What is Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the Workplace?

What is Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in the Workplace?

The way we discuss and approach diversity, equity & inclusion in the workplace is changing. It wasn’t long ago that we only spoke about diversity & inclusion, and before that just diversity.

Those changes in terminology reflect a shift in attitude, however, and knowing what those terms mean is the first step in building a people-forward future of work. By defining diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I) within your workplace, you show that you genuinely care that all of your employees belong.

Why does that matter? A report by Forrester found that workplace belonging leads to a 56% increase in job performance and a 50% reduction in turnover risk. The cornerstone of creating any company community is a shared understanding of DE&I.

But defining those three terms doesn’t mean reducing them into one simplistic initiative. 

Diversity, equity & inclusion are inherently interrelated, but they’re also distinct concepts. When planning your DE&I strategy, understanding their differences is just as important as grasping how they connect. More than that, your specific culture and tone of voice will feed into your own unique definition of each. DE&I is how you make your company values carry real weight. 

What is the Meaning of Diversity in the Workplace?

Diversity in the workplace shouldn’t have one definition, even if there are some universal constants. But if you’re going to define it to your workforce in your terms we need to start more broadly. 

Outside of a working context, diversity refers to the state of being diverse; of exhibiting a great deal of range and variety. In the workplace, it’s no different. We live in a world that’s shaped by countless different cultures, perspectives, and ethnicities—your company should be formed of a similarly wide range of voices.

A sense of belonging is a fundamental human need. For organizations to guarantee a sense of belonging, they must first have a refined D&I strategy.

Patrick Cournoyer, Workday

Rather than solely referring to a multicultural workforce, diversity reflects all of our many differences. Gender, race, age, sexuality, disability, education, class; your company has to consider each and every factor that makes up diversity. In turn, those distinctive perspectives will determine the character of your business. 

In a series of studies undertaken in 2014, 2017, and 2019, McKinsey evaluated the gender diversity of company’s executive teams. Companies in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15%, 21%, and 25% likelier (respectively) to outperform those in the bottom quartile. With that figure ever increasing, the future of business is diversity. 

How Has the Definition of Diversity Changed?

When looking to the future of diversity within your business, understanding how diversity has evolved is essential. Given the strides made in recent years, it’s important to note how meanings have changed, and to avoid outdated definitions. 

The origins of diversity legislation in the workplace lie, perhaps unexpectedly, within the US army. In 1948 President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, effectively desegregating the US army. In the years that followed, this legislation served as the foundation for multiple other laws aiming to end ethnic segregation in the workplace.

Accordingly, diversity was largely seen as visibly representing minority groups. That’s where the biggest shifts in definition have come from. Where diversity once referred to your company’s make-up of racial, gender, and sexuality demographics, in the modern workplace the meaning has taken on new facets.

Culture, knowledge, and experience now all carry equal weight too. Real diversity is recognizing that people aren’t a set of attributes on a spreadsheet, and that every voice is unique. That’s not to discount the importance of having a diverse workforce on all fronts, but that true diversity requires a deeper understanding of each person.

It’s this approach to diversity that leads into inclusion.

What is Inclusion in the Workplace?

Inclusion in the workplace means ensuring that every employee is given the room to thrive. If diversity concerns building a workforce with a wide-ranging selection of backgrounds and experiences, inclusive policy is how you give them all a voice.

That’s why diversity without inclusion is meaningless.

Organizations that enact sustainable DE&I strategies achieve up to a 20% increase in organizational inclusion. Greater inclusion leads to greater employee engagement, and several key benefits:

  • A 6.2% increase in on-the-job effort
  • A 5% increase in employees’ intent to stay
  • A nearly 3% increase in individual employee performance

While diversity and inclusion are distinct, and require attention in their own right, they’re inherently shaped by one another. Changing hiring procedures to ensure a diverse staff is important, but they need the proper space to grow as well. If they don’t, that leads to tokenism. 

Forrester found that workplace belonging leads to a 56% increase in job performance and a 50% reduction in turnover risk.

Peakon, a Workday company

The Fallacy of Tokenism

Tokenism is common in businesses that only view diversity as a means to improve their public image. Hiring employees from underrepresented groups means nothing if they’re not in positions of power, and they don’t have a voice.

Tokenism means acting superficially to support DE&I, but without really taking substantive action. That approach is superficial, and in many ways, as damaging as no diversity whatsoever. 

Inclusion does not mean the absence of exclusion. If you don’t have a Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion as an active part of your C-suite, and if you don’t incorporate inclusive policies into your workplace, employees will still face barriers to progress.

The question businesses have to ask is: do you want to be progressive, or just appear to be?

What is the Definition of Discrimination in the Workplace?

Discrimination in the workplace is another common consequence of diversity without inclusion. If you hire a diverse range of employees, you have to consider everyone’s needs alongside everyone’s unconscious biases. That’s why inclusion is so important.

Discrimination in the workplace occurs when someone is treated unfairly based on their race, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, or any other characteristic protected by equality acts. This discrimination can be further split into two categories:

  • Direct discrimination: Actively treating an employee differently based on a protected characteristic. That can cover favouring a man over a similarly-qualified woman for promotion, or not making adjustments in the office for a disabled colleague.  
  • Indirect discrimination: Not considering the distinct needs of your current and future employees when enacting rules and regulations. That might be organizing work events on days of worship, or a job listing specifying qualifications from a specific country. 

What is the Difference Between Diversity and Inclusion?

We’ve touched on the difference between diversity and inclusion already, but it’s good to ground yourself in these two terms before adjusting how your company operates.

  • Diversity refers to how diverse your workforce is, covering a multitude of different characteristics. That includes race, culture, gender, sexuality, and experience. At its heart, it’s about welcoming different worldviews to your business.
  • Inclusion is when all of your employees feel like they belong in your company. That means that they have the opportunity to voice their opinions, that they don’t feel excluded on the basis of their identity, and that they see themselves reflected in your company values. 

The benefits of DEI won’t just be felt by your company, but by every single one of your employees.

Peakon, a Workday company

Defining Equity in the Workplace

We’ve discussed diversity and inclusion extensively, but you’ve probably noticed there’s another letter in DE&I. That ‘E’ stands for ‘equity’. 

Equity refers to the policies you institute that support diversity and inclusion in your company. It’s about recognizing that each individual is unique, and accommodating their needs properly. By acknowledging the structural imbalances in your company, you’ll discover tangible, real-world solutions.

Equity-first businesses go through a consistent process of redressing the balance of opportunity. It’s a matter of recognizing that certain groups are subject to advantages, and vice versa—whether that’s gender pay gaps or biased onboarding practices—and taking direct, sustained action. 

What’s the Difference Between Equity and Equality in the Workplace?

Equity and equality may first appear like synonyms, but there are some essential differences.  

  • Equality in the workplace: Equality assumes that all employees are the same, and treats them as such. While this sounds inclusive, it’s actually incredibly open to bias, and ignores demographic-specific needs.
  • Equity in the workplace: Equity recognizes that we are all different, and that’s what makes each one of us great. Rather than blanket policies, equity-led businesses consider individual needs, while also rebalancing structures to account for disadvantages faced by minority groups. 

What Does DE&I Mean for Your Company?

Acknowledging inadequacies within your current model can be tricky, but the benefits of diversity, equity & inclusion in the workplace are manifold. More importantly, the benefits of DEI won’t just be felt by your company, but by every single one of your employees. 

But how do you discover what’s not working with your business currently?

The first step is simple: listen to your employees. If you’re attempting to build a business that’s more diverse, and that better represents your employees’ views, the first step is to ask them where they think you’re falling short. Not only that, but by giving everyone a voice, you create the foundations of your future DE&I policy.