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Surface-level diversity isn’t enough: Why you should dig deeper

August 13, 2021 - 13 min read


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What does diversity mean in the workplace?

What are the levels of diversity in the workplace?

Diversity goes deeper than the surface

The benefits of having a truly diverse workplace

How to promote deep-level diversity

It’s easy for well-intentioned organizations to fall into the trap of only thinking of diversity in one or two ways (usually the ways they report it). But focusing on creating surface-level diversity doesn’t really benefit your company — and, in fact, it can hurt your company culture.

The trouble is, how do you create a diverse environment without hiring based on surface-level demographics? How do you get beneath the surface when you can only see what’s skin-deep?

What does diversity mean in the workplace?

Diversity is a term that represents a broad range of experiences, such as gender, sex, socioeconomic background, upbringing, physical abilities, religion, philosophy, education, sexual orientation, ethnicity, neurodiversity, and life experience.

Often, diversity across any of these dimensions has to be deliberately assembled. To maintain it requires intentional cultivation.

Systemic racism, implicit biases, and societal inequities make it difficult for people who differ from an organization's core to be hired, regardless of their aptitude or potential to excel in the role. If they are hired, these surface-level characteristics often become the basis for stereotyping our colleagues in the workplace.

The more visible the difference, the more likely it is that a person will be misjudged, overlooked, or discriminated against in some way.

As leaders recognize the benefits of diversity in the workplace — and the negative implications of not having diversity — this is beginning to shift. It’s no longer acceptable to “hire to the brochure” — in other words, to hire individuals because they make the company look diverse. The effects of surface-level practices, whether well-meaning or not, ultimately make people feel “othered” and reduce their sense of belonging — which is a fast track towards pushing them out the door. These types of practices can also create cynicism across the organization, making it harder to achieve a truly diverse and inclusive environment.  a-man-looks-uncomfortable-surface-level-diversity

What are the levels of diversity in the workplace?

There are several different types of diversity in the workplace, and they can be broadly divided into three levels. The first is, of course, surface-level diversity, which are the characteristics that are readily visible. Those may include age, race, sex, gender diversity, visible disabilities, and body size.

Deep-level diversity includes non-observing characteristics — that is, traits that are not visible. These include attitudes, values, and religious beliefs. They are similar to hidden diversity in that they aren’t distinguishable visually. Traits that can be concealed or revealed at the individual’s discretion, like sexual orientation, invisible disabilities, health status, neurodiversity, immigration status, and economic background, are hidden as well as deep-level.

Diversity goes deeper than the surface

Deep diversity represents the unique aspects of a person that you cannot see, including how multiple aspects of diversity interact within a person. This is also known as intersectionality.

Put simply, people — including their experiences, perspectives, and values — cannot be reduced to a single characteristic or idea. Each person, for all of our shared traits, is still a unique combination of experiences and opportunities, traits and talents, aspirations and challenges. Human resources and recruiting teams should be especially mindful of this, as multiple identities can often compound the barriers that a person may face in finding employment and asserting their worth.

This intersectionality, though, also provides richness and depth to the culture of a workplace. This is especially true when that intersectionality is recognized, understood, and celebrated among the company’s leadership. In both attitude and action, inclusive leaders set the tone for each person on their team to feel seen, valued, and respected.

Affirming and celebrating deep diversity is crucial to creating an environment where all employees can thrive.

The benefits of having a truly diverse workplace

Creating diverse — truly diverse — workplaces isn’t optional. The world is diverse. The markets most companies serve are diverse and so is the future talent pool. Given that, as one article puts it, “Intersectionality in the workplace isn’t a ‘nice to have’ — it’s essential.

Whether it's women on the Board, greater representation in management, or more diverse experiences among team members, research has shown that more diversity is better than less. When the organization knows how to truly embrace, value, and make use of the diversity in its leadership and workforce, diversity is good for business. 

Diverse groups have some key advantages in the following areas:

  • Productivity

When employees have a sense of belonging, it's easier for them to perform at an optimal level. Psychological safety helps them avoid stressors that keep them from doing their best. Inclusive workplaces also experience lower turnover rates and higher job satisfaction. That means that they retain their best talent and spend less time looking to replace unhappy staff — which naturally has a positive effect on team performance.

  • Engagement

When employees feel like they don’t belong, they won’t bring their full selves to work. They feel less comfortable sharing ideas or giving feedback. Interpersonal interaction suffers, which affects the comfort and productivity of the entire work group. When group members feel valued and welcome, however, they are able to thrive. They have less conflict, less stress, and feel more satisfied with the work they do.

  • Innovation

The broader the pool of individuals, experiences, and perspectives, the more an organization has to draw from. More diversity means more creativity, ideas, and resources. One study by Josh Bersin and Deloitte found that inclusive companies are twice as likely to be considered innovation leaders. Inclusive organizations also produce better, more agile leaders. Their experience makes them better at decision making and comfortable working with a wide range of people and communication styles. 

  • Competition

The business case for investing in a diverse workforce is clear. Groups that are more diverse perform better, make better decisions, and earn more revenue. Especially in certain industries, like tech, that are historically homogeneous, cultivating deep-level diversity will help your company differentiate itself and attract the best talent.


How to promote deep-level diversity

Workforce diversity isn’t just about what you can see. Everyone has something that makes them different. Intersectionality, the heart of deep diversity, celebrates and creates space for those differences. In the most innovative and creative organizations, diversity is a secret weapon. The best ideas come from those with different backgrounds and perspectives working together to create solutions.

Research shows that when deep-level diversity is cultivated, retention and productivity rise. Employees are happier, healthier, and more creative when they feel respected, valued and included. Managers and leaders benefit from working with better ideas, broader perspectives, and better solutions.

Here are 7 ways to promote deep-level diversity within your workplace:

  • Examine your hiring practices

There is no diversity effort that doesn’t start with hiring and recruiting diverse talent. Restate your organization's commitment to inclusive hiring in the job description. This affirmation may encourage people from underrepresented backgrounds to apply. 

Make sure that when conducting interviews, your commitment to diversity is represented among interviewers as well as candidates. 

  • Connect people through storytelling

Matthew Harris, Partner at Bain & Company and LGBTQ+ champion, stressed the importance of stories in building inclusion in a livestream conversation with BetterUp. People express their authentic selves — their whole selves — through stories. Sharing them, Harris says, increases awareness, compassion, and understanding

  • Celebrate and highlight diverse leadership

For diversity initiatives to be successful, they have to be modeled, recognized, and celebrated by the organization's leaders. Inclusive leadership represents and reinforces the commitment the organization has to deep diversity. Leaders who share their own experiences about intersectionality in the workplace make it easier for others to open up as well. 

  • Speak up about social justice issues

Your team can’t feel safe unless they know you have their back. Embracing diversity means taking a stand on social justice issues. Appoint inclusion and diversity management, and make sure that you create space for people to share how they feel about current events. Be uncompromising in your stance against racism, discrimination, sexism, prejudice, and harassment. 

  • Take a whole-person approach

People thrive when they bring their whole selves to work. No one is just “one thing.” Create safe spaces where employees can gather in groups with other people of their background, ethnicity, and interests. These groups, often called employee resource groups (ERGs) celebrate, welcome, and support the person as a whole.

  • Get a coach

Embedding deep diversity and inclusion into your workplace isn’t an overnight job. It requires macro and micro — surface and subconscious — change. Working with a coach can help you confront implicit biases, prejudices, and assumptions. These unconscious thoughts we all have can make it difficult to develop the environment we want to see at work. A coach can also facilitate larger conversations geared towards changing organizational behavior.

BetterUp’s approach to developing deep diversity is more impactful than traditional DEIB investments. We employ a diverse, highly skilled, global network of coaches. Through group and individual experiences, these coaches bring insight and expertise to support inner work and offer pragmatic tactics personalized to the individual manager or employee. By working simultaneously on both fronts, this type of development can have a measurable impact.

  • Embrace productive friction

As your work teams grow, you’ll welcome people from all backgrounds with all kinds of experiences, beliefs, and ways of interacting with the world. This is fertile ground for creative ideas, problem-solving, and innovation. It’s also (likely) a space where ideas and assumptions will collide and conflict.

When a company or team is actively engaged in trying to be more inclusive and diverse, it can seem like smoothing over any friction is the right thing to do. But if you get rid of friction, you won't benefit from diversity. Cultivating and working with this type of conflict takes some practice, as well as trust and psychological safety.

Even though many people are uncomfortable navigating disagreements, constructive conflict should be welcome. Conflict is constructive when it is based on the ideas and approaches brought to the table rather than the identity or demographics of the person who brings it. It’s a sign of a healthy, growing, thriving environment where differences have value and are celebrated.

For a company to be truly diverse, it has to welcome and honor all kinds of differences — both surface level and hidden. It’s not enough to stop at surface-level diversity. Finding people who challenge you, your way of thinking, and your preconceptions is the key to creating an environment that really feels inclusive. People want to be accepted and celebrated for all of who they are, and deserve to be recognized as a whole person each and every day.

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Published August 13, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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