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Knocking Down the Costly Top Five Barriers to Diversity and Inclusion in Your Organization

Diversity is being invited to sit at a table that is already set; inclusion is being asked to partner with the host

Natalie Holder

Natalie Holder is an employment lawyer, speaker, corporate trainer and author of Exclusion: Strategies for Increasing Diversity in Recruitment, Retention, and Promotion. As the co-founder of the New York State...

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Twenty years ago, when most of us thought of “diversity” the prefix “bio” was attached to it along with visions of nature. Today, diversity has become big business for Corporate America and many organizations. The Glass Ceiling Commission found that companies had 2.5 times higher stock market performance when they invested in glass-ceiling related issues versus companies who ignored them. Racially diverse companies have 15 times more revenue than the least racially diverse, which explains why 40% of the companies with $5 billion in revenue have diversity as a focus in recruitment. However, many organizations feel stuck in their diversity mission, in part, because they do not know the difference between diversity and inclusion. 

Diversity is like being invited to sit at a table that is already set; inclusion is being asked to partner with the host and help set up the table. Inclusion can be measured with the level of employee engagement in your organization, which drives the overall quality of your staff, and has a positive impact throughout the company. 

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Studies have shown that it is natural for people to create in-groups and out-groups, depending on similarities and differences. The more people perceive someone to be different, the less likely that they feel comfortable or trust them—thus putting them in their out-group. 

Knowing the benefits of an inclusive work environment, why do some organizations still operate with a mindset of exclusivity, creating inclusion roadblocks that are difficult to overcome? Identifying these five roadblocks in your organization is critical to success for the 21st century business because when you knock them down your whole company will be better for it. 

 1. Informal Mentoring

Formal mentoring pairs often have the best intentions, however, they rely on trust and shared interest being manufactured. However, informal mentoring is a self-selecting process where a senior leader has chosen to guide and care for the career development of a junior colleague. Trust and shared interest are inherent in the relationship. Informal mentoring is like a senior leader being obsessed with your success. Often, informally mentoring members of out-groups is difficult because unconsciously, we are more likely to be invested in someone’s career development and create opportunities for them when we can see themselves in a colleague. To challenge this natural inclination, think about the person who you feel adds the greatest diversity to your team and ask yourself, “When was the last time I invited this person out for coffee or gave this person feedback on an assignment?” If your answers are consistent with your answers for other team members who are comfortably in your in-group, then you are on the right track. If not, an outing for coffee or an informal feedback are solid steps in the right direction.

2. Recovering from Mistakes 

Although everyone makes mistakes, how they are dealt with makes all the difference. Are you given a second chance or are you forever marked as the careless employee? Studies have shown that we have a greater tendency to blame external factors when our in-group members make mistakes, for example, understanding that a report was late because the printer was broken. However, when out-group members make mistakes, we attribute their mistakes to their personal flaws, that is, a broken printer is no excuse because there were ample days to complete the report. While an employer may be instilling good relations with one employee, she is potentially ostracizing the employee she chooses to penalize. When employees in out-groups notice that they are treated by the book while their majority counterparts are not, this creates an environment that says that discriminatory discipline is part of the unwritten rules of the workplace.  

 3. Bullying

Yelling, abusive emails, and character assassinations are just some of the tactics workplace bullies use to usurp the power base in an organization. Bullies will target out-group members who seem vulnerable because they do not have strong informal mentors or allies. Managers should be concerned about and put an end to bullying because it can destroy a team and decreases work productivity. 

 4. Insensitivity

Organizations often do not realize how changes in their employee and client demographics may require a few tweaks to their social traditions.  The jokes, comments, and even events that were once held may have a negative impact on the talent who adds a new dimension of diversity to your office. Insensitivity can even become a source of workplace stress, which can result in burnout, low morale, drug use, and violence. Ultimately, insensitivity can expose organizations to costly employment lawsuits. The manager who ignores complaints of insensitive conduct is just as guilty as the person who makes the offending comment or gesture. 

 5. Perceived Underperformance

Kevin Costner’s character in the movie Field of Dreams was inspired to turn his farm into a baseball field when a voice told him, “If you build it, he will come.” People are influenced to act based on their beliefs, which create perceptions, which—whether false or true—become reality. When you unconsciously believe that employees in an out-group are less skilled, less qualified, or less talented, you consciously look for affirmation of these beliefs. 

If you start a relationship from the premise that an employee is not going to succeed, more often than not, that employee will not succeed. Similar to how work styles can obscure a manager’s perceptions about an employee’s abilities, visible characteristics can also distract managers from truly valuing the employee’s work. Sometimes those who bring a dimension of diversity to the office might not be appreciated because their managers and coworkers are considering the person doing the work and not the content. When your subjective perception about how someone will work interferes with their objective performance, everyone loses. 

Training and other strategic actions steps can move your organization in the right direction toward diversity and inclusion. Increased profits, improved reputation, and employee engagement are just a few of the huge returns on your investment of time and resources when knocking down these five inclusion barriers.