The Dangers Of Mistaking Diversity For Inclusion In The Workplace
Updated: Sep 1, 2020
By Dana Brownlee
September 15, 2019
This article is the first in a series focused on Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace. Please note that references to minorities within the article are meant to refer to any underrepresented groups within an organization.
These days there’s an alphabet soup of terms focused on encouraging fairness in the workplace. Most organizations have a senior level executive of Equity, Engagement, Culture, Belonging, Fairness etc., but the most common phrase is “Diversity and Inclusion” (D&I) – which sounds great, but what does it really mean? Are these concepts similar, complementary, or different? The truth is that too many companies make the mistake of assuming that diversity and inclusion are synonymous or that one automatically implies the other…and that mistake is arguably a risky one. In fact, Gallup’s 2018 report “3 Requirements for a Diverse and Inclusive Culture” highlights the importance of acknowledging D&I as two very different concepts. The report concludes, “Gallup's research indicates recognizing that diversity and inclusion are very different things is the first step in the journey toward creating a uniquely diverse and inclusive culture.”
Indeed, diversity and inclusion sound pretty similar, but the truth is that they connote quite different concepts. The 2018 Gallup report defines diversity as “the full spectrum of human differences.” Dimensions of diversity might include visible traits like age, gender, disability and ethnic background or invisible traits like socio economic status, marital status and sexual orientation. Lori George Billingsley, Chief Diversity Officer for the Coca-Cola Company defines diversity as “the differences you can see or describe in people.” In essence, workplace diversity connotes just what we think it does – having a workplace that represents different types of people and backgrounds. Joni Davis, Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer for Duke Energy further explains, “We want our workplace to reflect the communities we serve.”
Diversity vs. Inclusion
The 2018 Gallup report asserts, “Inclusion refers to a cultural and environmental feeling of belonging. It can be assessed as the extent to which employees are valued, respected, accepted and encouraged to fully participate in the organization.” Contrary to what some may assume, diversity doesn’t necessarily imply inclusion. In fact, the Harvard Business Review article “Diversity Doesn’t Stick Without Inclusion” focuses on this distinction. The article asserts, “Part of the problem is that ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ are so often lumped together that they’re assumed to be the same thing. But that’s just not the case.” For example, while adding women to the board or promoting more people of color might enhance diversity, it doesn’t necessarily change the culture of the organization or ensure that these underrepresented groups will feel fully included and valued. Davis uses the analogy, “Diversity speaks to who is on the team, but inclusion focuses on who is really in the game.”
Society of Human Resource Management CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. shares an interesting observation on the state of D&I initiatives in many organizations. “Honestly, most companies have reached increased levels of diversity. Inclusion is where most companies are focusing these days. In fact, some are swapping the D&I label for I&D to reflect their focus on inclusion.” His observations speak to the real difference between the two – and the inherent fallacy in assuming that one automatically implies the other. In fact, some would argue that the differences aren’t subtle and failing to understand those differences can be a grievous and potentially costly error.
The Dangers of Achieving Diversity Without Inclusion
Indeed, many organizations add a few women or people of color to a board or executive team and feel they’ve checked the box and can return to business as usual. That mentality is arguably naïve, misguided and truly dangerous because there are real risks associated with focusing primarily on diversity and largely ignoring inclusion. The aforementioned Harvard Business Review article concludes, “In the context of the workplace, diversity equals representation. Without inclusion, however, the crucial connections that attract diverse talent, encourage their participation, foster innovation, and lead to business growth won’t happen.”
Let’s explore some of the very real risks organizations face when they achieve diversity but not inclusion.
Inhibiting Psychological Safety
When Google conducted a study aimed at understanding what makes their teams effective, the results showed the number one factor for team success is psychological safety. Their report “The five keys to a successful Google team” asserts, “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.” The study explains psychological safety with the question “Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed? Organizations with high levels of psychological safety are generally regarded as those where team members feel free to speak up, ask questions, and make suggestions without fear of retribution or concern that their comments might damage their relationships or reputation. Inclusion seems to be an important if not necessary element for creating an environment of psychological safety. After all, can team members feel psychological safety without first feeling a sense of authentic belonging and inclusion? The latter seems to be a necessary ingredient for the former.
Creating a False Sense of Security
Since “non minorities” typically benefit from a default sense of inclusion, they’re often not aware that others may feel uncomfortable or excluded. As a result, when the composition of the organization changes to bring more diversity, it’s easy for leadership to fall into a false sense of security and assume the company has achieved major strides when the reality may be that they’ve only taken a first step.
Missing opportunities for enhanced business performance
It’s widely acknowledged that organizations pursue diversity and inclusion not just for ethical reasons, but also to realize enhanced business results and better financial performance. Arguably, the potential for enhanced innovation and business results is significantly handicapped without the realization of systemic inclusion. If there’s diversity in the organization, but those people don’t feel free to speak up, they’re not actively engaged decision makers or they don’t feel a true sense of belonging and therefore don’t passionately advocate on behalf of the organization, the boost to business performance will be limited at best.
Risking the Perception of Tokenism
The uncomfortable truth is that diversity without inclusion may be perceived as “tokenism” which can ignite a negative boomerang effect on the most well intentioned organizations. Indeed, those individuals from underrepresented communities placed in positions of senior leadership (or other areas previously lacking diversity) often feel like tokens once they realize that they may be “on the team,” but they’re not really “in the game.” What does that really mean? Possibly, they have a position of leadership but realize that they may still not wield the same influence as their majority counterparts. They may feel physically included but continue to feel like an outsider. They may realize that while there are members of underrepresented groups in leadership positions, the organizational culture has not shifted to embrace and fundamentally value those communities.
Organizations may invite underrepresented groups to participate on a board or leadership team and once those new invites realized they’re only tokens, they abruptly leave oftentimes with more disgust and frustration than they had previously. The organization is consequently worse off because they now have an even smaller pool of underrepresented minorities to approach to enhance their diversity profile, and they have a steeper hill to climb to strive to fully integrate these underrepresented groups into the fabric of the organizational culture.
In short, diversity in these cases may be seen as an attempt at a band aid or quick fix for systemic challenges that have not been fundamentally addressed. Lori George Billingsley shares that, “Inclusion is so much harder to achieve and measure because it’s more about a mindset.” Indeed, some organizations make the mistake of settling for checking the box of diversity without making the significant commitment to achieving true inclusion. They do so at their own peril as this short sighted approach can create enhanced levels of organizational tension, frustration and disappointment.
If diversity is a sprint, inclusion is a marathon. Each requires different training, conditioning and commitment.