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Diversity and Inclusion

The US workplace has undergone a dramatic demographic shift in the last few decades and continues to become increasingly diverse. In fact, statistics show that by 2050 there will be no racial or ethnic majority in the United States. Meanwhile, since the passage of Title VII in the 1960s, women have entered the workforce in record numbers and now comprise approximately 50 percent of all workers. Thus, recruiting a diverse workforce and building a diverse workplace should be top of mind for an employer today.

Below are some key tools and resources to help an employer build and maintain a diverse and inclusive workforce.

The Difference Between Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are distinctly different concepts. An employer may have a diverse workplace without having an inclusive one. Diversity is the collective mixture of differences and similarities, including individual and organizational characteristics, values, beliefs, experiences, backgrounds, preferences and behaviors. Diversity also includes various experiences, views and perspectives arising from differences in race, sex, religion, culture, national origin, abilities, age, sexual orientation, personal appearance (i.e., height, weight) and other characteristics, as well as work experience, educational status, marital status, geographic location, background, upbringing, socioeconomic status, politics, military experience and learning style.

On the flipside, inclusion is what the organization does through its actions and policies to ensure that all individuals feel welcome and valued as team members for the different skills and ideas that they offer. It is the steps the organization takes to support all individuals - to provide them with an equal voice and equal access to opportunities. In a diverse and inclusive workplace, all employees are focused on working together and equally contributing toward a common goal and participating in workplace projects.

While diversity is not required, federal, state or local laws promote a diverse workplace. Equal employment opportunity laws compel an employer to treat all individuals fairly and provide them with equal opportunities with respect to hiring, promotions, compensation, benefits, etc. based on merit, experience, skills, performance and qualifications. Such laws include Title VII (prohibiting discrimination based on race, religion, sex, color and national origin), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (prohibiting disability discrimination) and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) (prohibiting age discrimination). Affirmative action laws such as the Vietnam Era Veterans' Readjustment Assistance Act (VEVRAA) focus on groups that have historically suffered discrimination. Such laws require federal contractors to take affirmative action and provide minorities, women, veterans and individuals with disabilities with increased opportunities when it comes to hiring, advancement, promotion, training opportunities, compensation and termination.

Other laws provide protections for individuals of various backgrounds and support diversity efforts. For example, family and medical leave laws permit workers to take leave for a serious health condition or birth or adoption of a child, paid sick leave laws allow workers time off to care for themselves or family members when sick, and predictable scheduling laws provide workers with the right to request flexible working arrangements.

Hiring a Diverse Workforce

To create a diverse workforce, diversity efforts should be part of the recruiting and hiring process. An employer should aim to reach a wide variety of potential candidates by using the internet to reach beyond its immediate geographic area. Recruiting efforts should also be channeled through veterans' organizations, special interest groups, colleges and unemployment centers. Job ads and job descriptions should be carefully reviewed to ensure they are neutral and free of bias. An employer should also ensure that candidates are interviewed by a diverse panel, eliminate biased questions and aim to reduce unconscious bias. The focus should be on finding the right individual based on experience, skills and qualifications.

Policies that Support Diversity

An employer should make sure to develop, implement and enforce strong policies and practices that encourage diversity, tolerance and equal access to opportunities in the workplace. These policies also should be made part of an employee handbook.  They should detail what is considered illegal conduct and set forth the consequences for violations. The employer should also make sure that there is a multichannel complaint procedure allowing individuals to bring complaints to various members of management. Diversity should be incorporated into the corporate mission statement.

Employee Onboarding

It is important for an employer to make new hires feel welcome and part of the team. This includes providing orientation with respect to not only their job duties, responsibilities and expectations, but also the workplace culture and mission. An employer also should create a physically inviting space and emphasize an open-door policy by which complaints or concerns can be raised and addressed, as well as a tolerant atmosphere where differences are celebrated and accepted. Mentoring new hires is crucial, as it will permit them to adjust to the workplace seamlessly.

Reasonable Accommodations

Under federal, state and local laws, an employer may need to provide applicants and employees with a reasonable accommodation if doing so would not create an undue hardship for the employer. Reasonable accommodations may include:

  • Permitting an employee to take time off to observe religious, ethnic and cultural holidays and celebrations;
  • Allowing an employee to wear certain garments as part of their religious practice and worship; and
  • Providing an employee with a disability with equipment, tools or modifications so that they may perform the essential function of their job.

As a result, an employer should strongly consider requests for reasonable accommodations based on factors such as disability, religion, gender and sexual orientation and engage in a good-faith interactive process.

  • Provide reasonable accommodations based on disability, religion, sexual orientation etc. and other protected class statuses.

Harassment, Diversity and Sensitivity Training

Providing employees and supervisors with comprehensive harassment, diversity and sensitivity training is an important part of maintaining a diverse workplace. An employer needs to encourage employees to be tolerant, respectful and accepting of differences and value and support the opinions and ideas of others. Employees should be instructed avoid focusing on outward characteristics (i.e., accent, dress and appearance) and steer clear of snap judgments about others. An employer should emphasize civility and understanding in the workplace. The employer should attempt to expand employees' knowledge by increasing their exposure to different individuals and groups.