Everything You Need to Know About Diversity in the Workplace
Diversity is one of those buzzwords that make employers nervous. It seems wrapped up in legalities and current events, making it a topic businesses are cautious even talking about.
Yet there’s no need to see diversity as something troublesome. In fact, when you understand how to approach diversity, you’ll see it encompasses much more in your business than you previously thought.
What Is Diversity?
First, let’s get a handle on what diversity actually is. Diversity can be essentially broken down into two types:
- Inherent: Traits you are born with.
- Acquired: Traits you gain from experience.
It’s important to both understand these two types, as well as appreciate their importance, before getting too far into the discussion on diversity in the workplace.
The legal definition of diversity usually involves inherent diversity.
Executive Order 11246 lays out a legal guide for achieving diversity for businesses who are government contractors or subcontractors. It requires these employers to use affirmative action in their hiring process to prevent employers from discriminating against potential employees.
Most legal definitions of diversity tend to lean towards the inherent variety (e.g. race, gender) and, in turn, most debate and discussion often focuses solely on inherent diversity. Unfortunately, this ignores the value of acquired diversity, creating a lopsided approach.
You must, of course, follow all the laws in regards to diversity in your business, but don’t stop there or you’ll miss out on the powerful benefits of diversity that come with a broader brush.
A better definition of diversity includes acquired diversity.
Diversity, beyond the legal definition, is more than specific human characteristics than can easily be measured. It is about a variety of cultures being represented, including ethnic, generational, and social cultures. In an age where cultures and people are spreading across the globe, fewer and fewer regions are single culture anymore. Where your business is located, you have a customer base that reflects this.
Not only is diversity about a variety of cultures, though, but it is also about ideas. A strong workplace has a variety of ideology. This helps you not only connect with customers, but also avoids a kind of hive-mindset in which everyone thinks the same way and leaves your business open to weak spots.
Why Does Diversity In The Workplace Matter?
The reason I suggested that your approach to diversity in the workplace should be genuine and not just one where you are simply checking off boxes and making sure you’re complying with the law is because diversity is a powerful tool for growth in your business. If you learn to see how valuable diversity truly is, whether it’s required of you or not, you’ll understand why the legal definitions of diversity are only the minimum.
Diverse workplaces resist rot.
A diverse workplace is a strong workplace, in all regards, because there is variety.
Think about plants, for example. If every tomato grown around the world was the same exact tomato, there is a high susceptibility that disease will set in and wipe out the entire population of tomatoes. Diversity in genetics and varieties help to ward off such scenarios.
In the same way, a diverse workplace is where your employees have a broad range of inherent and acquired diversity, and that means that there is a larger pool of different ideas and lots of different perspectives to work with.
Sameness has limitations. Diversity is boundless. Sameness can move quickly towards destructive decisions. Diversity has a natural system of checks and balances.
Diverse workplaces are more flexible and innovative.
The more diversity you have, the more likely you’ll be able to weather challenges and bounce back during difficult situations. You will also be more innovative in how you approach problems.
Different cultures value different skills, for example. By having those cultures at your fingertips, you have employees who can respond and pivot as situations come up on the job.
Consider that there are markets out there that you might not know about or come close to understanding because they are not part of your culture or experience. Having diverse employees negates that problem. They can suggest, interpret, or give context to a customer base that you don’t understand.
Diversity promotes out-of-the-box thinking.
The more variety you have as far as experience and understanding of different cultures and ideas, the more your employees will be able to come up with solutions that defy being stuck in a rut. In other words, your team is more creative as a whole. This is because:
- They are bouncing ideas off of each other. Diverse ideas are the foundation to creative solutions. Each new idea is like a facet on a diamond, sending light in all directions. If everyone has the same idea, there is nothing new. The creative directions you head in are always the same.
- The are more likely to be heard. When there is a strong streak of sameness in your employees, those who are not a member of that group are heard 20% less than if there was a general sense of diversity. No one wants to feel like they are a minority, and speaking out from a position of such minority is difficult for many people. Diversity reduces the feeling of supermajority.
Diversity makes it easier to hire and keep employees.
Hiring is always a challenge. Diversity can make it easier.
A recent Glassdoor survey found that two-thirds of people saw diversity as a positive when making decisions about where they would work. Minority groups, especially, valued the presence of diversity in a workforce, as do younger generations. In that case, diversity creates and furthers more diversity. If you are always looking for ways to attract the best hires, particularly in tight job markets, having a diverse workplace is one of those positives that people look at when weighing whether or not to apply to work for you.
Not only does diversity attract new employees, though, but it can help keep your current ones. That same Glassdoor survey found that 57% of people thought their employers should be doing more to increase diversity. That’s 57% of people who want to see some improvement and who aren’t satisfied with how things are.
Additionally, workplaces where employees feel diversity isn’t encouraged (or, even worse, feel that discrimination is present) are places of high turnover. That makes sense, if you hink about it. If employees get the sense that “otherness” is not welcome, they start to feel unsure if they fit the profile of a desired employee or if they, too, shouldn’t just go work someplace else.
Creating Diversity In The Workplace
If your business is governed by state or federal laws in regards to diversity, of course you must follow those. Beyond that, though, you can encourage diversity in your business and among your employees.
Believe diversity is a good thing.
If you don’t view diversity as a good thing, you won’t be able to successfully use diversity in the workplace. If you push diversity on your employees simply because you have to instead of because you want to, it’s not going to work. It won’t work for you, it won’t work for your employees, and it won’t work for your business.
The first rule, then, is to honestly embrace the idea of diversity and believe in what it can do for your business.
Making diversity an integrated goal.
How do you make diversity a goal without destroying with clumsy and cold quotas in the process? You must genuinely integrate that goal into all aspects of your business.
If a manager or outside entity promotes diversity, but that mindset is not held by those further down the chain, diversity will always be forced and never be adopted. H. Naylor Fitzhugh, Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, suggests that the businesses that are the best at creating diversity in the workplace are those who don’t have specific departments to handle it. Instead, diversity is a part of every aspect of your business and not separate from it.
What might such an integrated goal look like, as far as practical considerations?
- Have a good mix of inherent and acquired diversity. While some larger businesses may have specific standards for their preferred mix of the two types of diversity, most workplaces don’t need such strict requirements. However, keeping both types in mind while hiring is a good idea. Don’t negate one type of diversity in favor of another.
- Take a higher view of experience than before. Some employers look at a resume or interviewee who has a mish mash of experience as a liability. Perhaps it comes off as unfocused. View lots of varied experience (life, work, travel) as important instead of a negative. Find ways to ask questions during hiring that discover this diversity. In all of those experiences you’re going to find a skill that will help your business in some way.
- Make sure there is diversity in management. The Glassdoor survey revealed that 41% of respondents felt their management was not diverse. It’s important to not think diversity is reserved only for employees, but that it should also reach up into management positions. If your management is not diverse, most attempts at diversity will be clumsy, forced, and unnatural. It is also not encouraging to employees to see that management is reserved for a specific type of person. Employees need to be able to visualize themselves as having the opportunity for promotion if you want them to stick around and not quit. If you don’t model diversity in management, this incentive is gone.
However you approach it, diversity should be as integral as a strong bottom line or innovative products. It needs to be a true characteristic of your business, and not just a something you tack on for appearances.
Understand that diversity is not just for legitimacy.
Some businesses use diversity as a way to connect with their customers. Outward diversity, especially, fits this bill. Businesses make sure they appear visually diverse so that customers who identify with that diversity will feel comfortable.
While there may be some validity to that, such an approach takes a rather weak look at what diversity can bring. Fitzhugh suggests that diversity is better used as a way to increase the “cultural competency” of your workforce rather than being a tool you use to pander to particular groups. If diversity is only used for cosmetic purposes, it can create internal problems since employees were hired based on exteriors and not with a true desire for diverse people, culture, and ideas.
Know that diverse workplaces can create conflict.
Diverse workplaces can be challenging to manage. Not everyone thinks or responds the same way. Situations that are nothing to one employee might mean much more to another. On top of the usual personality and work-style conflicts you deal with, you’ll also face cultural and contextual conflicts. These might include:
- Being offended by different actions, words, or gestures.
- Reacting to public shame differently.
- Responding to management differently (e.g. hierarchical vs. horizontal approaches).
- How to interpret the responses during employee reviews.
Every culture has a different response to authority, shame, reprimand, encouragement, and communication. The more diverse your workplace is, the more purposeful you’ll need to be to understand the cultures represented as well as the individual people who work within those cultures with their own unique personalities.
You may need to develop programs to train employees to harness their diversity as well as be sensitive to the different cultures at work. Make it easy (and private) for employees to raise questions or concerns about things that have to do with issues stemming from diversity. Keeping communication open, easy, and frequent is the only way to make diversity work. Anything else breeds conflict and frustration.
The key to diversity lies in how you look at it.
Do you see it as something you have to do because of the law, or because you want the appearance of being accepting of all kinds of people? Or do you want to benefit from the power that comes when diverse people are working towards a common goal, bringing all their skills and knowledge to the table? The latter approach is where diversity really benefits your business in the long-term.
If you can find value in different cultures, traits, ideology, and life experiences, you’re on the way to a stronger and more diverse workplace that grows your business.
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