The terms “diversity” and “inclusion” have become so commonplace that they’ve lost their potency -- and so have most efforts to make them useful in the workplace.
Almost all major corporations, non-profits, universities, and other institutions have added “diversity and inclusion” to their mission or values statements, equal employment opportunity and admissions policies, and marketing mantras. Many have gone so far as to create employee resource groups (ERGs) and committees, student centers, and executive-level positions to focus on related issues.
At face value, this seems like an extraordinary improvement over yesteryear, when diversifying workplaces, student bodies, religious communities, etc. was almost universally fought against. By comparison it seems like things are really on the right track!
But the truth is we are still completely missing the mark.
If everything should be so much better, why and how are your diversity and inclusion efforts failing? Let's break it down.
Diversity means a variety – of people, of traits or characteristics, or of things. Achieving diversity in your workplace, school, or institution is one thing – it’s recruiting, hiring, or admitting people of different races, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, classes, ages, countries of origin, educational levels, or religions.
But valuing diversity is another thing entirely. It means understanding, acknowledging, and intentionally seeking to incorporate the richness of diverse perspectives and life experiences. Valuing diversity means seeing difference as significant, valuable, and desirable – as opposed to a quota of boxes that must be checked.
Inclusion, then, should be thought of as activated diversity. It’s not just about being invited into a group of other people, but being actively and intentionally involved, valued, heard, utilized, and promoted.
An organization that genuinely values and successfully activates diversity inherently supports long-term individual and institutional wellness, morale, and innovation. This is what a truly equitable (i.e., fair or just) workplace looks like.
But it won’t happen by accident.
Valuing diversity means seeing difference as significant, valuable, and desirable – as opposed to a quota of boxes that must be checked.
A common theme here is intentionality – doing something with deliberate purpose and forethought in order to achieve a specific outcome. This is the key ingredient to all successful efforts to achieve equity in your workplace.
Why? Because going against the grain is hard. Without intentionality – without making a deliberate decision to act in a certain way to achieve a specific outcome – we are likely to carry on with business as usual because it’s the easiest thing to do. If left to our own devices, we will always naturally choose the path of least resistance, which happens to be the one that maintains the status quo. And the status quo, at least in the United States, always favors white, straight, cisgender (non-transgender), educated, able-bodied, class-privileged, Judeo-Christian men. Anyone who does not fit that description will not have the same level of immediate, unmerited, and unquestioned access, credibility, authority, respect, and benefit of the doubt. Without intentionality, there is no room at the table for anyone else’s presence, voice, thoughts, opinions, experiences, or needs.
This is especially true for transgender, non-binary, and gender expansive people, and LGBTQ+ people of color who experience grossly disproportionate levels of discrimination , harassment, and violence in every aspect of life, including employment and professional development opportunities.
Here are 5 red flags that your diversity and inclusion efforts lack the intentionality needed to succeed:
You have a created a Diversity & Inclusion position (though the exact title may vary) and the person in that role is either a white person or they are one of the only people of color occupying that level of management.
You have an employee resource group (ERG) or committee that focuses on issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace, and the majority of members are white cisgender (non-transgender) women.
Diversity and inclusion are in your organization’s mission, vision, or values statement, but that has not translated into diverse representation of identities across your leadership, management, board of directors, and/or staff (especially in the most recent rounds of new hires and promotions).
When, say, a person of color, LGBTQ person, or person with disabilities resigns from your organization stating that they didn’t feel welcomed or valued, your leadership’s response is to (a) deny that anything is structurally wrong with the company and shift blame to the individual’s personality flaws that led them to feel that way (i.e., gaslighting), or (b) dedicate some time to discussing why an employee might feel unwelcome or undervalued but ultimately do nothing to challenge organizational status quo (wash, rinse, repeat).
You say you are welcoming and affirming to LGBTQ employees, but have made no efforts to implement inclusivity in your workplace leadership (e.g., there are no transgender or non-binary people in management or on your board of directors), operations (e.g., ensuring staff can use preferred names throughout their workflow, or encouraging all staff to include pronouns on email signatures), facility structures (e.g., gender-neutral restroom options), and hiring or retention practices (e.g., standardizing interview questions to reduce implicit bias, or ensuring health insurance benefits cover same-sex couples, polyamorous families, and/or services to treat transgender and gender-expansive people).
If none of these examples ring a bell for you, take this moment to reflect critically on your own organization’s trajectory toward equity, and identify one or two key points that you could improve on (and there is always room for improvement!). If you cannot think of any, I guarantee you that any employees with historically marginalized identities could offer a few in a heartbeat – don’t be afraid to ask!
If the examples above hit close to home, don’t worry – you’re not alone, and all is not lost.
Here are 5 basic steps you can take immediately to make your diversity and inclusion efforts more intentional and effective:
Conduct a needs assessment of the people who work at your organization and those who have an interest in its success. Periodically polling the experiences and needs of your staff, leadership, volunteers, clients/customers, and even funders allows you to find out first-hand how your organization is doing to achieve equity in its work. The responses will illuminate your biggest challenges (some of which you probably don’t even know about) and your greatest opportunities for improvement. Take the guesswork out of the process from the beginning!
Engage your staff and other stakeholders about how to improve workplace equity, but do not expect them to do all the work for free. It is critically important to get input and buy-in from those individuals who will be the most directly impacted by whatever new strategies or policies you land on. But there is a key difference between facilitating an inclusive process that activates the diversity in the room (which is good), versus placing the burden “fixing” or “solving” the organization’s problems on the people with the least power and influence to do so (which is bad). That being said, if your staff are motivated to take the lead on this work and you agree to let them, you must also explicitly give them enough power and authority to implement their ideas and financially compensate them for their time, work, and emotional labor.
Standardize your hiring and promotion process to defend against bias and favoritism that typically maintain the organizational status quo. There are many options for this, including (but not limited to): preparing standard interview questions for each type of position; requiring that all individuals who participate in a hiring process must attend regular trainings on implicit bias; and reviewing your organization’s standards for advancement opportunities to see how they unfairly favor people by race, gender, parental status, education level, etc., and making changes accordingly.
Hire a qualified equity and inclusion consultant to guide you. Most employers don’t have the luxury of time and professional expertise to tackle these things on their own. An ideal consultant is someone with lived experience as a multiply-marginalized person (i.e., not a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied man) who has significant professional expertise facilitating strategic planning and culture shifts within organizations and institutions, training groups on cultural humility, implicit bias, microaggressions and bystander intervention, advising on improvements to internal policies, protocols, and practices, creating pipelines to leadership for historically marginalized people, and more.
Repeat Steps 1-4 on a regularly scheduled basis! This is not a one-and-done fix – changing your organizational culture to achieve workplace equity is an iterative improvement process and should be treated that way from the outset. How will you know that any of your efforts worked the first time around if you don’t systematically and intentionally check in on progress and pivot if needed? Go ahead, put it on the calendar now. Maybe you want to align it with the beginning of ever fiscal year or before starting your next 3-5 years strategic planning cycle. No matter when it happens, institutionalizing these steps into your organizational rhythm is the only way to make the progress you seek.
About the Author: Milo Primeaux is a queer transgender person (he/him/his), professional consultant, seasoned public speaker, and civil rights attorney in New York State. He is also the founder and CEO of Just Roots Consulting, LLC, a queer-owned consulting firm dedicated to helping employers become industry leaders in LGBTQ+ excellence. For more than 15 years, Milo has fiercely advocated for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and others in LGBTQ+ communities across the country. From grassroots organizing to overhauling corporate personnel policies to spearheading high-level statewide policy reforms, Milo has worked with and led people at every level of systems change efforts. Milo draws upon his expertise to help you and your business, organization, or institution. No matter where you are in the process, Milo is uniquely qualified to help you raise your bar of excellence in serving LGBTQ+ people.