For over a century, employers have had the duty of ensuring diverse individuals are incorporated within their workplaces, and the task remains just as crucial today. Whether you have a dedicated individual in charge of this effort or an official program run throughout your entire human resources team, diversity and inclusion have proven to be more important than just meeting hiring targets your C-suite may have prioritized–and much confusion remains as to how it should be done. Much like the “chicken or the egg” causality dilemma, does diversity come first, or does inclusion?

What’s the Difference?

Many lump the two terms together, focusing on ‘diversity,’ but they have two very different meanings. For example, having a diverse workforce does not automatically mean you have an inclusive workforce. I like to think of diversity as the quantitative factor and inclusion as the qualitative factor. Diversity focuses on the number or ratio of diverse individuals hired within an organization, or the hiring targets met. It’s a focus on people’s differences. Inclusion, on the other hand, is focused on the individual and highlighting their differences to emphasize commonalities in an all-encompassing workplace. It’s about what makes people feel welcome and accepted at work.

Entrepreneur Vernā Myers famously said, “Diversity is being invited to the party; Inclusion is being asked to dance.” How does this translate? It means you can hire as many diverse individuals as you possibly can (diversity), but if you don’t trust them, value them, engage them and make them feel welcome and accepted (inclusion), they’ll become unhappy and leave. In other words, diversity without inclusion equals a reduced retention rate, higher turnover, and less culturally aware workplace.

For many, especially government contractors, diversity is the rule, but ultimately, inclusion should be the goal.

Why Do I Need a Diverse Workforce?

Diverse people bring a wide range of talents and skills to the table, which results in different ideas and ways of thinking. Additionally, a happy employee makes for a more productive employee. With that said, it’s no surprise that diverse workforces are more innovative and therefore drives more revenue. On the other hand, an inclusive workplace isn’t just beneficial for diverse individuals, but for everyone. Working with individuals of varying backgrounds and cultures leads to an enriched professional experience and the ability to bond over similarities. Furthermore, learning to respect and appreciate differences can help abandon stereotypes and implicit biases for the greater good of your organization and for your community and humankind.

If we’ve learned anything from recent events, it’s that disparities are abound, and the workplace is no exception. According to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation in 2019, only 3.2% of executive or senior-level official and management positions are held by black individuals, and only 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are black. Similarly, 23% of black men and 16% of black women feel that someone of their race or ethnicity could never achieve a top position within their current company. More importantly, less than half of all professionals, regardless of race, feel that their company has effective D&I efforts1. But, according to another study, 98% of companies have a diversity program2.

So, where is the disconnect?

It all comes back to inclusion.

Despite the abundant presence of corporate diversity efforts, the stats and evidence show people of color still do not feel included in the workplace­–so much so that they don’t even believe that someone of their race could ever achieve a leadership position within their company. Unfortunately, this doesn’t just apply to the black community. It also applies to women, minorities of all races and ethnicity, LGBTQ individuals, and those of a varying range of ages, national origin, and physical and neurological differences. This fact leaves many to ask the question…

How Do I Build an Inclusive Workforce?

Assess where you are right now.

Despite inclusion being the overarching goal, it’s good to first start with the numbers. Begin by taking a look at the ratio of diverse individuals within your organization to get an idea of how diverse your workforce is in its current state. Next, take a look at your diversity program and conduct a quick SWOT analysis–assess your program’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities for growth and improvement, and areas where problems could arise if not addressed immediately. This is a great starting point and serves as a benchmark for the inclusion improvements you are going to make. No matter what you uncover, there is always room for improvement!

Get feedback.

Regardless of what your ratio looked like in step one, you need input–and not just from leadership­­­. Go straight to the source! Do an anonymous company-wide survey or create a voluntary focus group of diverse individuals in your organization and ask them about your inclusion efforts. How do they feel about your company’s diversity and inclusion efforts? What kind of improvements would they like to see? What can you do to make them feel a sense of belonging? Remember, happy employees are loyal employees! Reading through the answers will likely not be a comfortable experience, but embrace the discomfort and use this feedback as your starting point to push forward and grow as an organization.

Train your employees.

Diversity starts with your recruiters, but your workforce as a whole shapes inclusion. In other words, a fair and accepting workplace comes from more than just leaders. It stems from all employees as these interactions make up the bulk of a diverse individual’s daily work encounters. When I say ‘training,’ I don’t just mean formal diversity, sensitivity, and harassment training–I mean more than that. Put it in action so that your employees can learn by doing. Ensure meetings are comprised of diverse individuals and make sure leaders ask for and respect all opinions and ideas brought to the table. After a while, this will become second-nature, and inclusion in decisions will begin to flow naturally. Plan team-building activities that allow your employees to really connect with one another on a personal and professional level, or establish one-on-one programs to take the connect even further. This brings us to the next key component of an inclusive workforce: employee resource groups.

Create Employee Resource Groups and Mentor Programs.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are a great way to begin the journey to inclusion and are a key component of inclusion. These groups provide diverse individuals with a safe space to join with other diverse employees, discuss both struggles and goals, and help establish a sense of belonging. They are also a way to bring in non-diverse individuals to gain a better understanding of their diverse co-workers’ struggles and goals. This understanding can go a long way in building inclusivity! Mentor programs are another option for welcoming diverse employees. Consider matching a diverse mentee with a similarly diverse mentor for the opportunity to exchange shared personal experiences and advice, or with a non-diverse individual for the benefit of building understanding and camaraderie among both parties. Once a mentee has completed the program, offer them the chance to become a mentor to keep the conversation and education progressing forward little by little. Now watch it expand and grow!

Be prepared to make ongoing changes.

When you first begin evaluating your diversity and inclusion efforts, it’s important not to get discouraged by your progress or lack thereof. The important thing to keep in mind is that your intentions are good and that you are prepared to put in the work to learn and make improvements. Buddhist Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was right when he said, “Everything is perfect and there is always room for improvement.” Regardless of how well things seem to be going, you must never neglect the process and always keep moving forward with bigger and better things in mind.

In summary, diversity does not necessarily build inclusion, but does inclusion build diversity? The answer is certainly, ‘yes!’ If you create a workplace where under-represented individuals feel comfortable, welcome, and valued, more diverse individuals will want to join your workforce and diversity will grow as a result of inclusion. All in all, making your organization more inclusive may just be the first step in working your way towards a diverse workforce.

Regardless of which letter you put first, D&I or I&D, inclusion needs to remain a focal point of any diversity program. Meeting the numbers is no longer enough, and to be honest, it never was. Ultimately, the question is for you to decide: Which is more important? Counting heads, or making heads count?


[1] “Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration”. https://www.talentinnovation.org/publication.cfm?publication=1650. Accessed 2020 June 16.

[2] “Companies are investing in diversity, but many workers don’t reap the benefits”. https://www.hrdive.com/news/companies-are-investing-in-diversity-but-many-workers-dont-reap-the-benef/546376/. Accessed 2020 June 16.

Kacie Clark
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