Diversity and inclusion continue to be important themes in today’s workplace. As 175 CEOs pledged publicly to promote diversity and inclusion at their companies. Deloitte reports that the majority of Millennials, roughly 75% of the workforce, want to work for companies that actively foster inclusion. Public outcry about organizations that fail to meet these growing expectations has been persistent.
Like any worthwhile initiative, diversity and inclusion consist of many parts. Discrimination is one of those parts. Here we discuss how diversity and inclusion overlap with discrimination, and what companies can do to promote D&I in an effort to prevent discrimination.
Lack of Diversity Can Cause Discrimination
Research suggests that a lack of diversity and inclusion in the workplace can promote discriminatory behavior. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) concluded that harassment, which is a form of discrimination, is more likely to happen in the workplace with a lack of diversity.
Workers with different demographic backgrounds than the majority of the workforce can feel isolated and may actually be, or at least appear to be, vulnerable to pressure from others. They may speak a different language, observe different customs, or simply interact in ways different from the majority. Conversely, workers in the majority might feel threatened by those they perceive as “different” or “other.” They might be concerned that their jobs are at risk or that the culture of the workplace might change, or they may simply be uncomfortable around others who are not like them.
Imagine a worker who feels “different” bringing up personal issues of exclusion, self-doubt, or even discrimination to a group of homogenous senior leaders who the worker believes may not understand. Though the dynamic is likely unintentional, certain groups of people can be or feel shut out.
Discriminatory dynamics may be ingrained in a company’s culture, making quick fixes or surface-level changes ineffective. Tristin Green argues as much in her law review article, “Work Culture and Discrimination.” Informal socializing among coworkers, appearance norms, and managerial expectations of what success “looks like” can all contribute to a culture that excludes people of varying backgrounds. Diversity and inclusion have a lot to do with this.
A company that hires people with similar ethnicities, professional backgrounds, and education from the same talent pool sets a tone that a certain make and model is required for success. Those that feel “different” from the pack are less likely to be chosen for informal gatherings, less likely to speak up, and less likely to be satisfied with their company culture.
While Green argues that diversity efforts in practice may not be enough to meet the remedial promise of Title VII, they do have the potential to help companies fight discrimination. Diversity is not a “nice to have” but rather an important element of a company’s duty to prevent discrimination and harassment in the workplace.
DEI Training Facilitator’s Guide
Exercises to start and moderate productive conversations
Diversity Raising Allegations of Discrimination
Many practitioners worry about running afoul of state and federal anti-discrimination laws when implementing a diversity and inclusion program. There is some merit to the concern. Title VII explicitly prohibits unequal treatment of employees according to their protected characteristics, like race, gender, religion, or disability.
Companies cannot show a preference by treating one group differently than another. That is, unless they have a really good reason for it. For private companies, preferential treatment has been accepted if it’s created to remedy past discrimination specific to the particular workplace, according to the U.S. Supreme Court and subsequent case law.
Additionally, contractors with big enough contracts with the federal government are required to implement affirmative action policies. Unless a company falls under these two exceptions, they generally cannot give preference to certain groups over others.
This shouldn’t be a problem for modern companies, however. The diversity and inclusion trend is moving away from a “compliance” justification to more of a “business” justification, explains Stacy L. Hawkins in her law review article. Those justifications usually include (1) responding to culturally diverse markets, (2) improving innovation, and thus performance, and (3) building a reputation internally and externally that the company is “open.”
Common Diversity/Discrimination Scenarios
So how can organizations practice diversity and inclusion? Through positive programs, as well as mindfully handling common practices that may involve discrimination.
Employee Resource Groups
The Human Rights Campaign recommends inclusivity when building employee resource groups. “Make it clear that group membership is open to all employees, and thus complies with your organization’s anti-discrimination policies and applicable law.”
Additionally, Jonathan A. Segal, writing for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), suggests organizers tell group participants they must still follow company policy in regards to reporting issues like harassment or discrimination. Doing so avoids excluding people while legitimizing company policies.
Companies should be deliberate in creating job descriptions that only include necessary and major job functions. Doing so supports inclusion by focusing on what’s “needed” and not what’s “wanted.” The latter could be laden with the implicit (or honestly, explicit) bias of managers.
Additionally, hiring can be discriminatory if large swaths of people are left out. Watch the language used in job descriptions; “must be able to run a mile a minute” and “vibrant energy” could prevent whole swaths of persons with disabilities or older workers, respectively, from applying or being considered.
And finally, the source of potential applicants must be scrutinized. It is good practice to diversify a job search, such as job fairs in low-income communities, historically black or women’s colleges, and a deliberate, second look at any employee referral, since we tend to automatically approve people who think, look, and have experience just like us.
Businesses should establish a system for promotion, especially if they don’t already implement stellar diversity and inclusion efforts. Green warns that “relationally dependent” work environments where “recommendations for promotion are made on an informal, ad hoc basis” and where “performance reviews are conducted by coworkers, group leaders, and even subordinates” and “determinations of skill competence are ongoing” could deny the “outsiders” of a homogenous work culture from ever reaching upper management. The latter could be, and has been found in lawsuits to be, discriminatory.
The fact of the matter is that both diversity and inclusion are closely linked with discrimination. Therefore, companies should consider it a duty to support diversity and inclusion, not only for its own sake, but also as one of many ways to prevent harassment and discrimination from occurring in the workplace.