Diversity In The Workplace: What Is It, and Why Is It Important?

December 8th, 2020 | 15 minute read

In this post we are going to be addressing key elements around diversity in the workplace, and how to actually implement diversity and inclusion programmes that work.

What Is Diversity In The Workplace?

Despite over 70% of UK Employers stating that they have some form of Diversity and Inclusion training, but the statistics fail to back this up as making any sort of lasting impact. Less than 10% of women make up the CEO spots in the FTSE 100, only 6% of top management positions in the UK are held by BAME individuals, and more than 32% of LGBTQ employees hide their sexual orientation at work.

Before we dig into how you can drive real change in your diversity efforts, let’s look at the three buzzwords – diversity, equality and inclusion. Although often used interchangeably, they are very different notions that are often joined together into the term DEI.

What Is Diversity?

Diversity is used to describe different groups of people – diversity in the workplace is all focussed around the respect and appreciation of what makes different team members different in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation, education, social class and background.

Every person in a business brings perspectives, views, thoughts and beliefs that are based on their own individual background and experiences. When you have more diversity, you have more differentiation in views that can contribute to how you see business challenges, and opportunities.

In our post Great Minds Think Differently – Creating Cognitive Diversity we talk about the concept of diversity.

“The old saying goes “great minds think alike”, but for real business impact you should be focussing on “great minds think differently.”

How closely those in your senior leadership look and think alike, will impact how diverse your leadership thinking is. Take for example a room full of people that are mostly white, mostly male and mostly middle class – how much diversity of thinking happens in that room? We can only expand our thinking so far – if something never occurs to you – you can’t change it.

A homogenous team will tend to focus hard on the same things, and be blind to the same opportunities. Diverse teams miss less because each individual has different blind spots, so collectively they see more.

More diverse workplace with more varied opinions, backgrounds, decision making processes and experience can ultimately make your business more successful, as well as a more interesting and inclusive place to work.”

What Is Inclusion?

Inclusion is all around the different efforts you make in your organisation to recognise the benefits of differences, respect each individual and make team members from all backgrounds feel equally respected and considered. True inclusion creates a welcoming work environment for all, and provides opportunities for all team members to feel a sense of belonging.

When you have an inclusive culture, everyone in the business feels valued, appreciated and welcomed for who they are as an individual and their contribution.

True inclusion happens at every level – through people’s voices, in the powerful roles in your business, and at every level of your culture. It can include:

  • Having leadership role models that look like you
  • Feeling a sense of belonging and psychological safety with your team
  • Knowing that you have an equal voice to your peers
  • Having an equal chance at promotions

Is Diversity And Equality The Same?

Ultimately, equality is the end goal we are striving for with diversity and inclusion efforts.

While diversity is all about taking into account the differences in people, and valuing the difference in those inputs, equality is all about ensuring that everyone has equal opportunities, and is not treated differently or discriminated against because of any protected class, different characteristics or backgrounds.

How Is The Workplace Changing?

There have been many pivotal points in history where society has driven real diversity change, and recently, the summer of 2020 has presented a real opportunity for change. Unprecedented seems to be the keyword of 2020, and it certainly applies with diversity too. We are experiencing three crisis in one – the health crisis, ensuing economic crisis, and then a racial injustice crisis with the high profile killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other which have brought these conversations both to the forefront of the dinner table and the office.

This has created a level of awakening with leaders, even with those who haven’t engaged directly with diversity challenges before. Two of the key trends we are seeing emerging around diversity that is driving some real change:

Generation Z And Their Impact On Diversity and Inclusion

One of the key differences we are seeing with the clients we work with is in the different generational make up of many businesses in 2020. Generation Z is solidly in the workplace now and driving passionate conversation and debate about diversity where previous generations did not at such a mass level. The reality is with Gen Z, the intention is not enough: they want to see results, and they want to see action to back it up.

We have seen this evidenced with many clients over the last year where team members have been demanding action, versus just sharing passive concerns as has been more of the trend over the last couple of years.

Overcoming Toxic Masculinity

Everything from movements like #metoo to increased conversation and visibility of men’s mental health challenges has brought the concept of toxic masculinity to the forefront and we’re seeing a shift in the way this is dealt with in the workplace by both women and men alike.

In our post Why Gender Diversity In Leadership Is Still An Issue, we discuss the concept of the successful leader prototype having masculine qualities including of dominance and aggression in many industries and businesses, and how toxic masculinity seeps into leadership but rewarding those that shout the loudest.

Toxic masculinity refers to the harmful beliefs and attitudes about how “real men” should behave. It drives the notion that men should suppress emotions and vulnerability in favour of more “masculine” traits of hyper competitiveness, dominance and posturing. Essentially, anyone who doesn’t fit the depiction of a strong man is less valuable, and anyone who displays more emotional intelligence or stereotypical female traits will be less successful. It sounds like:

  • “He’s not rude, he’s just direct”
  • “He’s not PC, but he get’s shit done”
  • “He’s not emotionally intelligent, but he is super smart”

We’re seeing a shift in businesses starting to ask – at what cost though? And embracing techniques like leadership vulnerability, emotional intelligence and team connection.

Great Examples Of Diversity In The Workplace

Despite a gap globally in impactful diversity in the workplace programmes, there are some great examples of company’s doing this right.


L’Oréal has a presence in over 130 countries, across five continents, and their respect for multicultural diversity is at their core. They have recently been named one of the world’s top 10 companies by the 2020 Refinitiv Diversity & Inclusion Index that ranks the top 100 organisations globally on a wide ranging set of Diversity & Inclusion metrics among over 9,000 international organiations.

L’Oréal has so many global Diversity and Inclusion initiatives with just some examples incluing:

  • Disability awareness workshops in India
  • Pairing employees with multicultural students in the Netherlands to learn from different cultures
  • Offering training to young adults in vulnerable Pakistan communities

More than any of their initiative – L’Oreal can evidence the true impact on diversity in the workplace, and the company tops the list for gender equality with women at L’Oreal accounting for almost 70% of the workforce and over 50% of key positions.

IBM – Be Diverse

Another great example of a company championing diversity and inclusion at the deepest level is IBM and their Be Diverse campaign. Not only does the Be Equal campaign run internally in the business, but it also champions diversity and inclusion for everyone in driving systemic, sustainable improvement for people in every community.

The campaign challenges at every layer, as IBM’s Global Chief of Diversity and Inclusion Carla Grant-Pickins says:

“It is more important than ever for allies to stand together and use their privilege to actively champion and promote equality and inclusion.”

At IBM they look at action at every layer of diversity including:

  • The Use of Common Language – When discussing issues of diversity and inclusion, a common vocabulary is essential to avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Words often have different meanings to different people, based on their experiences and identities.
  • Building Empathy Over Sympathy – By developing empathy, a person is more able to understand situations from an outside point of view and imagine themselves in another person’s position. It is easy to feel sympathetic to another person’s challenges; however, imagining what it’s like to be in that person’s shoes is a step further to learning.

Their resources range from inclusive leadership during a crisis to using your everyday privilege for good to deep dives into each community & culture.

What Is The Impact of Diversity In The Workplace?

Diversity is not just about some lofty social goal of “inclusion” (even though that’s at the core), but it is also about all the immediate and tangible benefits to a business, and to the bottom line. Some of the benefits we have seen in our clients:

  1. Higher Levels of Customer Insight – When you have more variety of views in a room – you will come out with better ideas, it’s that simple. When you have more diversity of backgrounds, cultures, perspectives and nationalities in your business you are more likely to view your customers from a diverse standpoint too. To put this into context of a recent – if some of your customers are women – you will benefit from the perspective of women. If some of your customers are disabled, you will benefit from the perspective of others who are disabled, and so on and so forth.
  2. Increased Innovation – As previously mentioned, more diversity of opinion breeds more diversity of ideas. Rocio Lorenzo did a great study on this with over 171 companies.
  3. Higher Direct Returns – For example, a recent McKinsey report revealed that companies who focus on racial and ethnic diversity are 36% more likely to have financial returns that are above average for their industry. It’s strong evidence that building a diverse workforce can directly boost business success.
  4. It’s Engages Employees – People want to work for inclusive, collaborative cultures, and a businesses diversity directly impacts the engagement of its people.

Hiring Diverse Talent

You can only achieve true diversity in your workplace if you integrate it all the way at the beginning of your people processes – at recruitment stage. Businesses are starting to move away from tick box, compliance driven diversity hiring that has been the norm over the last 10 year, to more of a holistic, inclusive recruitment strategy that includes techniques like:

  • Expanding out search areas to target different regions and ethnic areas.
  • Re-writing job adverts to move away from gendered language.
  • Working at employer brand level to ensure the branding of the business is inclusive and attractive to a wide range of applicants.

There are lots of examples of technology trends in hiring including tools such as Applied and Headstart help to hire for talent without bias; Jopwell, a platform meant to help “black, Latinx, and Native American” job seekers to advance their careers; and Equiv, that brings the power of AI to help organisations prioritise diversity and inclusion.  

Challenges You May Face When Implementing Your Diversity Strategy

Although the benefits of a well executed DEI strategy are huge, there are a lot of challenges in navigating this.

  1. Leaders can be so afraid of misstepping that they do nothing – There are elements of DEI that are politicised and deeply polarising. It can be everything from the language involved, wanting to avoid the difficult conversations, not being able to pre-empt how people in the business may respond and just generally the fear of getting it wrong. Ultimately though, if business leaders don’t control and lead the narrative, someone else will.  It’s a hard decision to figure out where your business stands and how to communicate that in a way that doesn’t alienate employees or customers, but by not engaging, you are also dis-engaging employees and customers in the process.
  2. It requires an investment of both time and money – Because of the complicated nature, any DEI efforts need to be carefully considered, and delivered by experts educated in how to deliver the right messaging and encourage sharing in a safe and inclusive environment. This can be more challenging for smaller businesses with tighter budgets.
  3. Diversity in the decision makers – It is important to consider the diversity in the people making the decisions about your DEI strategy in your business. If it is the leadership team, you may want to consider how diverse they are themselves. If they aren’t you might want to gather feedback via surveys or focus groups before you move forwards so it is informed by a more diverse cross section of your workforce.

A lot of larger corporates are publishing free diversity resources that you can access as a smaller business which can be a great starting point. In addition to some of the examples we have already talked about like IBM’s Be Diverse, the below are some useful resources:

Managing Bias At Facebook

Google’s Unbiasing

Diversity & Inclusion At Lever

How to Challenge Diversity Issues in the Workplace

Before we can look at promoting diversity in the workplace, it is important to look at how you can challenge any pre-existing diversity issues.

  • The first element to think is re-thinking your thinking. Do you have really set ways of thinking about certain issues? Have you ever challenged the thinking you have at leadership level, or across the wider business? Do you actually believe that an issue exists with diversity and inclusion within your business?
  • Provide a safe forum for the team at all levels to provide feedback or speak out about issues – something like a confidential virtual suggestion box is really useful for this.
  • Do an assessment of the modelled behaviours in your business – what is deemed acceptable? Are there any bad behaviours that are overlooked or championed by key members?
  • Provide proactive tools for the people in your business to show that you want people to challenge diversity issues, and to speak up. This is a useful HBR article on calling out racial injustice at work. 

How to Promote Diversity in the Workplace?

So how do you practically promote diversity, inclusion and equality? The key with this to drive measurable change, not just put a tick in a box. There are several steps to promoting a real shift:

  1. Define the change you want to make and be specific. I.e. more women in leadership.
  2. Link the change to solid business objectives. When you do this more people will prioritise it – as an example if you are looking at more women in leadership – it may your female customer base has grown significantly so more women at leadership level will help the business understand that market better.
  3. Look at the areas of your business that need the most change. It may be useful to involve the people that most represent the group you are trying to support (if you have a specific objective like the example of women in leadership). It could be that meetings don’t feel very inclusive, or your leadership examples aren’t representative of diversity, or you don’t have places for safe conversation, or you are hiring from a small, traditional pool, etc. Note the areas for change and then specifically work around them.
  4. Coach your managers and leaders. They need to be an example of the change, otherwise it will never be fully integrated.
  5. Bring it to life. Don’t get lost in really procedural, dry, legislative training – make it engaging and interesting so that people in the business can see the vision for change and get excited about it.
  6. Measure impact not activity. Make sure that you focus on the impact of what you are looking to do – i.e. have female examples in leadership, vs interview equal numbers of women and men for promotions. Often businesses measure the activity to tick a box (i.e. saying they have interviewed equal men to women), but fail to drive real change (i.e. never actually hire a woman). Focussing on measuring the actual impact will avoid tick box diversity exercises.


Diversity in the Workplace: What It Is, and Why Is It Important?

We have looked at the breakdown of DEI – and the real differences between diversity, equality and inclusion. We have looked at some of the workplace trends that have caused some of the shifts around diversity, some amazing examples of diversity done right, and the true impact a good diversity strategy can have on your business. To wrap all of this up we looked at some practical ways you can challenge diversity issues, and promote inclusion and equality across your business.  

We hope that this post has provided some really thought provoking topics, great examples you can learn from and some practical takeaways to implement into your own business.

The only question that remains – how diverse is your workplace? What key actions do you need to takeaway to make your culture more inclusive?


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