5 Workplace Diversity Mistakes Your Organization May be Making

“You’ve come a long way baby”

Although this line is from what now can is considered a very sexist and completely un-PC cigarette ad from the 1960s, the same applies to workplaces today with respect to diversity. Since the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights in 1964, our society has made tremendous strides and many workplaces have become much more diverse than they were back in the “Mad Men Era”.

Many professions have substantially increased the number of women, minorities, individuals with disabilities and individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. There is also a greater willingness to hire individuals with caregiving responsibilities and offer employment to veterans reentering the workforce.

But as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day this month, we must take note that too much discrimination and intolerance still pervades the workplace today. In fact, a recent news story reveals claims that a black supervisor at a GM plant in Ohio was subject to racist comments, slights and threats, as white workers::

• Declared bathrooms for “whites only”;
• Wore Nazi symbols underneath their uniforms; and
• Hung nooses threatening violence and intimidation.

He further claimed that he was denounced as “boy” and ignored by subordinates. The black supervisor alleges that he was treated differently from the start and that when he complained to upper management, he was told to deal with it himself and be happy he was employed. Although GM vehemently denied the discrimination and harassment allegations, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found that GM allowed a racially hostile environment to exist following a nine-month investigation.

This situation illustrates that much more can be done to address underlying tensions and deep-rooted prejudices. Here are some examples of mistakes an employer can make when it comes to achieving a more diverse and inclusive workplace.

1. Your Workplace Is Diverse, But Not Inclusive

In the present workplace climate, it is not enough to be diverse on paper and employ individuals from different backgrounds. Your workplace must also be inclusive.

Diversity includes various experiences, views and perspectives arising from differences in race, sex, religion, culture, national origin, age, sexual orientation, and other characteristics.

Conversely, inclusion focuses on the actions an employer takes to bring employees into the fold and whether these employees feel integrated, instead of isolated. In an inclusive workplace, all employees feel comfortable and respected as if they have an equal seat at the table. All individuals also feel welcome and valued as team members for the different skills and ideas that they offer.

In a diverse and inclusive workplace, all employees are focused on working together and contributing equally toward a common goal. An inclusive workplace culture can be created and maintained through policies and practices set by the employer.

2. There Is Too Much Unconscious Bias in Your Hiring Process

In order to create and maintain a truly diverse workplace, an employer needs to root out unconscious bias, particularly with regard to the recruiting and hiring process. Unconscious bias refers to an individual’s preexisting attitudes that may, however unwittingly, influence his or her judgment or actions.

With respect to job advertisements and job descriptions, employers should use neutral language and avoid language that inadvertently indicates a preference based on gender, age, national origin or another characteristic protected under state or federal law. For instance, instead of advertising for waitresses, a gender-neutral term such as “food servers” or “wait staff” should be used. Other types of descriptive words in a job ad, such as “up and coming,” “energetic” or “active” may have the effect of deterring qualified older applicants from applying.

Because there may be a tendency to seek out individuals with similar experiences, it is important to have a recruiting team that is diverse insofar as gender, racial makeup or life experiences to expand the pool of applicants meriting serious consideration. In part for this reason, it’s a bad idea to rely solely on word of mouth recruiting as this may reinforce a lack of diversity in the workplace.

Further, an employer should consider blind recruiting methods and using software programs that remove personal identifiers, such as an applicant’s name, gender and age, from their resume as this may also reduce the risk of unconscious hiring bias. An employer also may want to put off engaging in social media research to avoid learning more personal and private information about an applicant’s protected characteristics.

3. The Whole Workplace Is Not On Board

In order to truly make diversity and inclusion a workplace priority, there must be a comprehensive commitment from senior management that is directly tied to business goals.

Diversity needs to become part of the employer’s mission statement and corporate policy. The distinct value in having a diverse workplace includes:

• Increased ability to serve customers of different cultures, religions and backgrounds;
• Increased sales and profits and access to a more diverse marketplace;
• Finding the best talent possible regardless of background;
• Higher productivity and efficiency; and
• Improving an employer’s brand and public image.

What’s more, employees from different backgrounds bring different ideas with regard to problem solving to the table. Senior managers and those in positions of authority need to understand the link between diversity and business goals and understand how diversity and inclusion can benefit the organization. Only then can true change occur.

4. Your Organization Is Steering Individuals into Particular Positions

While statistics show that workplaces are becoming increasingly diverse, organizations often engage in a more subtle form of discrimination and “steer” individuals belonging to a protected class (i.e., sex, race, religion, national origin, caregiver etc.) to positions with lower long-term potential and decreased opportunities for growth and advancement. For example, when assigning cases, the partner in a law firm may avoid providing a new mother with a big case that is certain to go to trial because of her caregiving responsibilities.

An employer also engages in steering if it assigns a Sikh worker who wears a turban to a behind-the-scenes position at a hotel or store believing that customers may be turned off by the Sikh’s appearance. To overcome this, an employer needs to make sure that each employee or job applicant is evaluated on the merits as to their qualifications, skills, education and experience. Make sure to avoid making snap judgments or engaging in unlawful stereotyping based on race, sex, national origin, religion, etc.

5. Too Much Is Sliding By

In today’s workplace, an employer and HR need to send a clear message that words and actions matter. This starts with developing and enforcing strong policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and abusive conduct, but it goes further and requires comprehensive training on discrimination, harassment, sensitivity and diversity. Additional training should be provided on bullying and abusive conduct.

An employer should emphasize and reinforce civility and understanding in the workplace. This includes expanding employees’ knowledge by increasing their exposure to different individuals and groups.

As we are witnessing renewed racial tensions in society and the rise of the #MeToo movement, an employer needs to warn employees and supervisors about offhanded comments, ethnic and sexist slurs, harassing behavior and communications intended to be jokes that have real power to harm.

An employer should further stress that it has voluntary open door policy encouraging employees to speak up before workplace issues escalate and turn into costly lawsuits. That’s why it’s important to implement a multichannel complaint procedure and a hotline allowing employees to bring complaints to various members of management.  An employee needs to know that the employer will respond and will not retaliate.

If confronted with a complaint, the employer should document it, gather evidence and take care to interview all parties. It also should not hesitate to take remedial, interim disciplinary measures which may include separating individuals or enhancing workplace training. Like so many companies today, an employer should not be afraid to call out an individual for bad behavior, regardless of their position in the organization, as all should be held accountable.


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