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Beyond Diversity: Stop Categorizing Differences and Start Embracing People

Diversity and inclusion. It’s a phrase we hear a lot these days in the media, private conversations, and of course in the workplace. Usually these two words are treated as a single concept, with most of the attention given to the former.

But by narrowly focusing on diversity — and neglecting inclusion — companies too often miss the opportunity to embrace differences. That’s not to say efforts to diversify the workforce are unimportant; in fact, they are vital components of any successful workplace, not to mention a company’s ultimate success.

By narrowly focusing on diversity — and neglecting inclusion — companies too often miss the opportunity to embrace differences.

Though these terms are often used interchangeably, there’s a clear distinction between diversity and inclusion. Diversity is traditionally concerned with group identity — classes defined by common characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, sex, religion, etc. Efforts to increase the number of these under-represented groups in the workplace are often aimed at the recruitment process. For example, a company might start an incentivization plan that offers higher employee bonuses for referrals of successful candidates from one of these classes. While action plans like these are instrumental in expanding the conversation, they don’t guarantee that those new voices will be heard. In fact, individuals from diverse backgrounds may be conditioned to self-censor their thoughts or opinions.

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To gain the full benefits of diversity, organizations need to focus on inclusion. Inclusivity focuses in on the person — their personal feelings, professional development, and overall sense of validation. It teaches coworkers to view one another as people, rather than just an assortment of labels. It also helps us recognize our own hidden biases and how they manifest themselves. Most importantly, workplace programs that balance diversity and inclusion move beyond thinking about what boxes an employee checks, and instead create opportunities for dialogue that can make a meaningful difference in that person’s life and ensure their ideas are heard.

This isn’t easy to do; it requires challenging old assumptions and learning new skills. But, done effectively, inclusive practices can attract new ideas, audiences and, ultimately, the talent necessary to not only survive but thrive.


Diversity & Inclusion Training Courses


Listening to Diversity

Employees don’t check their identity at the front door. They have wants, needs and perspectives separate and apart from their role within the company. Successful inclusion efforts recognize and respect that individuality, starting with how managers and leadership listen. When people speak, they don’t want others thinking about where they’re from or what their background is, or have their thoughts filtered through opinions about their age or gender. They want to be heard, and for what they say to be taken on its own merits. But how can you accomplish this in your business?

While we can never eliminate our own biases, identifying and acknowledging them is an important first step in helping us truly listen.

First, you must recognize your own biases. While it may be challenging to admit, we all have some level of biases that can surface in our conversations with others. These can range from preconceptions about someone’s educational achievements, or religion to opinions about tattoos they have or where they attended school. You may not see it, but they do, and that’s a pretty dangerous thing. While we can never eliminate our own biases, identifying and acknowledging them is an important first step in helping us truly listen.

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Acknowledging an idea and engaging in meaningful follow-up is another way to make employees feel heard. This doesn’t necessarily equate to action; not every idea can or should be used, but it should be considered and dealt with on its merits.

Language of Inclusion

Language is an important component of inclusive behavior. Striving to say “people” instead of “employees” demonstrates respect for their individuality, as does eschewing phrases like “my workers” or “my team” (which can imply that they are somehow owned). Of course, these aren’t hard and fast rules; there are many circumstances in which such phrases are wholly appropriate. Most important is cultivating an awareness of, and mindfulness towards, the impact our words can have.

Validating People

Above all, inclusive businesses should respect and encourage authentic communication, especially when the message is one they may not want to hear.

Together, listening to differing views and practicing inclusive language evoke validation. And validation is the foundation of a truly inclusive environment. Above all, inclusive businesses should respect and encourage authentic communication, especially when the message is one they may not want to hear. The reflexive response to a candid answer on an employee survey or a negative review on a recruiting site might be to refute or obscure it. But respecting that person’s experience, and adapting your practices accordingly, will ultimately result in a better and more productive workplace that benefits everyone.

Download: 7 Reasons You Should Be Doing Diversity & Inclusion Training​

None of us are perfect. But through the conscious application of inclusive techniques and orientations, we can build a workplace that embraces people as individuals whose unique opinions, ideas and experiences can make our organizations stronger and resilient. 

Register today for NAVEX Next Beyond the Moment:
Creating Sustainable Diversity, Equality, & Inclusion Programs


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