportunities and resources.

A diversity and inclusion program can help a business gain a wide array of valuable perspectives that can lead to innovation and happier, more productive employees. Diversity and inclusion programs can be applicable to all components of HR — professional development, promotions, hiring, training, and team building.

What are Four Types of Diversity?

As an umbrella term for the varied traits, identities, and characteristics between individuals, diversity can feel like an overwhelming topic. How can HR promote diversity when the term feels unwieldy? Recognizing distinctions within diversity can help an employer identify ways to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Diversity can be organized into four categories: internal, external, organizational, and worldview.

Internal Diversity

Internal diversity is the characteristics that are inherent to an individual by birth and things they cannot change. The year they were born, nationality, ethnicity, genetics, and cultural identity are some of the many attributes that make up a person's internal diversity. Internal diversity can impact how an individual integrates into a work environment, especially if that environment is unfamiliar to a person and creates unintentional obstacles to growth and feeling safe.

External Diversity

External diversity is the other characteristics that define a person, that are not defined by birth. These are aspects a person can change, although that may require tremendous effort and resources. Appearance, education, lifestyle, location, religious beliefs, and other attributes that are influenced by the choices a person makes make up a person's external diversity. In a work role, external diversity can be influenced by good role models and mentors, opportunities for professional development, and healthy interactions with co-workers.

Organizational Diversity

Also known as functional diversity, organizational diversity generally refers to the attributes, or subsets of defining factors, that identify employees within a business. These may include pay type (salaried, hourly, or contract), job function, management rank, leadership role, seniority, and union affiliation (if applicable). In a workplace, these types of characteristics can influence if an employee feels valued, respected, or has a path for growth and development.

Worldview Diversity

A person's fundamental life philosophy or life perspective comprises their worldview. A person's worldview can change over time as they are exposed to new life experiences. Distinctions between worldviews include political beliefs, moral compass, personality and outlook, and an understanding between facts and opinion. Internal, external, and organizational diversity characteristics can all influence a person's worldview and how they present themselves at work each day.

Common Challenges with Workplace Diversity

For HR, diversity and inclusion programs should not be about meeting certain quotas for gender or ethnicities. It's about establishing a culture and way of thinking and behaving among employees that breeds acceptance, respect, and a sense of teamwork among coworkers who may look, talk, and think differently from each other. Here is a diversity and inclusion checklist of common challenges that a business may need to address in its diversity and inclusion program.

  • Respect: For an agreeable and productive work environment, the platinum rule should prevail: “Do unto others as they would want to be done to them." Demonstrating helpful, polite, and kind behaviors across individual differences is paramount to helping workers feel accepted by others, which can improve engagement and opportunities for everyone.
  • Conflict: In the absence of respect, hurtful derogatory behaviors can create a negative work environment when conflicts arise and even be dangerous for some employees. Proper conflict resolution training and attention to negative behaviors can reduce or even eliminate these risks.
  • Gender diversity: For years, disputes related to pay equity and opportunities for growth have existed between men and women workers. The wage gap still exists. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2020, women earned only 84% of what men earned based on an analysis of median hourly earnings. Employers also need to be aware that gender diversity is not binary and can include transgender, androgynous employees, or any gender identity that isn’t male or female.
  • Preventing prejudice, harassment, and discrimination: Your diversity and inclusion program should make it clear that any form of prejudice, discrimination, and harassment will not be tolerated. It's important to be clear that even seemingly "light-hearted comments" can be hurtful to others when these comments harbor a racial, sexual, or discriminatory undercurrent. Company policies and diversity training can and should encourage acceptance.
  • Generation gaps: Generational differences can trigger struggles with change, a sense of personal relevancy, and misunderstandings across a seemingly different set of values. This can disrupt a sense of unity within the workplace. Having perspectives from multiple generations can make a team stronger, but gaps may become an issue if not addressed.
  • Disabilities and special needs: Workers with disabilities are vastly underrepresented in the workforce. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2020, only 18% of individuals with disabilities are employed, compared to 62% of those without one. Overlooking workers' needs such as special equipment or other accommodations may be seemingly innocent but providing a fair work environment is both important and mandated by law. Check with your HR professional to make sure your business is compliant with local, state, and federal regulations on this matter.
  • Leadership representation: While training classes in diversity are necessary and helpful, leadership needs to adopt daily practices that model how diversity and inclusion is consistently upheld across every aspect of the business. And is the leadership team itself representative of diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and values?

What are Some Benefits of Diversity and Inclusion Programs?

Starting a diversity and inclusion program can have big payoffs for the business and its employees. Diversity programs in the workplace can give employees varied perspectives, a greater sense of optimism, and better problem-solving skills as a result of working alongside colleagues with unique backgrounds and ways of thinking. This can translate into greater innovation and profitability for a business. Another dimension of a diversity and inclusion program is the potential benefits to the employee pipeline. Employers may enjoy a wider pool of talented applicants as job seekers want to work with an organization that supports them. Diversity programs can also help current employees feel more engaged, thus empowering their productivity and creativity. Additionally, a business can feel confident that when it comes to promotions and leadership development, no employee is being overlooked.

How to Develop a Strategic Diversity and Inclusion Plan

The benefits associated with a business culture of diversity and inclusion have the potential to positively impact many dimensions of your business. How can you turn a noble idea into actual practice? The following steps can help you build out an effective D&I program and develop a strategic diversity and inclusion plan.

Establish an Understanding of Best Practices for Talent Acquisition

Diversity begins with talent acquisition — the ways candidates are found, employment applications are screened, and which questions are being asked in interviews. Does your company have a clear non-discrimination policy in place that encompasses all employment-related practices, including the recruiting and hiring process? Businesses need to invest time to establish standardized practices and develop a diversity recruitment plan template. It is important to create clear policies and audit existing processes for issues and provide ongoing training on any issues to attempt to mitigate potential problems.

For diversity hiring best practices, your business may want to consider looking at previously overlooked sources for potential candidates such as scouting for talent at underserved schools, veterans' organizations, or women's networking clubs. In your diversity hiring checklist, no detail should be overlooked. If a job application states the business accepts all types of people, but then the automated, online application form only lists "male" or "female" as gender choices, there may be a discrepancy between words and action, which can reflect poorly on a business and may present a compliance issue in some states such as California.

Compile Internal Demographic Data

To best understand where diversity can be expanded within your organization, compile anonymized and aggregated internal demographic data such as age, gender(s), language(s), disabilities, ethnicities, military service, education levels, etc. This provides a snapshot of your company's current employee composition in a way that respects employee privacy and comply with anti-discrimination laws. Employers may want to work with legal counsel and designate a specific, qualified individual to this effort along with clearly establishing how this information is used and shared. To avoid violating any anti-discrimination laws, employers must pay careful attention to how this information is gathered and disseminated.

There are several mechanisms that can be used to capture this data. Some of the information may already be available within a business's human resources software. Other data may be able to be gathered using a voluntary, self-identification survey and open-ended questions. However, this should really only be used for obtaining information if there is specific reporting requirements under federal, state or local law. Employees may be initially wary of such a survey, especially if there is a sense of mistrust in leadership and intentions. If this represents an additional hurdle in your business (one that should also be addressed), one solution is to turn to a trusted third-party source or use survey technology. It may also be helpful to survey current employees' understanding of equality, diversity, and inclusion. It should go without saying that the survey mechanism itself should be accessible to all employees and not exclude those with a disability or language barrier.

Identify any Outstanding Issues

In examining employee demographics, look at teams, departments, and divisions. Is your creative department lacking the experience of older workers? Maybe management is dominated by white males or a department is filled with college graduates but lacks field experience. Poll teams anonymously to determine any issues that may not be immediately visible to leadership or HR. It is crucial to create a safe space so your employees feel they can communicate issues that concern them with supervisors. Meaningful change comes from drawing attention to opportunities for improvement, and those who point out these areas need to feel comfortable and protected as they do so.

Address Any Policies or Internal Practices That Affect Diversity

How do you increase diversity in the workplace? Consider company culture, employee referrals, political preferences, even the acknowledgment of certain holidays over others, all of which can influence diversity and the spirit of inclusivity within a business. For example, Juneteenth or LGBTQ Pride Month might be considered important by a significant number of staff members yet aren't acknowledged by your business. Consider giving employees a way to provide input on these sensitive topics both anonymously and in small discussion groups. Ask them directly for diversity and inclusion program ideas.

Create Business Objectives to Address These Issues

Ensure D&I initiatives and objectives have statistical and measurable goals to benchmark the success of your efforts. Some companies are incorporating their efforts of equality, diversity, and inclusion into their brand. They are accomplishing this by establishing specific business objectives to measure and benchmark progress. Benchmarks can include number of participants in employee resource groups, hours volunteered at local community organizations, number of candidate referrals from culturally diverse organizations, or number of leadership members who volunteer to serve as mentors.

Examples Set by Upper-Level Management

Employees don't need approval from anyone to act respectfully and supportive toward colleagues. However, the examples set by upper-level management with respect to modeling behavior both in small tasks and in setting company policies and structures can significantly influence the success of diversity and inclusion efforts. Commitment to diversity and inclusion from leadership can influence employees and help them recognize opportunities to increase their education and awareness to D&I issues.

Implement Initiatives and Communicate Them to the Organization

By incorporating D&I into your business's brand, you can establish a more visible level of responsibility and commitment and the associated education and awareness to practices that meet your D&I goals. Implementing initiatives that promote diversity in areas such as recruitment, hiring, and onboarding practices can change your business. Your branding materials play a role in communicating these efforts to current and potential employees and customers. If your brand materials feature stock images of people, do they reflect the diversity of your staff or clients? Are women, older workers, or disabled workers featured in these pictures? Do your branding and business practices reflect that your workplace includes people of diverse backgrounds and ethnicities? Introducing diversity into your branding can help potential recruits imagine themselves working for your company. Consider carrying this thread through all branding touchpoints from videos to online collateral and social media. Branding is also established by your company's reputation and how employees speak about their experience working for your business. Make sure images accurately represent your company's practices and efforts.

Measure Success and Adjust

Expect a dynamic, challenging, and rewarding experience as your company moves toward developing and refining its equity, diversity, and inclusion goals. Initiatives and practices should be continuously measured for success and adjusted to reflect the changing nature of employee needs. Anonymous surveys, measurement tools, employee turnover, hiring practices, and engagement in diversity initiatives such as community volunteering or employee resource groups are all things to consider. Using results from the initial surveys from when your diversity and inclusion program began as a snapshot, consider re-implementing a similar survey to measure overall progress.

How to Promote Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Successful diversity and inclusion programs need ongoing promotion. The following suggestions can help you increase diversity and encourage inclusivity in your work environment.

Create a Safe Space

Employees should be able to trust the integrity of their colleagues so they can share unexpected and creative perspectives without fear of discrimination or harassment. This trust is built slowly across all dimensions of the work environment. Everything from feeling welcomed in the break room, having access to mentors, and acknowledging important cultural and religious holidays can help staff members feel that your business values its employees and is a safe space.

Hold Yourself Accountable as a Business

Accountability sends a message that your business takes responsibility for creating an environment that helps employees feel included. Reinforce this message by being vocal in your commitment to diversity and defending or taking appropriate action on behalf of employees who experience discrimination or behaviors from colleagues or customers that make them feel uncomfortable.

Acknowledge Important Holidays

As mentioned previously, the calendar is filled with months and holidays highlighting the accomplishments and celebrations of groups that have been traditionally silenced. Black History Month, Women's History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, LGBTQ Pride Month, Juneteenth, and Kwanzaa are all opportunities to acknowledge and embrace different perspectives, cultures, and beliefs (as long as those beliefs are not discriminatory or harmful to others).

Establish a Mentorship Program

Diversity and inclusion are about putting systems in place, like a mentorship program, to support staff to achieve their full potential in their role within your organization. It is likely that these relationships can foster opportunities to inspire ideas to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Do you have women leaders who can mentor other up-and-coming talent? Are there individuals who can help working parents navigate their professional lives for increased success? Who do your military veterans speak to within your organization who can understand their unique needs in transitioning their skill sets from service to civilian work life?

Develop Internship and Talent Development Programs

Whether you're offering college students a summer internship or placing recent hires in a talent development program, these programs can help workers see what it's like to work at your company, explore different departments, and how they may be able to make important contributions in the future. Internship programs are also a way to establish rapport with community groups, which can increase your potential hiring pool.

Establish Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)

Employees who join together based on shared interests, characteristics, or life experiences can make up an ERG. They can be an excellent way to help staff members develop a greater level of understanding, respect, and compassion for colleagues who look, think, and experience the world differently. Giving staff resources, both in the form of time and money, to ERGs can demonstrate your company's support of diversity. Consider giving ERGs a small budget for social gatherings, time to volunteer in the community, host company-wide events, develop presentations for company-wide meetings, or even select community non-profits as grant recipients.

A key part of an ERG is shared interests. Part of the success and purpose of an ERG is to nurture awareness and for this to occur, an ERG in and of itself should champion diversity. While establishing ERGs, take care to ensure all employees understand and are encouraged to join any ERG and that all ERG members should strive to practice inclusivity. Perhaps there are some men who want to understand how to advocate for women in the workplace or heterosexuals who want to learn more about the issues faced by the LGBTQ community, or non-Black individuals who want to join the conversation and understand how to respect and help their Black colleagues.

By making continuous concerted efforts focused on diversity and inclusion, you may have a strategic advantage that can benefit your business and the community at large. Among the many benefits, companies with successful D&I practices generally also have a strong corporate culture that amplifies benefits to the business, its employees, and society. The path can be challenging, but ultimately, worth it both financially and socially. To help you develop initiatives and policies and implement them efficiently and effectively, employers should consult with legal console to ensure compliance in this space and consult with experts on HR, benefits, payroll, and human capital management.

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* This content is for educational purposes only, is not intended to provide specific legal advice, and should not be used as a substitute for the legal advice of a qualified attorney or other professional. The information may not reflect the most current legal developments, may be changed without notice and is not guaranteed to be complete, correct, or up-to-date.

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