Beyond diversity

A welcoming and inclusive workplace requires a willingness to change the status quo.

Improving employee diversity has often been pushed as the cure-all for creating equitable and inclusive workplaces. And yet when people are hired into a new workplace, they are often expected to assimilate to its cultural norms. The challenge is that while the creation of a diverse workforce is a positive step, it takes more to create a workplace culture in which all employees can thrive. 

Going beyond representational diversity to promote authentic inclusion requires intentional practices that include shifting the culture to make room for new perspectives and experiences; creating intentional processes for working through conflict; and being clear and transparent about decision-making, as well as thoughtful about how colleagues are recognized and valued. 

When an organization is not prepared to support a diverse workforce beyond the hiring of one, harmful consequences for both individuals and businesses can result. Low retention rates and the need to rehire for the same position can reduce an organization’s stability and contribute to reputational damage that may reduce the number of highly qualified applicants keen to join it. This in turn can generate doubt about the value or legitimacy of hiring from diverse candidate pools. Without a plan to interrupt it, the cycle continues. In fact, this cycle is so pervasive that The Centre for Community Organizations created a video illustrating how even workplaces with good intentions make it difficult for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) women and femmes to connect and feel like they belong.

The following guidelines offer a helpful starting point for establishing a welcoming culture that values all employees. 

Assess your current status

Before developing new hiring strategies, begin with a critical reflection on the motivations and outcomes of your practices so far. Are they reflective of an organization that really wants to change, and is ready to support and benefit from new ways of thinking about its operations? Assessing your current status can help you find and address any barriers to building a diverse and thriving workforce.

One way is to identify any patterns in terms of who has left the organization over the last three years. This can uncover areas of tension, which can then be addressed to ensure a more supportive environment for new members. It can also reveal areas of improvement, where practices have paid off.

Another way is to consider how diversity is extended throughout the organization’s hierarchy. Are all of the women being promoted to leadership positions white, or are BIPOC women and gender-diverse employees also represented? While a workforce might collectively represent different genders, races and abilities, diversity is much more than the percentage of an organization’s employees who are not able-bodied white males. 

Examine your hiring strategies

Are your organization’s recruitment and hiring strategies a way of “performing” diversity, or is there a genuine aspiration to benefit from diverse perspectives and experiences?

Establishing thoughtful hiring policies, and being transparent about the motivations behind them, will help organizations demonstrate their commitment to recognizing and retaining a diversity of talent. This approach is underpinned by equitable hiring practices — such as removing biased language from job descriptions, creating a rubric for assessing all the candidates according to the same criteria, and being mindful of power dynamics to ensure that the application and interview process is sensitive to the inclusion of marginalized groups. 

The more aware and inclusive a workforce is, the higher its expectation of leadership to support, lead, and be representative of this diversity as well. 

Clarity and transparency not only help to increase the candidate pool, but also to counter the perception that diversity is being prioritized over merit.

Provide learning opportunities 

Another aspect to consider is how informed your workforce is on the issues and opportunities around equity, diversity and inclusion. Creating an inclusive culture depends on building awareness and genuine buy-in for related practices. Providing all staff members with professional development opportunities in these areas encourages collective involvement and personal investment in building an inclusive work environment. And the more aware and inclusive a workforce is, the higher its expectation of leadership to support, lead, and be representative of this diversity as well.

Walk the talk

How open is leadership to shifting the ways things are currently done? A truly inclusive workplace will be open to accommodating the differing needs of employees, including those with disabilities, cultural and religious practices they wish to observe, or family needs they are responsible for attending to. Full inclusion means that all employees can bring their whole selves to work, without having to take on the burden of pushing for the right to do so.

The disruption to life caused by COVID-19 means many people have adjusted their personal working arrangements. In fact, we are presented with a prime opportunity for a fresh look at the context of work, and how it might be improved to enhance inclusion for everyone. 

Turn conflict into a positive

Even when an organization has worked to put in place inclusive practices, conflict will still happen and needs to be addressed. Does your organization have a process in place to engage with conflict in ways that are respectful to all concerned? Are there resources to help employees resolve differences and seek support? Establishing clear, fair and accessible methods for engaging in conflict can turn it into an opportunity for learning and growth. 

Treating a diverse set of insights and experiences as an asset is a foundation for organizational cohesiveness and success. More organizations are starting to reap the benefits of inclusivity, but it requires thought and effort to establish. Before hiring for diversity, think about your current workplace culture; are there systems and structures in place to support all employees? If yes, your organization has the ingredients to set up new employees for success. If not, go back to the drawing board, reassess what changes need to be made, and map a new path forward together.

Asmin Chen, Greg Lockwood, Rachael E. Sullivan, Hanae Tsukada and Mai Yasue are facilitators and strategists in the Equity and Inclusion Office at UBC.