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Understanding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace

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Today, many businesses are making greater efforts to consciously bring in different voices, backgrounds, ages, genders and cultures into the workplace and taking active measures to ensure everyone feels welcomed and comfortable in their work environments and teams. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace can be a tremendous asset to help companies and their employees grow and thrive.

While it's common to see the terms diversity, equity, and inclusion used together, they each have different meanings. Read on to learn what diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace means, the importance of each, and how you can promote DEI initiatives within your organization.

What is diversity?

Diversity is a catch-all word that represents the differences that exist between individuals. A diverse workplace is one where the workforce is comprised of a wide range of staff members of varying ages, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, ethnicities, education, and backgrounds. Workplace diversity can be expressed through hiring, engaging and empowering employees, and respecting the unique talents and perspectives that are expressed across these differences. Examples of diversity in the workplace are varied and multi-dimensional. One example  may be having a leadership team composed of roughly equal numbers of men and women representing different religions, cultures, or sexual orientations. Another example can be having a mix of both older and younger workers on a team capable of fusing new ideas with deep industry knowledge.

What is equity?

Equity is promoting impartiality and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources throughout your organization. It takes into account the fact that not everybody begins on the same "starting line" — that there are barriers and advantages that different groups of people within your organization face —  and requires employers to implement systems that ensure all employees have equal access to the same possible outcomes within your organization. This may, for example, include implementing a standard performance review process that evaluates employees based on their progress meeting concrete goals, in order to minimize any potential for unconscious bias. Or, it may include having more transparency around the wage range for different positions, by making job descriptions more accessible to employees.

What is inclusion?

Inclusion is fundamentally about a sense of belonging and that experience is rooted in identity. If an employee feels excluded or uncomfortable in a work situation, chances are that person will struggle to identify with the larger whole. In turn, this can have the potential to impede a worker's creativity and productivity. Inclusion in the workplace is an organizational effort, practiced by every employee and leader, that aims to make groups of culturally, socially, and physically different people feel comfortable, accepted, and equally treated.

Inclusion examples can be any number of actions an organization takes to make this happen. It can mean ensuring wheelchair accessibility to all meeting rooms or providing technology to help the hearing impaired. Part of an inclusion initiative includes giving employees a chance to provide input regularly without being shut out of conversations during meetings or in social groups. It can occur in the form of making sure mentoring opportunities for advancement and leadership skill development are available to those who have traditionally lacked access to such opportunities or recognizing skill sets that come from different types of backgrounds such as veterans or older workers. Some organizations may encourage employee resource groups that are open to all staff members to highlight a group's culture and challenges so their peers gain new insights and appreciation for their colleagues' skill sets and perspectives.

What is the difference between diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Diversity refers to the different number of traits and characteristics that make people unique, while inclusion refers to the behaviors and social norms that ensure people feel welcome. Diversity and inclusion in the workplace can positively impact employees' creativity, performance, and productivity, and can also extend a company's appeal to a wider market, which can be a valuable tool in a culturally diverse country like the United States.

What is the difference between diversity and inclusion? The terms are not interchangeable. Diversity in the workplace may focus on unique groups of individuals such as veterans, women, or a cultural minority group such as Hispanic, Latino, Black, or members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community. Inclusion refers to specific actions an organization takes to empower diverse individuals to ensure they feel comfortable, valued, and heard. Ultimately, through an inclusion mindset, a business strives to help every member of its diverse workforce feel as if he or she identifies and belongs with their teams.

Why is diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace important?

Implementing a robust DEI program is worthy of consideration by HR leaders, business executives and owners: Many business key performance indicators — such as profits, sales, customer satisfaction, and innovation, among others — can often be improved with and investment in DEI. Here's a closer look at some of the key advantages that a diverse and inclusive workforce can bring.

Creates a positive environment

Diversity is the fuel for inspiring new ways of thinking and inclusion is the foundation of a person feeling welcomed, encouraged, and safe to share their ideas. Together, DEI have the ability to encourage a positive work environment. Fear, anger, and hostility can be the by-products of prejudice; the hostile or negative attitude towards others on the basis of their identity. In contrast, supported with a large body of studies and research, psychologists have long maintained that positive emotions help strengthen a person's intellectual resources and contribute to a group flourishing. Embracing diversity through hiring practices and inclusion can replace prejudice and friction with admiration, support, and empathy — all of which can foster a healthier, more positive work environment and desirable corporate culture.

Expands your talent pool

Static sourcing techniques and perpetually culling through the same resources and talent pool give HR limited exposure to potential candidates. A focus on diversity can help you attract new, highly qualified candidates. For example, consider partnering with a group for women engineers when hiring for technical positions or expanding your college recruiting program to historically diverse colleges. Focusing on diversity in the workplace at the sourcing stage can expand your candidate base and create a richer and more diverse staff.

Increases innovation with new perspectives

People from different countries, professions, and backgrounds have unique insights, skills, and perspectives. Bringing different ideas together can help push innovation forward and give team members a wider range of skills from which to draw for creative solutions. New ideas and a fresh way of looking at problems can help companies move beyond traditional applications and embrace ideas that eliminate roadblocks, open up new markets, and more.

Improves performance

There are many dimensions to diversity, equity and inclusion, but fundamentally committing to both is a powerful way to show employees that they belong and are valued. Performance is likely to improve when employees feel recognized, appreciated, and a part of the team. In this capacity, a person can feel comfortable and safe in expressing their differences. This too leads to improved performance. Diversity can also increase the potential for friction. But when handled respectfully, disagreement can improve a team's performance. When differences of opinion are supported with respect and healthy debate, team members are challenged to come up with more thoroughly explored options which can lead to better decision-making.

Increases employee engagement

Diversity can bring new perspectives to your company, but unless employees engage with others and share their ideas, those perspectives stay locked inside individuals. When staff members feel comfortable offering suggestions, safe from discrimination or harassment, and can depend on the integrity of their colleagues they will likely feel more comfortable taking a calculated risk such as sharing an unusual idea. In doing so, employees may feel more connected to the team and are likely to develop an increased sense of camaraderie and satisfaction – important elements to higher employee engagement.

Reduces turnover

Employees may leave for reasons outside of your control, but employee turnover may be reduced by improving the work environment. Practicing DEI in a meaningful way may reduce employee turnover and create a culture of retention. How? By fostering an environment of teamwork, productivity, and engagement, DEI inclusion can significantly reduce some of the primary reasons that drive employees to quit: negative, unsafe work environments, lack of satisfying work, and no opportunity for advancement.

Expands your markets

Diversity in your workforce can give you access to the talent, expertise, and perspective needed to expand into global markets. From language skills to the ability to navigate cultural differences, a diverse workforce can help you lead expansions from within, making it easier to support a consistent company culture and a high level of performance.

Improves reputation

Increasingly, customers want to engage with businesses that align with their values and treat their employees respectfully. Recruiting and encouraging people with different backgrounds to participate in your business generally establishes a positive reputation for that business. Potential clients and customers may feel more valued with a business that emphasizes respect and empathy. Connection to the community is another dimension that diversity may bring to your company's reputation. As diverse groups are employed and rise to leadership positions they serve as role models to their respective communities, perhaps inspiring others to do the same. Businesses that empower people with this ability are likely to be associated with positive characteristics.

Making DEI a priority

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is increasingly becoming an organizational priority, gaining a much-needed foothold in companies around the world. In fact, HR leaders say their companies are planning to increase the emphasis they put on DEI efforts by approximately 30% in 2021.*

But, creating and fostering an inclusive and diverse work environment requires more than simply recognizing that differences exist among your workforce; it means recruiting, hiring, retaining, and developing employees from many backgrounds, making sure their voices are heard and incorporated, and providing them with equal access to success within your organization. 

To learn more about how your organization can get started on the developing a successful DEI program, read our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Guide, or read on, below. 

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 DEI program and develop a strategic diversity and inclusion plan.

Establish an understanding of best practices for talent acquisition

Diversity begins with talent acquisition - the way 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.

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, armed force service, education levels, etc. This provides a snapshot of your company's current employee composition in a way that respects employee privacy and complies with anti-discrimination laws. Employers may want to designate a specific, qualified individual to this effort along with clearly establishing how this information is used and shared, for instance, only on a need-to-know basis. To avoid violating any anti-discrimination laws employers must pay careful attention to how this information is gathered and disseminated.

Identify any outstanding issues

In examining the employee demographic 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 DEI initiatives and objections 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 include number of participants in employee resource groups, hours volunteered at local community organizations, number of candidate referrals from culturally diverse organizations, number of leadership members who volunteer to serve as mentors, etc.

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 structure 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 DEI issues.

Implement initiatives and communicate them to the organization

By incorporating DEI 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 DEI 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? Does 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 equality, diversity, and inclusion goals. Initiatives and practices should be continuously measured for success and adjusted to reflect the changing nature of employee needs.

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 protects 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 is about more than hiring, but about putting systems in place to support staff to achieve their full potential in their role within your organization. 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 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 if they are hired or change roles, they may be able to make important contributions. 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 are 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 help their Black colleagues in ways that are helpful and respectful.

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 that practice successful DEI may have a strong corporate culture that amplifies benefits to the business, its employees, and society as a whole. The path can be challenging, but ultimately, worth it both financially and socially. To help ensure your initiatives and policies are compliant and implemented efficiently and effectively, consult with experts on HR benefits, payroll, and human capital management.


*Based on an online survey of 1,000 HR decision-makers at U.S. companies with 20 to 500 employees. Survey conducted from May 11, 2021 through June 3, 2021. 

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* Este contenido es solo para fines educativos, no tiene por objeto proporcionar asesoría jurídica específica y no debe utilizarse en sustitución de la asesoría jurídica de un abogado u otro profesional calificado. Es posible que la información no refleje los cambios más recientes en la legislación, la cual podrá modificarse sin previo aviso y no se garantiza que esté completa, correcta o actualizada.

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