Boosting Inclusion in Diversity Initiatives: Rowing with Both Oars

When a person in a row boat uses an oar from only one side of the boat, what happens? The boat just goes in a circle and very little forward motion is achieved. A rower must use the oars on both sides to progress towards his or her destination.

The same is true of diversity initiatives.

The goal of a diversity initiative is to foster a workplace culture that better reflects the diversity of customers and global markets, leading to mutual respect and understanding and a more productive workforce. These initiatives are premised on the idea that organizations are more effective when they leverage the views and abilities of employees of all backgrounds. But if employers make the assumption that increasing the diversity of the workforce will automatically translate into inclusion, these initiatives can end up going in circles and not making headway towards achieving their objective.

That is because diversity and inclusion are not the same thing. Each is a different “oar” in a diversity initiative rowboat. Diversity does not work without inclusion; an organization can reflect great diversity in its workforce and still not have an inclusive culture.

Defining Diversity and Inclusion

In general, diversity focuses on the full spectrum of differences and similarities between individuals. It goes beyond equal employment policies and includes other things such as work experiences, values and beliefs, life experience, personal preferences and behaviors.

Inclusion is what an organization does through its actions to ensure that individuals feel welcomed, supported and valued as members of the team. It defines the extent to which people from diverse backgrounds in a work environment feel welcomed, respected and supported, and are provided equal access to opportunities to contribute fully to the organization’s success.

Some dimensions of diversity include:

  • Age;
  • Disability;
  • Educational level;
  • Ethnicity/national origin;
  • Family status;
  • Gender and gender identity/expression;
  • Political viewpoint;
  • Race;
  • Religion, belief and spirituality;
  • Sexual orientation;
  • Social status and life experience; and
  • Veteran status.

Signs of an inclusive workplace include when:

  • The employer clearly values diversity;
  • Diverse employees feel included;
  • Equal opportunity for success are provide to all employees; and
  • Diverse employees feel comfortable, welcomed and valued.

Effects of Inclusion

Recognizing a problem of lack of inclusion can be difficult for an organization. People who are substantially alike usually communicate with and understand each other more easily while those with many differences face more obstacles to communicating effectively and reaching mutual understanding. Research also shows that people consistently overestimate their competence in understanding and handling cultural differences.

This can make recognizing a lack of inclusion difficult. And being inclusive can have a significant impact on an organization’s performance. A study by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) found that inclusive organizations are 45% more likely to grow their market base and 70% more likely to capture a new market. This is because diverse individuals are more tuned in to the unmet needs of consumers or clients like themselves.

Impact of Non-Inclusive Culture

A lack of inclusion can be a serious roadblock to a company’s innovation and growth potential. The CTI study found that 56% of employees said leaders at their companies don’t see value in ideas for which they personally don’t see a need. So if a leader lacks inclusive leadership skills, he or she is less likely to support ideas coming from diverse employees that identify unmet needs or solve critical business problems in the employee’s culture or community.

When inclusion is not a priority in an organization, employees with diverse backgrounds may hide or suppress part of their identity in an attempt to fit in with the organization’s dominant culture – a behavior known as “covering.”

A study on Latino’s reported that 76% of Latino employees try to suppress parts of their personality – such as their appearance, body language and leadership and communication style – in order to fit in with the traditional white, male executive presence of their workplace. And most felt that Latinos who suppressed their cultural differences were promoted more quickly. But the study noted that when Latinos repress who they are in order to rise into management, other Latino applicants and employees are motivated to look for employment elsewhere.

Failure to be inclusive also extends to employees with disabilities. Thirty percent of white-collar workers reported having an impairment that substantially limits a major life activity and qualifies as a “disability,” according to CTI research on disability and inclusion. Two-thirds of the respondents’ disabilities are considered “invisible” (such as lupus or Crohn’s disease, migraines, mood disorders, learning disabilities or developmental differences like autism).

And yet, only 21% of employees with disabilities said they would disclose their disability to HR. In fact, they often are counseled by family, friends and even employment lawyers to keep silent for fear of being discriminated against or excluded by their colleagues.

In David and Goliath, author Malcolm Gladwell pointed out that because traditional ways of doing things don’t always work for people with disabilities, they compensate by developing incredible ways to innovate that can benefit the workforce. Employees with disabilities self-identified as having persistence, discipline and willingness to commit, but feel employers don’t recognize these strengths or their potential.

In CTI’s disability survey, of the 75% of employees with disabilities who said they have market-worthy ideas, 48% reported that their ideas were ignored by people with the power to act on them, 57% felt stalled in their careers and 47% felt they would never achieve a position of power at their company, regardless of how qualified they are or how well they perform. That is a lot of untapped potential that a company loses by not being inclusive.

How to Improve Inclusion

Organizations can foster a more inclusive workplace culture by:

  • When hiring for “fit,” focusing on the organization’s mission and values;
  • Focusing on what an applicant or employee brings to the company based on his or her experience and how that advances the company’s goals, mission, sales and success;
  • Making an applicant or employee’s inclusion a goal, beginning with the hiring and onboarding process; and
  • Training leaders to be inclusive leaders.

Managers can help improve a company’s inclusion by:

  • Ensuring that all employees on their team speak up and are heard;
  • Making it safe to propose novel ideas;
  • Spreading important project assignments to all team members; and
  • Empowering team members to make decisions.

What other steps has your company used to be more inclusive? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.

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