Diversity vs. Inclusion in the Workplace

What's in a Name?

Diversity and Inclusion at Mission

Upon returning from The 10th Annual Summit on Leading Diversity held in Atlanta March 16 - 18, I was struck by how fast the workforce diversity "lingo" changes between those of us in the field of diversity and inclusion, D&I, as it is now referred to among colleagues and peers. These conferences are specifically held for other diversity and inclusion personnel to network and share what is new and exciting in the field. Having said that, new ways of thinking about workplace D&I are constantly shifting paradigms, and new ways of thinking are ever evolving.

At one time in the not so distant past, the words diversity and inclusion were thought to be synonymous. Not so anymore. Diversity is not the same as inclusion. Achieving diversity is not the same as ensuring that the mixture reflects the total population of potential members. Diversity is about openness to differences in attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors. The word inclusion used to be more frequently used to mean representation, and is an exercise in arithmetic. In other words, we strive to have some representatives from all categories, in some kind of proportion. Up until now many companies have understood workforce diversity this way and have used affirmative action programs as their usual means of achieving it.

Representation, per se, does not guarantee true diversity. To say "diversity" and mean "representation" may confuse the issue.

For example, some members recently "cycled off" of Mission's Diversity Committee. One was a member who is from a particular ethnic minority. It would be nice to have another employee from this group on board but to rush out "to find someone" would be only be representation. What we want to do is make sure our committee is an inclusive and welcoming one and if and when a person from that group is interested and available we will fill that position.

Here¹s another example. Say there is a unit dominated by male employees and we really need more female representation. The obvious move would be to hire a woman. But is the environment going to be inclusive enough for her to be comfortable, and to grow and advance? Ideally, we would hire more than one qualified woman in the department. See? We are working on the inclusion piece of the equation so that we can retain the talent that we need.

A major contributor to the confusion about what workplace diversity means is that many Americans feel that workplace diversity is about addressing past historical inequities. This is not to say that if some historical inequities are dealt with that this is a bad thing. Yet the truth of the matter is that workplace diversity does not exist to adopt extraneous agendas. Businesses exist to make a profit, even non-profit organizations need money to exist and keep people employed. One forgets this at their peril.

Diversity management does not, for example, advocate gay rights or women's rights. It does not call for reparations to African Americans for slavery. It calls for accessing talent regardless of sexual orientation, or gender, or race, as long as doing so does not compromise organizational requirements.

Differences need not be celebrated nor denigrated. Differences just are.

Diversity management requires that differences don't conflict with organizational requirement, but that these differences be recognized, accepted, and understood. It does not necessarily require that any difference or attribute be valued. Understanding this saves an organization much grief, time, and energy when attempting to recruit and retain talent while trying to accomplish its business goals.

Keep in mind that I am referring to diversity in the workplace. Working with and for diversity in our culture is a slightly different ballgame. With my background as an anti-racism trainer and social justice advocate prior to coming to Mission, realizing, understanding, and accepting what workplace diversity is all about has made my understanding of what it means to be a diversity officer much more focused and effective.

A new paradigm for a new day

Workplace diversity is about relationships. It is about interacting with people who are different from you and doing it in a way that is respectful. I realize at this point you're probably asking, "Okay Michael, that sounds great, but what about the inclusion aspect of this thing?" Hold tight. I'm getting there. One of the challenges of this workplace diversity, or any diversity work for that matter, is that the work never stops.

And so organizations must have the willingness (which is the motivation) and the ability (which is the skill) to recognize, understand, respect, and then fully utilize the unique contributions of each individual, regardless of their packaging.

This means that whoever they are, however they come to us, if they have the talent that we need in the organization to be successful, it is our responsibility as an organization to figure out a way to create an environment where individuals can achieve their highest potential.

This is where being inclusive comes into play. Think of the workplace diversity as the noun and the word inclusive as the verb. It is nothing less than attempting to change the culture of the workplace in order to recruit, welcome, nurture, and retain the talent we need to succeed. This is what it means to be diverse and inclusive. This is a new paradigm for the 21st century and beyond!