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Biggest Challenges To Workplace Diversity

Workplace diversity is critical to organizational success. But there are serious challenges to building diverse organizations. Here's how we can overcome them.

Matthew Reeves

April 5, 2021

Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) are key issues of importance for HR leaders today. Just look at the results of numerous studies documenting the shift in mindset:

  • A report done by Deloitte found that 69 percent of executives reported diversity is an important issue. 
  • When studying how diversity and employee engagement affected performance Gallup found that "the combination of [high] employee engagement and gender diversity resulted in 46% to 58% higher financial performance."
  • In a similar study drawing a connection between performance and diversity, Boston Consulting Group "found that companies with above-average total diversity had both 19% higher innovation revenues and 9% higher EBIT margins, on average."
  • Those businesses that have more women in executive positions are 25 percent more likely to earn more.

There is study after study supporting that diverse organizations perform better. But along with the opportunities there is also moral and ethical pressure coming from employees and the public - and rightly so.

It is clear that organizations that support diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in their organizations will be the one's we see succeeding in the future of work. These companies will have robust and actionable DEIB programs that affect all levels of their organization.

Yet, getting these programs off the ground to support diverse organizations can be challenging and require a lot of organizational change. These organizational changes will require both policy changes at a high level and grassroots efforts to speak up and acknowledge prejudice or blatant discrimination.

Of the numerous challenges with leading diverse organizations, here are the biggest challenges to workplace diversity that companies will face and how to overcome them.  


Communication Issues

Many organizations face communication issues, but these problems are bound to arise when you ask people from different backgrounds, cultures, genders, ages, etc., to work together. Misunderstandings, clashes, and conflicts will happen.

"This meeting have been an email"

As Millennials out grow Boomers as the dominant generation in the workforce and Gen-Z follow closely behind our norms of communication clash. For example, we've all been part of (arguably) pointless meetings where an email could have sufficed. Likewise, Slack etiquette (the way we use workplace instant messaging tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams) becomes a contentious topic as employees rage over messages that start with only "hey." Both younger and older generations can appreciate how frustrating those disruptions can be.

Nuances, slang, and language barriers

Global organizations will undoubtedly hire employees with different primary languages. When different teams collaborate and the default language is expected to be english it can ostracize individuals who don't speak it as their first language.

Consider this example:

A new employee who just joined a large global company is excited and nervous. They speak english, but it isn't their first language. Although they're reading and writing skills in english are strong, they're still practicing verbal communication. During their first few meetings they find it hard to keep up and find it challenging to understand their english slang. They wish they could slow down a bit and speak more clearly. They feel pressured to contribute early on and make a good first impression, but they feel discouraged and don't feel confident enough to speak up.

This example illustrates an organization's failure to build an inclusive workplace. The employee is clearly being left out of the conversation and those leading the meeting aren't making any effort to recognize that cultural differences may cause communication issues.

What leaders can do to mitigate communication issues

In the example above, an organization that values and actively supports DEIB would acknowledge at the beginning of the meeting that, as a global organization, it's unlikely that everyone's primary language is english. For that reason, they should all be encouraged to speak more clearly and avoid slang. Doing this avoids singling anyone out and supports a workplace of belonging and inclusion.

In addition to making meetings more inclusive, companies can take a number of other steps:

  • As a company define expectations for communication across different channels like Slack, email, or virtual/in-person meetings
  • Acknowledge language barriers and provide guidelines for running more inclusive meetings
  • Encourage employees to feel safe speaking up when they experience issues in communication

By enhancing communication at your workplace, you’ll also start to have a more positive environment for everyone. 

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Prejudice, Discrimination, Bias, And Stereotypes

Unfortunately, prejudice, stereotypes, and bias are often ingrained in us and overcoming them takes humility and an openness to change. It's no wonder these issues are so sticky. Much of the time it goes unnoticed, or worse, unchecked by others. These behaviours very quickly devolve an organizations culture and bread toxicity.

It's important to define what each of these terms mean so we can reveal how they play out in the workplace (definitions courtesy of Merriam Webster):

  • Prejudice - a feeling of like or dislike for someone or something especially when it is not reasonable or logical.
  • Discrimination - the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people.
  • Bias - a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment.
  • Stereotype - unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic.

By outlining the definitions it becomes obvious why none of them should be present in the workplace. They are still present however and leaders and managers should be equipped to root them out.

Uncovering bias

For instance, you may find employees not wanting to engage with one another. Thomas Timothy Tart, a career consultant shares in an article four questions he'd ask when confronted with this feeling:

  • I do not feel comfortable with this person because …
  • I am skeptical about this worker’s ability to do a good job because …
  • I would be hesitant to put this employee in front of a customer because …
  • I would prefer not to have this individual on my project team because …

By asking these questions it quickly reveals whether there is a legitimate reason or unconscious bias, prejudice, discrimination, or stereotype underlying their feelings.

When these situations arise, it is essential to handle them quickly, so they don’t interfere with your business goal of improving diversity. If left unchecked, they'll cause divisions at your company. They may even result in some employees leaving and other candidates not wanting to work at your organization.

This video by the Diversity Consultant Scott Horton clearly illustrates how easy it is to fall into a trap of developing leaders that are similar to you.

As our circle of trust gets smaller so too does their diversity. Recognizing bias brings it to light and can help us move towards mitigating it.

For example, we can begin ensuring that employees are given equal opportunities to leadership roles by involving DEIB principles in our succession planning.

Likewise, having leaders publicly condemn any form of blatant racism or discrimination while encouraging employees to speak up when they spot implicit biases goes lengths to building a diverse and inclusive workplace.


Lack Of Consensus

While employees with different perspectives can feed innovation at an organization, it can also lead to paralysis. With too many ideas or solutions on the table, finding a consensus about the direction of a project can be put in jeopardy. It is difficult to get employees to buy into the project if they don’t believe in its direction.

One of the ways that organizations can overcome this is to set up a small committee. If there is no consensus among the team about the right solution or idea, the committee can examine the solutions put forward. It will be up to the committee to decide how the team will move forward. 


Resistance To Change

It is natural for employees to resist change, and employers who want to implement diversity initiatives may come up against some resistance to their plans. Some people may cling to how things have always been done because we are creatures of habit. However, with persistence and good leadership, this resistance can be overcome. When you face resistance, discuss the values of having a diverse workplace.

Ensure that employees understand the benefits that will result from diverse initiatives. You may also want to have employees undergo diversity training to understand better what changes may be coming.  When people understand the value and importance of having a diverse workplace, they’ll be more accepting and patient with the process. 

Lack Of Employee Resource Groups

Employee resource groups (ERGs) are internal groups focused on particular themes. For example, a women-in-leadership or diverse background ERG. They come together to discuss shared experiences, support one another and build a sense of belonging and inclusion for those groups within the organizations.

It's important to have talent pipelines that nurtures diverse talent, equitable opportunities for all employees, and inclusive work environments that make everyone feel like they can be their authentic selves and belong.

Employee resource groups are a key part of inclusion and belonging. Having these groups creates a space where members of groups that are usually a minority in the workplace can build relationships with others like them.

New York Life, for example works with Together to run mentoring programs between their ERGs in different regions. Their mentoring programs opened up lines of communication between junior employees from diverse backgrounds and leadership. As the groups supported its members they were then prepared for leadership positions.

Recruiting Diverse Talent

A great example of a company that slipped unintentionally into building a non-diverse workforce is Mailshake, an email automation company.

While growing their startup they didn’t actively think about diversity and after four years they had 10 males, one female, all of which were white. When they woke up to this reality they began asking themselves the hard questions of why how they got to that point.

The process led them to identify that their hiring process was the problem. The changes they made can be summarized in four steps:

  1. Diversify where your company sources applicants by using female focused job boards.
  2. Write job descriptions that are neutral and only include must-haves.
  3. Remove unconscious biases during the interview process.
  4. Provide mentors that will support new employees through onboarding and continued development.

What was the outcome of these changes? Their executive team transitioned from 100% white to 50% white and non-white. Additionally female engineering job seekers increased from 8% percent to 25%. You can read about their full story on our blog How To Build a Diverse Workplace in four steps.


Tips to improve workplace diversity

There are several ways that companies can improve diversity at their workplace, including:

Respect

All employees must be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their cultural background, gender, age, etc. 

Good leadership

Company leaders should be good role models for employees. Be intentional about building a safe space for all employees. 

Invite discussion

Employees need to feel that they are heard. It is important to be transparent and to invite discussion among team members. 

Mentorships

Build understanding and growth through different workplace mentoring programs. Mentors and mentees from different backgrounds can be paired together to help each gain a deeper understanding of different perspectives.

Mentoring programs can also be used as tools to develop diverse employees for more leadership positions. Starting and managing diverse workplace mentoring programs is simple through mentoring software.

Research has found that companies with a higher diversity ranking do better. While there are some challenges to implementing these programs, the payoff for organizations and employees makes it worth the effort. 

Click here to find out how workplace mentorships are key to achieving your company’s diversity initiatives. 

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