Diversity has become something of a buzzword. However, organizations that simply look at diversity as a trend are missing out on the depth and value that a truly diverse and inclusive organization brings.
Diverse organizations are inherently happier, more productive, and more competitive in their industries.
But what does diversity actually mean?
It can seem like diversity means different things to different people to the extent that you might wonder, what is diversity, and does it have the same meaning at work? This article explains the concepts of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, including the types of diversity, why they’re important, and how to promote a truly inclusive environment.
What exactly are diversity and inclusion?
Diversity is a term that refers to the variety of different perspectives represented on a team. While diversity is related to race and social justice issues, they are facets of a larger conversation. The term represents a broad range of experiences, including gender, sex, socioeconomic background, upbringing, religion, education, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, neurodiversity, and life experience.
Inclusion, on the other hand, means that every individual should have an equal opportunity to access education, resources, opportunities, or any other treatment based on the qualities that make them unique.
Essentially, diversity and inclusion is a conversation about rewriting implicit bias — rooting it out wherever it exists and challenging the idea that different means inferior.
4 common types of diversity
The United Nations recognizes over thirty characteristics that represent diversity, but in truth, there are many more than that. Some are visible and some are not. Still, others are immutable parts of who we are, while some change many times over the course of our lives.
Broadly speaking, there are four types of diversity: internal, external, organizational, and worldview.
- Internal diversity: Internal diversity refers to any trait or characteristic that a person is born with. These might include sex, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or physical ability. You may recognize many of these as protected characteristics — that is, attributes specifically covered under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
- External diversity: External diversity includes any attribute, experience, or circumstance that helps to define a person’s identity — but is not something that they were born with. Examples include socioeconomic status, education, marital status, religion, appearance, or location. These characteristics are often influenced by others and may change over time. They’re considered external since they can be consciously changed.
- Organizational diversity: Differences in job function, work experience, seniority, department, or management level are referred to as organizational diversity. Often, entire departments or levels of a company can be homogeneous — that is, everyone looks the same, comes from the same background, or has the same experience.
- Worldview diversity: Finally, worldview diversity encompasses a broad range of beliefs, political affiliations, culture, and travel experiences. Our worldview, or our perspectives, contributes to an innovative, inclusive work environment that is forward-focused. Anything that influences the way we interpret and view the world is part of worldview diversity.
What is diversity in the workplace?
The definition of diversity in the workplace goes further than having representation from different races. While it is crucial for any organization to develop a team with ethnic diversity, focusing on just one characteristic can quickly begin to seem inauthentic. In fact, it may further isolate members of that community, especially when that diversity is thought of only as a visible or superficial identifier.
Truly diverse and inclusive leaders and organizations don’t just have people that “look like” members of an underrepresented group. They pay attention to — and value — the differences that we can’t see, like economic background, immigration status, neurodiversity, and education.
Diversity in the workplace means having a workforce inclusive of different backgrounds and national origins. It means gender, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity — and beyond. It also means that the organization fosters a sense of belonging that makes everyone feel like they are part of the team.
Examples of diversity in the workplace
There are many examples of diversity (and lack of) in the workplace. Homogeneity can be in the eye of the beholder. It’s worth taking a moment and asking: what does diversity mean to you in a given situation?
People often fall into an unconscious habit of thinking of diversity in only one or two dimensions. But depending on the situation, you can almost always find a way to increase the level of diversity on a team, on a decision, in planning, or in a conversation.
Here are some examples of all the different levels of diversity you can see at work:
- Cross-functional representation: The first level of diversity (that we almost take for granted now) is cross-functional representation. If you look around and only see engineers, you know that is a problem.
- Racial and gender diversity: The team is tasked with developing a product for a national market. That’s tough to do if, on the next level, there’s a lack of gender and racial diversity.
- Socioeconomic status: In most professional situations, everyone has achieved a similar band of income and economic security which can lead to a loss of perspective on value, pricing, and relevance.
- Educational background: Does everyone come from one or two schools? Has anyone worked their way up through a community college or other means?
- Work experience: This is particularly an issue in large firms that have very structured career tracks.
- Location/background: Did they all grow up in similar environments despite coming from across the globe? Different groups from different geographic areas are important, even if everyone is from the same country.
Why is diversity so important?
The data show that diversity is good for business. The truth is a little more complicated. Diversity is good for business when the organization knows how to truly embrace, value, and make use of diversity in its leadership and workforce. Why?
Because when managers and leaders know how to draw out diverse perspectives, build on them, and be inclusive of all the perspectives available on their teams, they get better ideas, question assumptions, identify blind spots, develop new approaches, and create better solutions. As a result, they see massive team innovation, performance, and growth.
10 benefits of diversity in the workplace
Diversity benefits organizations at all levels. Beyond the moral imperative or a sense of fairness, the business case for investing in diversity is clear. Studies have shown that groups of people that are diverse in gender, race, and age perform better, make better decisions, and experience more profitability.
Here are a few more ways that diversity benefits the workplace:
1. Decreased groupthink at work
Avoiding groupthink is one of the biggest benefits of workplace diversity.
First documented in 1971, groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals avoid disagreeing with a group or expressing doubt. The larger and more similar the group, the less likely individuals are to dissent.
Even groups with the best intentions can fall prey to groupthink.
But a diverse team provides access to a wider range of skill sets and experiences and different ways of thinking, behaving, and communicating. This facilitates the growth of new ideas and reduces groupthink.
2. Increased creativity and innovation
According to a study by Josh Bersin and Deloitte, inclusive companies are almost twice as likely to be considered innovation leaders in their market.
A diverse workforce brings together individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, and problem-solving approaches. This diversity of thought fosters creativity and leads to innovative solutions. Diverse teams are more likely to generate fresh ideas and develop unique approaches to challenges.
3. Broader range of skills and knowledge
Employees from diverse backgrounds often possess a wide array of skills, knowledge, and expertise. This diversity of talents allows organizations to tap into a broader range of capabilities, enhancing their ability to adapt, learn, and excel in different areas.
4. Improved decision-making
When teams consist of diverse individuals, decision-making processes are enriched. Diverse perspectives enable a more comprehensive analysis of problems and a consideration of different viewpoints. This can lead to better-informed decisions and minimize the potential for groupthink.
5. Enhanced problem-solving
Diverse teams can effectively tackle complex problems. Different backgrounds and experiences offer alternative approaches to problem-solving, resulting in more robust and effective solutions. Diverse perspectives challenge assumptions and encourage critical thinking.
6. Expanded market reach
A diverse workforce can better understand and cater to diverse customer bases. When employees reflect the diversity of customers, they can offer insights into different cultural preferences, needs, and expectations, leading to improved products, services, and customer experiences.
7. Increased employee engagement and retention
Inclusive workplaces that value diversity foster a sense of belonging and create an environment where employees feel respected and valued for their unique contributions. This inclusivity boosts employee morale, satisfaction, and engagement, ultimately increasing retention rates and reducing turnover.
The Diversity and Inclusion Study conducted by Glassdoor found that 76% of job seekers consider diversity an important factor when considering job offers.
8. Enhanced employer brand reputation
According to LinkedIn’s Global Recruiting Trends 2018 report, 78% of companies surveyed cited diversity as a key driver of their employer brand. Organizations that prioritize diversity and inclusion cultivate a positive reputation, both internally and externally. They become more appealing to potential employees who seek inclusive work environments, and customers often prefer to support companies that demonstrate a commitment to diversity and equality.
9. Global perspective and cultural competence
Diverse workplaces provide exposure to different cultures, languages, customs, and perspectives. This exposure nurtures cultural competence, expanding employees’ understanding of global markets and facilitating collaboration in an increasingly interconnected world.
10. Improved financial performance
A large study of European firms found that those with a larger share of women in senior positions have significantly higher financial performance, especially in high-tech and other sectors where critical thinking, creativity, and knowledge work matter.
7 ways to promote diversity and inclusion
Changing the culture of a workplace is challenging but rewarding work. Many shy away from it because they don’t know where to start or aren’t sure that they’re doing it right. If an organization has previously tried — and failed — to implement a diversity initiative, they may decide that such initiatives don’t work or that the benefits are no longer worth the effort.
However, there will always be a demand for inclusive and diverse workplaces. Now is always a good time to start, but if previous efforts failed, the organization needs to take a different approach.
Here are seven ways to start examining — and shifting — your workplace to a more inclusive one:
1. Hiring practices
Ensure diversity in your hiring and recruiting practices by making sure that you are looking at talent from all backgrounds. Don’t needlessly apply barriers to entry in the hiring process, like advanced degrees, expensive certifications, or experience with certain firms.
Restate your organization’s commitment to inclusive hiring, regardless of background and disability, in the job description. Make sure that when conducting interviews, you represent diversity among the panel of interviewers as well as in potential employees.
2. Employee groups
Your employees are whole people, and they bring their entire selves to work every day. There is no way to separate work you and home you. Providing spaces where employees can gather with other people of their background, ethnicity, and/or who share certain interests are a way to make sure that people feel included and represented at work.
For example, you could create employee resource groups centered around being a female engineer or LGBTQ+ representation in the tech world. This creates a specific, safe place for people from underrepresented groups to feel less alone at work.
3. Inclusive leadership
Leaders set the pace for their organizations in more ways than one. Inclusive leadership boards make better decisions and are a powerful reminder to the rest of the company of the values the organization embodies.
Many people from underrepresented backgrounds are concerned about their ability to progress in their careers (that ever-present glass ceiling), so seeing someone they can relate to in the C-suite reassures them that your organization is a place where they can thrive.
Don’t try to build diversity on your own. Be transparent about your efforts and ask your teams for help. One person can’t see or fix everything by themselves.
Consider implementing regular meetings and feedback devices where your team can report on what they see, and what needs to be improved. They can then discuss in a neutral space any concerns they may have. Be sure you follow up by acknowledging their concerns and implementing meaningful changes.
Social justice issues are prevalent, and organizations can’t be quiet about where they stand. There’s possibly no faster way to lose the trust of your people than by putting out a statement that isn’t reflected in their day-to-day experience.
Take an unequivocal stance against racism, discrimination, sexism, prejudice, and harassment. These are human rights issues, not limited to special interest groups. Building an environment where people feel safe and valued means standing up for their rights.
6. Be vulnerable
A diverse workforce means diversity of thought. Ask people to contribute to the discussion, especially if they haven’t spoken up before. Remember, when a conversation becomes too homogeneous (in other words, when there is groupthink) it becomes harder for people to speak up with dissenting opinions.
Play your own devil’s advocate and discuss the pros and cons of your own ideas. This will demonstrate that you are interested in the best idea, not just the most popular one.
7. Do the research
Share the benefits of diversity with your team. Research continues to be done on the benefits of a diverse workplace. Across the board, employees are happier, healthier, stay longer, and produce more when they feel respected, valued, and included. Inclusivity builds trust within an organization.
Fostering diversity long term
Diversity isn’t just a conversation for others. Everyone has something that makes them different. Whether it’s a unique upbringing, educational background, way of thinking, or perspective on the world, we all bring our own strengths to the table. A diverse and inclusive organization is one that is at the forefront of innovation and social change.