What diversity really means, and why it’s crucial in the workplace

July 19, 2022 - 16 min read

A diverse group collaborates at work

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What exactly are diversity and inclusion?

What are the 4 types of diversity?

Why do we need diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

What is diversity in the workplace?

Examples of diversity in the workplace

7 ways to promote workplace diversity and inclusion

Diversity has become something of a buzzword. However, organizations that simply look at diversity as a trend are missing out on the depth and value that a truly diverse and inclusive organization brings.

Diverse organizations are inherently happier, more productive, and more competitive in their industries.

But what does diversity actually mean?

It can seem like diversity means different things to different people to the extent that you might wonder, what is diversity, and does it have the same meaning at work? This article explains the concepts of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, including the types of diversity, why they're important, and how to promote a truly inclusive environment.

What exactly are diversity and inclusion?

Diversity is a term that refers to the variety of different perspectives represented on a team. While diversity is related to race and social justice issues, they are facets of a larger conversation. The term represents a broad range of experiences, including gender, sex, socioeconomic background, upbringing, religion, education, sexual orientation, gender identity, ethnicity, neurodiversity, and life experience.

Inclusion, on the other hand, means that every individual should have an equal opportunity to access education, resources, opportunities, or any other treatment based on the qualities that make them unique. 

Essentially, diversity and inclusion is a conversation about rewriting implicit bias — rooting it out wherever it exists and challenging the idea that different means inferior.

What are the 4 types of diversity?

The United Nations recognizes over thirty characteristics that represent diversity, but in truth, there are many more than that. Some are visible and some are not. Still, others are immutable parts of who we are, while some change many times over the course of our lives.  

Broadly speaking, there are four types of diversity: internal, external, organizational, and worldview. 

Internal diversity

Internal diversity refers to any trait or characteristic that a person is born with. These might include sex, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or physical ability. You may recognize many of these as protected characteristics — that is, attributes specifically covered under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

External diversity 

External diversity includes any attribute, experience, or circumstance that helps to define a person’s identity — but is not something that they were born with. Examples include socioeconomic status, education, marital status, religion, appearance, or location. These characteristics are often influenced by others and may change over time. They’re considered external since they can be consciously changed.

Organizational diversity

Differences in job function, work experience, seniority, department, or management level are referred to as organizational diversity. Often, entire departments or levels of a company can be homogeneous — that is, everyone looks the same, comes from the same background, or has the same experience. 

Worldview diversity

Finally, worldview diversity encompasses a broad range of beliefs, political affiliations, culture, and travel experiences. Our worldview, or our perspectives, contributes to an innovative, inclusive work environment that is forward-focused. Anything that influences the way we interpret and view the world is part of worldview diversity.

divers group shaking hands at work

Why do we need diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

The data show that diversity is good for business. The truth is a little more complicated. Diversity is good for business when the organization knows how to truly embrace, value, and make use of diversity in its leadership and workforce. Why? 

Because when managers and leaders know how to draw out diverse perspectives, build on them, and be inclusive of all the perspectives available on their teams, they get better ideas, question assumptions, identify blind spots, develop new approaches, and create better solutions. As a result, they see massive team innovation, performance, and growth.

Inclusive leader data chart

 

How diversity benefits the workplace

Diversity benefits organizations at all levels. Even beyond the moral imperative or a sense of fairness, the business case for investing in diversity is clear. Studies have shown that groups of people that are diverse in gender, race, and age perform better, make better decisions, and experience more profitability. 

Here are a few more ways that diversity benefits the workplace: 

  • Inclusive organizations produce better leaders. A diverse team is the best kind of challenge for a new manager, who will naturally have to learn a wide range of communication and motivation styles to be successful in their role. 

Diversity in organizations keeps upper-level managers in touch with what’s happening in the company and opens clear communication from grassroots-level team members.

Diversity prevents groupthink at work

Avoiding groupthink is one of the biggest benefits of workplace diversity.

First documented in 1971, groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals avoid disagreeing with a group or expressing doubt. The larger and more similar the group, the less likely individuals are to dissent. 

Why? On one hand, individuals may feel such a strong group identification that it feels uncomfortable or threatening to disrupt the group consensus. Group norms and behaviors form and solidify quickly because they seem to share so much in common.  

Even groups with the best intentions can fall prey to groupthink. Irving Janis, the psychologist who first researched group decision-making, found that behavior such as bullying, rationalizing, and lapses in moral judgment were more likely under these circumstances.

Having a diverse team provides access to a wider range of skill sets and experiences and different ways of thinking, behaving, and communicating. This facilitates the growth of new ideas and reduces groupthink.

What is diversity in the workplace?

The definition of diversity in the workplace goes further than having representation from different races. While it is crucial for any organization to develop a team with ethnic diversity, focusing on just one characteristic can quickly begin to seem inauthentic. In fact, it may further isolate members of that community, especially when that diversity is thought of only as a visible or superficial identifier. 

Truly diverse and inclusive organizations don’t just have people that “look like” members of an underrepresented group. They pay attention to — and value — the differences that we can’t see, like economic background, immigration status, neurodiversity, and education.

Diversity in the workplace means having a workforce inclusive of different backgrounds and national origins. It means gender, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity — and beyond. It also means that the organization fosters a sense of belonging that makes everyone feel like they are part of the team.

diverse workplace team collaborating

Examples of diversity in the workplace

There are many examples of diversity (and lack of) in the workplace. Homogeneity can be in the eye of the beholder. It’s worth taking a moment and asking: what does diversity mean to you in a given situation? 

People often fall into an unconscious habit of thinking of diversity in only one or two dimensions. But depending on the situation, you can almost always find a way to increase the level of diversity on a team, on a decision, in planning, or in a conversation.

Here are some examples of all the different levels of diversity you can see at work:

  • The first level of diversity (that we almost take for granted now) is cross-functional representation. If you look around and only see engineers, you know that is a problem. 
  • The team is tasked with developing a product for a national market. That’s tough to do if, on the next level, there’s a lack of gender and racial diversity.
  • What about socioeconomic status? In most professional situations, everyone has achieved a similar band of income and economic security which can lead to a loss of perspective on value, pricing, and relevance. 
  • How about educational background? Does everyone come from one or two schools? Has anyone worked their way up through a community college or other means? 
  • Do they share the same work experience? This is particularly an issue in large firms that have very structured career tracks.
  • Is everyone currently in the same city? Did they all grow up in similar environments despite coming from across the globe? Different groups from different geographic areas are important, even if everyone is from the same country.

 7 ways to promote diversity and inclusion

Changing the culture of a workplace is challenging but rewarding work. Many shy away from it because they don’t know where to start or aren’t sure that they’re doing it right. If an organization has previously tried — and failed — to implement a diversity initiative, they may decide that such initiatives don’t work or that the benefits are no longer worth the effort.

However, there will never not be a demand for inclusive and diverse workplaces. Now is always a good time to start, but if previous efforts failed, the organization needs to take a different approach. 

Here are 7 ways to start examining — and shifting — your workplace to a more inclusive one:

1. Hiring practices 

Ensure diversity in your hiring and recruiting practices by making sure that you are looking at talent from all backgrounds. Don't needlessly apply barriers to entry in the hiring process, like advanced degrees, expensive certifications, or experience with certain firms. 

Restate your organization's commitment to inclusive hiring, regardless of background and disability, in the job description. Make sure that when conducting interviews, you represent diversity among the panel of interviewers as well as in potential employees. 

2. Employee groups

Your employees are whole people, and they bring their entire selves to work every day. There is no way to separate work you and home you. Providing spaces where employees can gather with other people of their background, ethnicity, and/or who share certain interests are a way to make sure that people feel included and represented at work. 

For example, you could create employee resource groups centered around being a female engineer or LGBTQ+ representation in the tech world. This creates a specific, safe place for people from underrepresented groups to feel less alone at work.

3. Inclusive leadership

Leaders set the pace for their organizations in more ways than one. Inclusive leadership boards make better decisions and are a powerful reminder to the rest of the company of the values the organization embodies

Many people from underrepresented backgrounds are concerned about their ability to progress in their career (that ever-present glass ceiling), so seeing someone they can relate to in the C-suite reassures them that your organization is a place where they can thrive.

4. Transparency 

Don't try to build diversity on your own. Be transparent about your efforts and ask your teams for help. One person can't see or fix everything by themselves. 

Consider implementing regular meetings and feedback devices where your team can report on what they see, what needs to be improved, and discuss in a neutral space any concerns they may have. Be sure you follow up by acknowledging their concerns and implementing meaningful changes.

5. Allyship

Social justice issues are prevalent, and organizations can’t be quiet about where they stand. There's possibly no faster way to lose the trust of your people than by putting out a statement that isn't reflected in their day-to-day experience. 

Take an unequivocal stance against racism, discrimination, sexism, prejudice, and harassment. These are human rights issues, not limited to special interest groups. Building an environment where people feel safe and valued means standing up for their rights. 

6. Be vulnerable

A diverse workforce means diversity of thought. Ask people to contribute to the discussion, especially if they haven't spoken up before. Remember, when a conversation becomes too homogeneous (in other words, when there is groupthink) it becomes harder for people to speak up with dissenting opinions. 

Play your own devil's advocate and discuss the pros and cons of your own ideas. This will demonstrate that you are interested in the best idea, not just the most popular one.

7. Do the research

Share the benefits of diversity with your team. Research continues to be done on the benefits of a diverse workplace. Across the board, employees are happier, healthier, stay longer, and produce more when they feel respected, valued, and included. Inclusivity builds trust within an organization.

Moving forward 

Diversity isn’t just a conversation for others. Everyone has something that makes them different. Whether it's a unique upbringing, educational background, way of thinking, or perspective on the world, we all bring our own strengths to the table. A diverse and inclusive organization is one that is at the forefront of innovation and social change.

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Published July 19, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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