Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

Today, most corporate websites have expansive statements in large fonts that say the organization believes in social justice, diversity and inclusion, and workplace equality. Imagine how people of color and women feel when they read these statements but continue to work in a place where experiencing bias is an everyday occurrence. The barriers to career progression are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Today’s leadership challenge is reconciling the contradiction between what the company says and what the company does. Developing a true organizational structural system of racial equality and equity is imperative for every organization.

The Facts About Equality

Supporting employees of color isn’t a U.S. issue, a Canadian issue, or a European Union issue. It’s a global country issue, and also, most companies, small and large, have global operations or global supply chains. Mercer published a report in 2020 that addressed the need to pursue real equality in the workplace rather than making frequent promises that never seem to materialize. In Mercer’s let’s get real about equality, a survey of 1,157 companies in 54 countries representing seven million employees concentrated on women’s equality, but the results are applicable across groups of employees. Mercer found that overall, Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino populations are underrepresented at every career level above support staff. 

How do you get real about including people of color? How do you implement true diversity and inclusion in your workplace? Think about this number. According to Mercer, approximately 42 percent of U.S. organizations have publicly documented commitments to racial or ethnic equality, but only 13 percent offer programs specifically targeting women of color. Here’s another disconnect. Only 23 percent of U.S. organizations have high-potential programs for people of color. And here’s yet another critical statistic. Only 38 percent of U.S. organizations routinely review engagement responses by race or ethnicity. How can any organization know if their personal employee relations are good for all employees if everyone is lumped together?

diversity & inclusion at work

Illusion of Inclusion

Leaders from the Toigo Foundation, an organization promoting career advancement for underrepresented groups, used an expression that briefly describes the issue – “the illusion of inclusion.” Organizations point to figures meant to show inclusion is real, like Black people making it into higher leadership levels, but they fail to publish figures that present the bigger picture. Getting real about supporting people of color means getting honest about what that means. It means:

  • Taking specific actions that will systemically make progress by knocking down barriers
  • Not making sweeping promises that are nearly impossible to keep, but instead setting realistic goals and measuring incremental improvements
  • Getting to the root causes of why bias remains stubbornly embedded in organizational hiring, retention, and promotion practices; unless the root causes are identified, bias will remain
  • Aligning Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) goals with business objectives instead of keeping D&I as a siloed function
  • Digging to find the truth about the employee experience and employee engagement

Do your employees of color experience a heightened sense of difference among white coworkers, have to manage their careers more strategically, prove greater competence to win promotions, feel compelled to not mention microaggressions to avoid creating more resentment, and maintain inauthentic personas to “fit in”? It’s impossible to achieve a high level of employee engagement with people of color when they spend their work lives feeling isolated, excluded, and inauthentic. It is a similar issue the LGBTQ+ community addresses when given the opportunity.

Expanding on Employee Engagement

The book Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives On the Black Experience offers a wealth of essays and writings on race in the workplace presented by influential business leaders, social scientists, psychologists, D&I professionals, and others. In Chapter 5, authors Ella F. Washington, Ellyn Maese, and Shane McFeely discuss the black professional experience in relation to employee engagement. 

The main point made is that engagement scores are commonly used to measure the work environment’s inclusiveness. The assumption made is that engaged employees also feel included on their teams and within the larger organization. The authors’ research examined employee engagement by racial demographics and the effects making the black professional’s experience unique. The research results are that accurately evaluating engagement for black professionals must consider the complexity added by things like organizational culture, employee level, and career trajectory. Engagement scores are just the foundation for moving forward on D&I strategies.

Incorporating The P’s of Equality

“Borrowing” Mercer’s six P’s for achieving gender equality and applying them to achieving racial equity, Projections, Inc. makes the following recommendations to support people of color with an expanded employee engagement strategy: 

  1. Passionate leadership at all levels: A Better Leader provides leadership development courses applicable to all levels of management and supervision. The reason is that senior leaders set the tone and promote the desired organizational culture, but department heads and frontline supervisors make the tone and culture real.
  2. Personal commitment: People of color can thrive when all employees are engaged in achieving racial equality. It isn’t a “battle” that was started and owned by minorities. It is a reality that needs workforce commitment to bring change that benefits the organization and all its stakeholders.
  3. Perseverance: People of color can thrive when an organization’s commitment to racial equality endures through changes in leaders over time. Racial equality can’t be approached as a favorite theme of the current senior leadership, only to flounder when new persons assume top leadership roles. Achieving racial equality must be a relentless process that reflects the organization’s culture, values, and norms. 
  4. Proof of progress or lack of thorough data and analytics – You should use data and data analytics to get to the root causes of bias, identify gaps, and develop strategies with measurable goals and objectives. Data can provide evidence as to what works and what doesn’t.
  5. Processes in place: Every step of the employee experience needs equity as its foundation. One reason there aren’t more people of color in top leadership positions is due to bias covered up with “facts.” For example, a person of color is seldom included in the final group of job applicants because the person’s experience doesn’t fit within traditional buckets of experience evaluations, i.e., the person didn’t attend a well-known college.

diversity and inclusion in the workplace

People can only thrive when the employee experience is fair and equitable at every step – recruiting, job application evaluation, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, training and development, and career and promotion opportunities. One barrier in place at any step in the process leads to inequities. It’s up to Human Resources and hiring managers to question why there are no people of color on the list of people to be interviewed or why people of color are not applying to the company (brand reputation?), or why there are few people in management positions or why people of color have a higher turnover rate than other groups of employees. 

  1. Put programs in place that meet unique needs – People of color have the same needs as other people. They also have some unique ones, like certain health conditions and the desire to have honest conversations about race in the predominantly white workplace. You need programs that offer what people need, like regular opportunities for dialogue on race, including non-minorities, supervisors, managers, and senior leaders. 

Fitting In is Not a Strategy

Relying on our experience working with companies interested in staying union-free, developing effective leaders, and/or improving communication with and between employees, Projections, Inc. adds several more items to the list:

  1. Give your diversity and inclusion leaders access to the C-suite so they can explain the true employee experience for people of color and not what is reported in numbers, like people hired or promoted, or explained by non-minority leaders.
  2. Commit the resources needed for leadership training, dialogue opportunities, communication programs, employee training on what a culture of inclusion means, ERGs, etc. 
  3. Give people of color opportunities to openly discuss race with others, recognizing some conversations are uncomfortable.
  4. Create a culture of psychological safety that encourages open cross-race communication, meaning people of color feel safe addressing their issues. White people feel equally safe discussing their biases or lack of understanding. Develop leaders with emotional intelligence who understand the complexity of racism and the challenge of overcoming it.
  5. Include white men in diversity and inclusion programs and ERGs because they are currently the people in power.
  6. Train your leaders on working with and leading specific groups rather than offering overly simplified one-size-fits-all leadership development.
  7. Mentor, coach, and sponsor people of color to accelerate progress.
  8. Train your managers specifically on how they can support D&I efforts, including challenging racist and biased behaviors at the moment they are expressed.
  9. Don’t be afraid of candid feedback – good or bad – because feedback offers signposts pointing the way to progress through helping people of color realize their full potential.
  10. Humanize the workplace by asking people directly how your organization and leaders can best address systemic racism and employee needs.

No one should have to “fit in,” meaning pretending to act, think, and express oneself according to a mold made out of a white person. Expecting people of color to fit in defeats the whole purpose of diversity. Developing a rich workforce tapestry in which people bring innovation and creativity is the only way businesses can be sustainable in the future. 

Incorporating Diversity and Inclusion

High employee engagement means all employees are engaged – not just some employees or a certain function’s employees or employees of one race, ethnicity, or gender. Your leaders want to engage all people, including people of color, and that requires ending bias and discrimination in the workplace. Though it will help your organization stay union-free and be more productive and more innovative, the reality is that it’s just simply the right thing to do.

About the Author Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.

follow me on: