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

June 1, 2021 - 14 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 does diversity look like in the workplace?

7 ways to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace

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, ethnicity, neurodiversity, and life experience.

Inclusion, on the other hand, means that individuals should not be denied access to 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 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 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.

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. 

Finally, worldview diversity encompasses a broad range of beliefs, political affiliation, culture, and travel experience. 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 world view diversity.

Why do we need diversity and inclusion in 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 that are diverse in gender, race, and age perform better, make better decisions, and earn more revenue. 

According to a study by Josh Bersin and Deloitte, inclusive companies are almost twice as likely to be considered innovation leaders in their market. Similarly, a large study of European firms found that those with a larger share of women in senior positions have significantly higher financial performance, especially in high-tech and other sectors where critical thinking, creativity, and knowledge work matter. 

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 the 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 blindspots, develop new approaches, and create better solutions. As a result, they see massive team innovation, performance, and growth. 

Inclusive organizations produce better leaders, as well. 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.

Inclusive leader data chart

Don’t fall into the trap of equating diversity with race (or gender). While it is crucial for any organization to develop a team that represents people of all ethnic backgrounds, 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.

What is 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 a few examples: 

Diversity on a product development team. The more organizations are trying to serve and create value for a diverse set of customers and customer needs, the more they need multidimensional diversity in their teams. 

  • 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. It’s easy to look around and see whether a team is dominated by one gender or one race. Unless the product really only aspires to serve that homogenous market, that’s a problem. 
  • What about socio-economic status? In most professional situations, everyone has achieved a similar band of income and economic security that 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? 

Groupthink. 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.  On the other hand, all of the individuals in the group might share such a similar set of experiences that they share the same blindspots and the same lack of awareness of their blindspots. 

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.

 7 ways to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace

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 won't ever 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 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 everyday. 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.

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 under-represented 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

Diversity and teams 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.

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 on the forefront of innovation and social change.

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Published June 1, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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