How Can An Organization Realize The Full Potential Of A Team Which Is Diverse?


– Your company has drastically increased its level of diversity – now what? 

– Everyone says diversity is so great for business – but when will you see results? 

A few decades ago, increasing diversity in the workplace was a standalone goal.  We still have a very long way to go before achieving hiring and pay parity across gender and racial lines, but much progress has been made owing to legislative actions and a new premium placed on good corporate citizenship.  But no matter how far affirmative action and other measures have taken us, companies have been much slower to realize the objective business advantages that can be gained from an increasingly diverse workforce.  Corporations must focus on inclusion efforts in addition to diversification efforts before they can achieve the potential revenue and profit gains that studies now agree are not only possible, but likely.

How can an organization realize the full potential of a team which is diverse? The key to unleashing the true potential of a diverse workforce is to make each and every one of those unique individuals feel INCLUDED, VALUED, AND APPRECIATED.

An organization must first become more diverse if they are to eventually realize the benefits of that diversity.  But without making inclusion a priority, too, those benefits will never be realized.  Creating an inclusive culture that not only accepts diversity but embraces and celebrates it, will set off a magnificent self-reinforcing cycle of events.  Employees will feel free to bring their whole authentic selves to work, they will work to their full potential because they feel valued, the company will reap the financial and reputational rewards of an inclusive workplace, and the best talent will be attracted to join your diverse and inclusive team. 

The data is clear.  More diversity can improve your team’s creativity, enhance the company’s understanding of their customers, increase innovation, and even boost an organization’s profitability.  Naturally, companies want to achieve these goals, so hiring practices have been tweaked in most large corporations to promote at least more gender and racial diversity in their workforce.  However, most companies stop there – if your team includes people of all ages, genders, races, religions, sexual orientations, and ethnicities, the goal is accomplished, right?

Far from it.  Once a company has made progress increasing their level of diversity, the real work can begin.  Organizations must develop their diverse workplaces into inclusive ones, and only then can they work toward reaping the potential rewards of a diverse team.  Not just hiring practices, but also salary and bonus policies, succession planning, and required training programs need to be evaluated to make sure every single team member feels valued and motivated to contribute to the company’s success.  Change may be difficult, but the destination is worth the challenging journey.

So, let’s confront some challenges organizations face once they have a diverse workforce.  Then we can move beyond that to developing inclusivity.  Finally, we can start utilizing our team to its full potential and realizing all the rumored benefits of diversity.

CHALLENGES OF A DIVERSE WORKPLACE

1. Prejudice

Sadly, our world still has a long way to go in eliminating prejudice against those who are different from us.  People hold a wide variety of prejudices, both conscious and subconscious, against those of other genders, races, religions, ability levels, sexual orientations, sizes, ages, ethnicities, and more.

Quite simply, workplaces must take a strong stance against any type of prejudice. Derogatory comments about any aspect of a person’s being cannot be tolerated, and those who can’t seem to leave their prejudices at the door need to be turned right back around and sent out.  Organizations will not progress toward equitable and just work cultures by turning a blind eye to prejudice.

2. Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias is extremely difficult to overcome because it is exactly what it says – unconscious.  All people, regardless of upbringing, personality, or convictions, have unknowingly developed assumptions about groups of people different from themselves.  It’s only natural – a product of thousands of years of evolution to survive danger. 

The problem is that making assumptions about different groups of people rarely serves to help us survive danger in the modern world.  People that speak a different language or look different aren’t always from another tribe looking to forcefully take over your hunting grounds.  And yet, our busy minds still try to assign meaning to these differences.

The best way to combat unconscious bias is to first recognize its existence.  Once that hurdle is crossed, slight alterations to processes can often be effective.  Covering up names on resumes and asking the same questions of every candidate will go a long way toward not letting our unconscious biases get the better of us.

3. Misunderstandings

Often, even people who consider themselves open-minded and compassionate still have a difficult time understanding cultural differences that can manifest themselves in very concrete ways in the workplace.  Some religions require multiple periods of prayer throughout the day, different sacred holidays, or a day of rest other than Sunday.  Some ethnicities view time and punctuality very differently.  Some age groups hold extremely different views regarding flexible work arrangements, including working from home. 

These misunderstandings can lead to resentment, exclusion, and disrespect.  It’s easy for employees to think of differences in work schedules or routines as preferential treatment.  But if a company extends their understanding of different needs to all employees, not just those fitting into certain demographics, this can be overcome.  Diversity training can be an extremely helpful tool in this endeavor.

4. Communication

Just because someone speaks the same language doesn’t mean there won’t be communication issues with people from different countries, regions, or even age groups.  A coworker of mine from Mexico recently said, “booty call” when he meant “butt dial”.  And my millennial son told me that giving him the thumbs-up emoji in a text message was considered rude and dismissive by those in his age-group.

Clearly, a common language doesn’t guarantee understanding.  A good practice for communicating before you get to know a coworker better is to avoid slang, colloquialisms, sarcasm, and idioms.  Keep it professional, and if there seems to be a gap in understanding, try wording your statement differently.  Understand that everyone in the world doesn’t learn the same version of your language that you do.

INCLUDING INCLUSION

Inclusivity may be the new buzzword in business, but that doesn’t mean everyone truly knows how to achieve it, or even what it really is.   

Diversity simply means having team members from a wide variety of demographic groups.  But employees that are different from most of your other employees may still feel excluded and not bring their whole self to work.  When someone consciously avoids revealing the gender of their significant other for fear of becoming the subject of curious looks or not being taken seriously at work, that is the exact opposite of inclusivity.

As Personnel TodayOpens in a new tab. explains, “Exclusion acts as a psychological distraction.” And for team members that feel excluded, “Their stress levels can rise, they’ll avoid collaboration with others and their engagement will plummet.  Absenteeism and attrition will increase.”  Consequently, productivity, innovation, and the ability to adapt will all suffer.  In order to realize the benefits of a diverse workforce, each and every member of that workforce must feel valued and like their contributions will truly be appreciated – in short, included.

If your organization is struggling with high turnover, low levels of promotion within the company, and poor employee engagement, chances are you need to work on inclusivity.  As with any attempt to shift the culture of your company, it must start at the top and in the most fundamental of contexts.  The company I work for, Schneider Electric, does an extremely good job of this and may serve as the gold standard for promoting inclusivity.

One of the five core values espoused by Schneider, of equal importance to Customer First, Learn Every Day, Dare to Disrupt, and Act Like Owners, is Embrace Different.  This isn’t part of a long laundry list of behaviors to follow, mentioned during onboarding and promptly forgotten.  Every employee is required to take an online course on these core values annually, where we are reminded that they are the very fabric of our company, not just lip service.  In that training, we are taught more about what it means to Embrace Different:

“…This means welcoming people from all walks of life, ages, and cultures, embracing different perspectives and calling out bias when we see it. So that every person feels uniquely valued and safe to be at their best.  To us, a stranger is simply a friend we haven’t met yet.”

Not only does Schneider include Embrace Different as a core value we should all live by every day, but it is inextricably woven into our hiring, promotion, performance review, and recognition processes.  These processes are written to ensure we attract and retain people that will gladly live by our core values naturally, regardless of their background.  We must specifically address how we have been living each value during our performance reviews, and when we formally recognize our colleagues’ successes, we specify which of our core values they were demonstrating. 

Clearly, Schneider goes well beyond talking the talk – they walk the walk.  Employees can’t help but aspire to Embrace Different in their everyday work lives.  Top to bottom, all managers must incorporate these values into their teams’ work.  This is what we mean by inclusivity.  It is not just BEING diverse, but also EMBRACING that diversity.  Making it a center piece of your company’s culture is an extremely effective way to start realizing the potential benefits diversity can bring.

BENEFITS OF A DIVERSE TEAM

So, what are these potential benefits of diversity that we’re trying to achieve?  A McKinsey study in 2015 found the following:

1. The top 25% of companies in terms of ethnic and racial diversity have a 35% greater chance of earning higher than industry-average returns.

2. The top 25% of companies in terms of gender diversity have a 15% greater chance of earning higher than industry-average returns.

3. For every 10% increase in racial and ethnic diversity on a US corporation’s executive team, there is a .8% rise in EBIT.

4. For every 10% increase in gender diversity on a UK corporation’s executive team, there is a 3.5% rise in EBIT.

Kaiser has explained that companies today are only able to innovate and thrive if they have a diverse and inclusive culture:

“…they can draw on a greater number of perspectives and ideas to challenge groupthink and make something new.  Plus, it is easier to provide world-class service to our customers when we reflect their diversity more accurately.”

These aren’t astounding new findings by a couple of researchers – study after study across the globe finds that higher diversity can result in better business performance.

REALIZING POTENTIAL

1. Hiring Practices

It’s just the tip of the iceberg, but we would be remiss not to at least start by addressing the basics.  If your team is far from a 50/50 gender split representative of the population, chances are you need to work on hiring more of the underrepresented gender.  If the majority of your team members are from the same generation, have similar skin tones, or celebrate the same holidays, you likely need to work on your hiring practices well before you can move on to the more beneficial work of including inclusion. 

Affirmative action is always an option, although it is often a term viewed with disdain as simply an accepted form of racism.  Better yet, don’t show names of applicants to recruiters and hiring managers, use exactly the same questions for every applicant to the same position, and have well-defined criteria for how to identify the best person for the job.

2. Equal Pay

Even the most highly diverse workforce means next to nothing without ensuring equal pay for equal work.  Employees must be compensated purely on the basis of the job they do and how well they do it.  Many large companies today hire outside consultants and auditors to examine their payroll records, looking for evidence of any biases in compensating certain groups of people differently than others for similar work.  And when unfair pay practices are uncovered, the company must work swiftly to correct those mistakes.  Much like in hiring practices, ensure that standards determining bonuses, salary increases, and promotions, are objective and measurable.

3. Discuss Diversity

The social norms that have evolved in the wake of increasing diversity at work have included simply not acknowledging its existence.  Employees have been expected to overlook differences, ignore them even, but certainly not to embrace them.  Discussions about politics or religion have been taboo topics in the workplace, and HR may come down hard on you for asking someone about their family heritage or traditions. 

But the best way to combat unconscious biases is to TALK about differences.  The more people are exposed to ways of thinking different than their own, the more they come to appreciate the value that different experiences can bring to the table.  Have a potluck with employees bringing dishes that represent their heritage and ask them to share their stories, traditions, and beliefs.  Decorate for holidays besides those typically celebrated in your region.  Allow employees to take holiday pay for days they actually celebrate in lieu of the ones dictated by the company.

SUGGESTED PROGRAMS

Most of the changes required to realize the potential of team diversity are cultural and involve those in the C-Suite stressing the importance and potential of diversity.  But there are also some very specific, concrete programs to incorporate that can aid in your company’s journey toward inclusivity.  Don’t worry – most executives, managers, and human resource professionals wouldn’t naturally think of these either.

UNCONSCIOUS BIAS TESTING – Like we said, unconscious biases are extremely difficult to detect, and therefore to acknowledge and overcome.  But there are some incredibly sophisticated online tests, like those developed by Harvard and found at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.htmlOpens in a new tab., that can help us identify these biases in ourselves.  Having employees take an implicit bias test as part of their onboarding process may help move toward a more inclusive workplace culture.

DIVERSITY TRAINING – There are many companies that provide diversity training programs like those found at https://www.diversityresources.com/diversity-online-training/Opens in a new tab..  But some studies findOpens in a new tab. that pairing minorities and women with employees already in leadership positions for formalized mentee/mentor relationships can work even better to open dialogue between employees of different backgrounds.

EMPLOYEE RESOURCE GROUPS – You’ve likely heard of something similar on college campuses, but corporations can also make use of groups/clubs/organizations to celebrate differences and allow employees to gather and share their experiences with one another.  There are ERGs for members and allies of the LGBT community, for men and women fighting for gender equality in the workplace, and many more. 

DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION AUDITS – These can be instrumental in identifying any problem areas your company may need to address on the road toward diversity and inclusion.  Auditors examine the company’s data, policies, processes, and culture and share findings with management and HR to guide your efforts.  Believe it or not, the most well-known financial auditing companies also do diversity and inclusion audits and assessments: KPMG, Deloitte, PwC, and more.

Check out some of our other Topics:

CoworkingOpens in a new tab.TechnologyOpens in a new tab.StressOpens in a new tab.WellnessOpens in a new tab.SustainabilityOpens in a new tab.Workplace ProductivityOpens in a new tab.Employee ExperienceOpens in a new tab.Hot DeskingOpens in a new tab.Employee EngagementOpens in a new tab..

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