From the Financial Times pay gap to James Damore’s Google memo, diversity and inclusion matters are dominating conversations about modern working life. But just what is all the fuss about, exactly? Why do workplaces need diverse employees, and what does inclusion have to do with anything?
It’s tempting to answer these questions with explanations of the biases and social forces that have contributed to much of the Western world being led by white males, despite the preponderance of other groups at lower levels of the global workforce. However, this line of argumentation is primarily moral—despite significant research into the “psychology of difference” between various groups of people (like men vs women), it’s next to impossible to unilaterally apply population-level results to a single organisational context. It would be irresponsible, therefore, to claim that organisations with diverse employees perform better than those without, as diversity is only one variable in the equation of firm performance.
For now, what we do know is this: globalisation has arrived, and with it comes an incredibly wide range of communication styles and cultural norms for employers to navigate. Moral arguments aside, there is much for organisations to gain by learning to optimise the experience of each employee, both individually and as a group. This blog will elaborate the engagement business case for making Diversity & Inclusion a strategic cornerstone of every organisation.
What is diversity and inclusion?
Literally defined, diversity is “a range of different things.” Thus, a diverse workforce is one that contains a range of different kinds of employees. Discussions of workplace diversity typically surround surface-level diversity, or differences that can be easily seen, including gender, race, and age. Complaints of the “ideological echo chamber” (such as those made by Damore) permeating Silicon Valley and Hollywood have called attention to the importance of cognitive/deep-level diversity as well. This kind of diversity pertains to less visible differences, such as variation in ideology, socioeconomic background, and prior work experience (Horwitz & Horwitz, 2007).
Hiring a diverse group of employees, however, merely amounts to a tick-box exercise if it isn’t accompanied by a culture that allows every employee to feel they’re an “insider” in their own organisation. This is where the “inclusion” side of Diversity & Inclusion comes in. An inclusive workplace is generally understood to be one that enables all employees to contribute “fully and effectively” to an organisation (Roberson, 2006: 215). This involves accessing relevant information/resources, participating in work groups, and possessing the ability to influence how decisions are made. Though inclusion sits on the back end of the ampersand, evidence indicates that unless diversity policies are undertaken within an inclusive environment, such initiatives can backfire, instead making life harder for the employees the policies were meant to help in the first place (Downey, van der Werff, Thomas, and Plaut, 2015).
How does diversity and inclusion affect employee engagement?
As mentioned earlier, the science behind the benefits of diversity in itself is mixed. For every piece of evidence that indicates gender diversity on corporate boards improves performance (Catalyst, 2004), for example, there’s an equal and opposite study that finds no such relationship (Shrader, Blackburn, and Iles, 1997).
Less contested, however, is the impact of having diversity and inclusion policies that are considered fair by the employees who experience them. As one might expect, perceptions of a fair diversity climate were positively associated with organisational commitment, and negatively associated with turnover intentions (Buttner, Lowe, & Billings-Harris, 2010). A 2015 study of 4,600 employees at a large healthcare organisation took these findings a step further, finding that perceived fairness of espoused and enacted diversity policies was positively related to employee engagement – and not just among minority employees (Downey et al., 2015). As has been well-established, employee engagement is a catalyst for any number of positive organisational outcomes, including performance, employee well-being, and organisational citizenship behaviours (Saks, 2006).
The undercurrent of these studies – and the many more like them present within management literature – is the importance of justice. The crux of the controversies at Financial Times, Google, and other such organisations is not necessarily that they need to emphasize diversity above all (though in my opinion, that moral argument I mentioned earlier provides some compelling evidence that diversity should indeed be a leading priority in any organisation). Rather, it’s that if organisations are really truly committed to diversity, they have to put their money where their mouth is, both literally and figuratively. Treating some groups of employees differently from others purports the idea that their presence is motivated by something other than the value they have to add to their organisation. And as has been earlier written about on this blog, the benefits to making employees feel validated and supported by their organisation are both numerous and self-regenerating.
How can D&I programmes be structured to maximise engagement?
All of this is to say that diversity & inclusion practices matter – to the employee experience down through to an organisation’s bottom line. So how can organisations optimise their diversity & inclusion programmes?
- Manage expectations around your D&I strategy: be clear about your diversity and inclusion goals and how you plan to achieve them.
- Be conscious of representation: ideally, employee bodies should represent the populations in which they’re located – across all levels of the organisation. Though fostering a culture of inclusion is crucial, the importance of physical inclusion should not be understated. What better way to communicate to employees their opinions matter than by having employees like them actually involved in decision-making?
- Provide ample opportunities for employee feedback regarding their D&I experience: Engagement surveys and focus groups are examples of tools available to organisations to monitor how employees are feeling about their D&I policies. However, it merits underscoring that voice outlets are only valuable if leadership is prepared to act on common feedback; otherwise, employees are likely to be left feeling ignored and looking for an exit strategy (McClean et al., 2013).
- Establish clear guidelines for what constitutes hostile/”un-inclusive” behaviour: while discrimination against minority groups is a real and potent force in the workplace, just as common is unintentional offense inflicted through micro-aggressions or office banter. To minimize such mishaps, include mandatory unconscious bias and inclusion trainings as part of your onboarding curriculum. Further, be sure employees understand what types of comments and behaviours are considered anti-social at your organisation, and what the consequences are on the other side.
“The effects of team diversity on team outcomes: A meta-analytic review of team demography,” Sujin K. Horwitz and Irwin B. Horwitz. Journal of Management, 2007.
“Disentangling the meanings of diversity and inclusion in organisations,” Quinetta M. Roberson. Group & Organisation Management, 2006.
“The role of diversity practices and inclusion in promoting trust and employee engagement,” Stephanie M. Downey, Lisa van der Werff, Kecia M. Thomas, Victoria C. Plaut. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2015.
“The bottom line: Connecting corporate performance and gender diversity,” Catalyst 2004.
“Women in management and firm value: An exploratory study,” Charles B. Shrader, Virginia Blackburn, Paul Iles. Journal of Managerial Issues, 1997.
“Diversity climate impact on employee of color outcomes: does justice matter?” E. Holly Buttner, Kevin B. Lowe, Lenora Billings-Harris. Career Development International, 2010.
“Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement,” Alan M. Saks. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 2006.