Even when responses to diversity, equity, and inclusion disparities are obligatory, we’re still missing the mark. Many diversity initiatives focus primarily on race. Measures taken usually lead to temporarily addressing race and ethnicity among staff, management, and board members. Occasionally, a binary perspective of gender is also considered. Usually, the folks who are left out are disabled, non-binary, trans, have certain religious beliefs, work above or below arbitrary age thresholds, or are otherwise part of marginalized groups across many social cleavages. How diverse can an organization be if multiple facets of inclusion are left out? If we’re focusing on knowledge and education to make the changes required to be more inclusive, which pieces are we missing?
Truth is, we have most of the pieces. We’re not applying the knowledge that we have, which is why we’re missing the big picture.
Let’s consider the scenario of business and how we navigate employment. We don’t all show up for work in the same ways. When beginning a typical workday, some are thinking about the investors, the competitors, or the revenue for the current and previous quarters. Others may be thinking about caregiving duties — for adults and children of any age — while also managing the week’s workload. Some may be preoccupied with genocide or state-sanctioned violence against folks who share their background and are also worried about making next month’s rent. Others are reminded that climbing out of poverty or earning living wages can push them over the income threshold that allows them to keep their healthcare insurance or affordable alternatives. Truthfully, many people are thinking about all these things concurrently. These scenarios may seem hypothetical, but hundreds of millions of workers face these realities, and more, daily — with little reprieve.
Every day, whether or not we acknowledge it, a substantial number of our white-collar colleagues and peers are juggling competing demands from their personal lives, while being pushed to answer emails faster, attend meetings with cameras on, and make sure that deadlines are not missed. Comparable requests are made of our blue-collar peers. Every single one of these people is expected to continue to show up and perform as if these life factors do not exist. Without their needs considered, we’re not making room for them — during the workday or throughout a work project. For example, someone who is facing eviction — and who also attended a vigil the night before for a friend slain by the police — will not show up to work the same way as someone who has a financial safety net, affordable and reliable childcare, and has experienced only a few inconvenient — but not nearly fatal — traffic stops. Yet, from an organizational and work perspective, we expect all employees to arrive and perform in similar ways. We don’t concern ourselves with what is happening outside of work even though it directly affects how people fare on the job.
Even with similar expectations for overall performance, regardless of the type of job or position on the organizational chart, the representation of different groups at various organizational levels falls in familiar and predictable ways. A 2020 study notes:
At the support staff and operations level, 64% of employees are white, 12% are Black, 10% are Hispanic, 8% are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 6% are other races. The share of positions held by Caucasians increases with each upward wrung [sic] of the ladder. By the executive level, 85% of positions are held by white employees. Black and Hispanic employees make up just 2% and 3% of these positions, respectively.
This already grim reality gets worse. Seventy-nine percent of employed workers are of so-called prime age (aged 25–54). Yet, only 40% of disabled individuals of prime working age are employed. So, even when we think we’re working with a diverse set of colleagues, often we’re neither considering nor working with disabled people. Many disabled people are quite capable of working but they just aren’t being employed or considered for employment. For years, people with disabilities have been left out of the workforce — one reason being because they weren’t offered or given reasonable accommodations, such as being allowed to work remotely.
For a long time, disabled folks have been told that remote work wasn’t possible. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adapt to unavoidable circumstances — including lockdowns and mandatory stay-at-home orders — and make accommodations for people with caregiving obligations and for disabled workers. But the lessons we’ve learned in equity seem short-lived. Even when adaptations to the COVID-19 pandemic proved that remote work is often viable, many newer job postings — listed as “remote” — come with the remark that location-independent, flexible options end once the pandemic is over. Clearly, we have the knowledge that we can do better for prospects and current staff, but we make a different choice. We risk losing the small strides made toward greater inclusivity by reversing decisions toward equity simply because of mixed feelings about the potential implications of realizing a more accommodating workforce.
The bottom line: we cannot have diversity without both equity and inclusion. When talking about diversity, equity, inclusion — DEI — we can’t decide to focus on just one of the letters. The entire effort falls apart without careful attention paid to all three facets. We have the knowledge to achieve the results we want for our companies and organizations. We don’t always have — or want — the wisdom to make it work.
To earn that wisdom, we have to understand the people who make up an organization, better assess the applicant pools we source from, accept what we don’t know, and seek answers in the right places. None of these is a checklist item. There is no scenario where the work is “done.” It must be a persistent and consistent commitment to meaningful action and accountability to put us on the path toward building a more inclusive workplace.
Creating a compassionate and productive work environment requires more than just having the right people in-house or bringing in the best consultants. We must remember that every person we interact with is a whole person, not just a tool or a means for bigger profits or “intellectual bragging rights.”
Companies and organizations of all sizes must understand the following about their employees and consultants:
People need to show up as their full selves. No person should be required, implicitly or explicitly, to just focus on work for the sake of work. Paying a person for labor is not a reason for forgetting there is a real person behind that work.
People may not complete tasks the same way, but it doesn’t mean they won’t achieve great results. Whether work style differences stem from neurodivergence among colleagues, invisible or readily apparent disabilities, or alternate schedules and remote work, the work can and will get done with supportive flexibility.
People’s need for boundaries between their work life and their personal life is not optional. Respecting boundaries goes a long way, especially when microaggressions and non-inclusive company culture go unchecked. Many people feel forced to accept hostile and demeaning treatment simply to keep their jobs because past experiences have shown that speaking up improves nothing for them.
Company and organizational culture can be examined and addressed in a few ways:
Focus on the values, not just the mission. Ask honestly, does your workplace value who people are and not just what they can offer professionally?
Redefine what “professional” means in your workplace. Do you really mean manner of dress, general appearance, years of experience, or a formal education? Or does being professional mean being reliable, trustworthy, compassionate, and firm but thoughtful?
Create a culture of accountability. What happens when we fall short? How do we assess what has happened and how do we address our mistakes, visible or not?
Not only do we have to reexamine what diversity, equity, and inclusion mean, we also must honestly think about what they would look like within our organizations and companies.
We have received education on what inclusion means, but how does that show up at work? Do we have adequate buffers for deadlines, or are we pressuring folks to be “eleventh-hour heroes” because we value some employees’ time more than others? Are we giving our employees and consultants the tools and resources they need to set them up for success? Have we acknowledged that some new ideas might be scary and untested but that they could be fruitful for learning and growing? Have we empowered and supported our employees so that they can lead the way for new initiatives?
The answers to these questions will differ according to the scenario. When you have created space for individuals — of varying backgrounds, experiences, and education — to work with your organization, the support required for each won’t be the same. If an organization has never been led by a disabled person of color, for example, the support that person needs will be different than what previous leaders needed.
When underrepresented individuals are placed in environments where they have traditionally been underserved and overlooked, they are bringing with them every lived experience — including negative work interactions. If the structures in place have supported leaders only from overrepresented groups, there will be persistent obstacles. If you happen to be part of the overrepresented groups, those impediments may not be obvious or visible to you, making your awareness of other people’s experiences critical. Diversity, equity, and inclusion require that everyone, especially underrepresented individuals, be given what they need to do their best work and thrive.
Advancing an inclusive workplace with working knowledge of our differences is within our reach. In this moment, we are uniquely positioned to bring forth levels of meaningful inclusion that have not yet been achieved on a large scale. We must embrace an ongoing commitment to learning about each other and to leveraging technology to create a thriving work environment for all. The work we must do to make that a reality begins right now.
[For more from the author on this topic, see “Inclusion in the Workplace: Are We Doing Enough?”]