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5 Truths about Diversity in the Workplace

julia-mendez-headshot-2
by 
Julia Mendez
on February 18, 2019

Julia Méndez (SHRM-CP, CAAP, PHR, CDP, CELS) has more than 20 years of experience assisting clients with OFCCP compliance reviews and offering technical assistance with Affirmative Action Plans and diversity programs. She’s responsible for creating and delivering client training on equal employment opportunity, affirmative action, diversity and inclusion, and other topics.

Find Julia's original article published on Affirmity.


As humans, we have an intrinsic need to answer the unanswered.

In unfamiliar situations, our brains act on implicit biases, making rapid assumptions of people. Of places. Of anything, really. All without us realizing.

Most of the time.

These assumptions infiltrate the workplace and considerably restrict positive growth toward diversity and inclusion. A further limitation is the public opinion about D&I—that it’s only for federal compliance.

How can we increase positive perceptions of D&I, plus improve negative opinions about diversity training?

By dispelling common myths.

So let’s take a look at 5 challenges facing HR leaders who are tasked with fostering workplace D&I and examine myths that may prevent organizations from effectively addressing those challenges.

By checking assumptions, organizations can develop and lead effective D&I initiatives that account for workplace realities and create space for positive behavior change to happen.

The Truth about Workplace Diversity

Challenge 1: Preparing a Diversity & Inclusion Plan

Managers face many unique difficulties when it comes to creating a D&I plan. They do, however, all have one thing in common: Figuring out where to start.

The first step is to acknowledge typical misconceptions, then research the evidence-based benefits of a diversity program. Only then can program managers build faith in and commitment to a D&I initiative.

Myth

Improving diversity and inclusion in the workplace is a one-off, simple initiative.

Truth

To truly foster a diverse workplace culture that’s inclusive of all employees isn’t an isolated effort. And definitely not the sort of task you’ll be able to quickly check off your to-do list.

Developing a strong D&I plan must be a concerted effort between leadership, managers, and most important, your employees. What they want from a diversity program and the input they offer should in part shape a training program unique to your organization’s and employees’ needs.

Diversity and inclusion is a living, breathing part of
your organization. So it should be planned, cultivated,
and maintained with thoughtful intention.

You may also like: 6 Examples of Workplace D&I: How Companies Get it Right

Challenge 2: Setting Achievable Goals

Effective goals for a diversity and inclusion program require current workforce data. Metrics used to assess those targets must align with an organization’s desired D&I program outcomes and business impact.

Myth

The ultimate goals for my organization’s diversity efforts are recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce.

Truth

Diversity and inclusion—often used interchangeably—vary in ways significant to their value: Diversity is about quantity and inclusion is about quality. A D&I program is a union between your diversity goals and resulting inclusive culture.

Your program needs measurable diversity goals that align with those of your organization. Each milestone you reach seeds the growth of an inclusive workplace.

To measure the progress of their D&I efforts, diversity program managers need accurate workforce data.

Prepare to share your program’s impact with stakeholders using a tool that allows you to

  • Monitor diversity goals through industry benchmarking
  • Analyze workforce insights to identify gaps and meet targets
  • Configure customized reports to demonstrate D&I program impact.

Rather than a condition you try to enforce, diversity should be a core strategy for achieving both workplace inclusivity and organizational goals.

Challenge 3: Providing Diversity Training and Resources That Motivate Change

Learn how to combat the pervasive belief that mandatory diversity training programs cause the opposite effect and impede diversity goals.

Myth

Mandatory training is only implemented to satisfy legal compliance. It decreases employee engagement, making participants more resistant to learning.

Truth

Yes, it’s true. As uninspiring as it may seem, federal contractors must comply with regulations set by the OFCCP and EEOC.

And that includes completing pay equity analyses, implementing an affirmative action program, and preparing affirmative action plans (AAPs).

While compliance is a key purpose
of diversity and inclusion programs,
it shouldn’t be the only objective.

It’s important that we first acknowledge the considerable amount of research debating the effects of requiring D&I training attendance—mandatory vs. voluntary.

Imposing required diversity training can come across as punitive, or imply that employees are the problem rather than a conduit for modeling positive attitudes and creating change.

So how can diversity program managers approach D&I initiatives that inspire and motivate participants and really move the needle toward workplace inclusivity?

Go beyond check-the-box-training. Arm managers with tools for educating employees about diversity training—then they’ll be prepared to engage participants in workshops that focus on awareness and nuances of diversity, such as

  • Microaggression
  • Unconscious bias
  • Respect in the workplace.
Also read: Start Before Day One: How Learning Can Inform Talent Acquisition

Challenge 4: Creating a Culture of Open Communication

What does it take to mitigate skeptical perceptions of D&I?

Conversations about challenging topics can be tough, so diversity program managers must acknowledge the possibility that some people might have reservations or feel uncomfortable. They should help support those who do.

Myth

When people have honest conversations about diversity, it opens the door to negative outcomes, such as anger, disrespect, aggressive confrontation, and unproductive debate.

Truth

Program managers can help stave negative outcomes by encouraging active listening, vulnerability, and nonconfrontational responses. Unfortunately, there won’t be consensus among participants or a direct path to success.

Leadership should lead a conversation. Companies that have a monologue-style communication strategy won’t promote a culture of open communication.

Leaders must support a two-way dialogue to
establish trust, transparency, and authenticity.

Your leadership communication process around diversity and inclusion should begin before you initiate a D&I program.

Unanticipated emails or meetings—about any type of controversial topic—can cause resistance or feelings of confusion. Rather, initiating a conversation ahead of time sets a respectful tone and emphasizes that leaders are invested in the well-being of their employees.

Explaining the importance of D&I programs ahead of time gives employees an opportunity to ask questions, reflect, and prepare. With understanding and respect, you can frame diversity initiatives constructively, which will help your organization advance its goal to create a culture of inclusion.

Challenge 5: Confronting Personal Biases

Taking time to uncover and acknowledge our unconscious biases and to question what reinforces them can be an uncomfortable process.

What is unconscious bias?

Below, Google introduces unconscious bias and how it affects employees and workplace culture.

Video: Google’s Unconscious Bias at Work—Making the Unconscious Conscious [3:58]

Myth

Our conscious and unconscious biases are results of our upbringing (i.e., hardwired into the brain), so we can’t control their effect on our attitudes and behaviors at work.

Truth

We all have biases—both positive ones (e.g., viewing your child as the most talented person in school) and negative ones (e.g., believing that people of a particular ethnicity are lazy).

Whether unconscious or not,
biases don’t mean we’re bad people.
They mean we’re human.

Our upbringing, education, faith, age, experiences, and media consumption do, to some degree, impact how we perceive others. Unconscious biases can extend to our workplace, too, manifesting throughout our day-to-day tasks, including

  • Recruiting and hiring
  • Compensation decisions and promotions
  • Interactions with colleagues
  • Treatment of customers.

Of the many ways diversity leaders and managers can design a D&I program, a pivotal component is to encourage employees to identify personal biases through training, such as unconscious bias workshops.

These kinds of interactive sessions prepare participants to recognize personal biases, accept assumptions and beliefs, grow awareness, and change behaviors. Because positive growth is possible.

Hand-picked for you: 4 Innovative Tactics Your Talent Management Strategy Needs

While many people continue to maintain family and community circles that are relatively homogenous, the workplace can be a powerful point of intersection.

In the words of Vernã Myers, inclusion strategist, author, and Harvard-trained lawyer, Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.

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