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Workforce Diversity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How To Promote It

Promoting workforce diversity should be a priority for all HR professionals. Having an equitable, diverse work environment isn’t just the right thing to do, it can also foster greater productivity and employee engagement. 

The need for greater diversity in the workplace was recently echoed in a White House executive order. The executive order seeks to advance equity, civil rights, and racial justice while giving all Americans equal opportunity in their professional lives. 

But despite the recent buzz around workforce diversity, some folks still don’t understand the need for greater equity and inclusion at work. Businesses that operate remotely may be more likely to fall foul of this misunderstanding, as managers and other employees never see the impact that a lack of diversity has on employee mental health. 

In this article, we provide a clear explanation of why greater diversity is needed and how to promote it in your business. 

What’s the Issue?

Recent social justice campaigns have highlighted the need for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the corporate world. Many businesses have responded positively to the call for greater diversity at work, and are now operating with DEI principles in mind. 

Despite this positive progress, recent research shows there is still much to do to provide more equitable opportunities to all people. 

Racial Inequity

The U.S. labor market is showing good signs of post-pandemic recovery. As of 2022, the unemployment rate was down from 8.1% to 5.3%. Despite this fall in unemployment, many Black Americans still face systemic barriers to employment that white peers do not face. 

This reality is underlined by the insights of Christian E. Waller, a senior fellow at American Progress and professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts. Waller finds that, as a demographic group, Black Americans generally “continue to face systematically higher unemployment rates, fewer job opportunities, lower pay, poorer benefits, and greater job instability”

The widespread lack of access to well-paying stable jobs for Black Americans is a socio-economic issue that impacts us all. As the wealth gap between white and Black Americans continues to grow, it’s up to businesses to step up and do their part. 

Disability

Disability is often overlooked when discussing diversity, equity, and inclusion. However, scholars and activists have been advocating for greater rights and access for decades. Folks involved with disability studies have made great improvements to the lived reality of disabled workers through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

Despite progress, disabled employees still face significant barriers to employment. In a survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 71.3% of disabled participants reported facing barriers to employment beyond their own disability: 

  • Lack of training/education
  • Lack of access to transport
  • Need for special features on the job
  • Employer/co-worker attitudes
  • Lack of job counseling or government assistance

While barriers to unemployment are trending downwards, much improvement is needed on behalf of lawmakers and individual businesses to ensure that everybody can fulfill their potential in a professional environment. 

Gender

According to research collected by McKinsey and Company, strides have been made to promote greater gender equality and diversity in the corporate landscape. But, despite recent progress, women still face barriers to equitable employment and representation at higher levels of the business hierarchy. 

The McKinsey report found that women “are promoted to manager at far lower rates than men,” and that one in four women have considered leaving their jobs due to disproportionate burnout and poor representation at the higher echelons of their business. 

Women of color face particularly poor representation in the corporate landscape. As is often the case, intersectional issues of race and gender combine to create a hostile environment for women of color — particularly in “C-Suite” level jobs, where women of color only represent 4% of all employees. 

Women-owned businesses also face significant barriers to success. Women-owned businesses are less likely to receive the financial backing they need to start and grow their business. This disparity is particularly pronounced in states like Texas, where women of color are three times less likely to receive financial backing than their white counterparts. 

Sexuality

A recent Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the importance of Title VII in the USA. Title VII “makes it unlawful for a covered employer to take an employee’s sexual orientation or transgender status into account in making employment-related decisions.” 

However, Title VII only applies to employers with 15 or more employees and does not extend fair-employment rights to contractors or those working in religious organizations. 

A recent study found that one in ten LGBT workers experienced discrimination at work in the past year and LGBT workers of color were more likely to “report being denied jobs and verbal harassment.” The same study also found that:

  • 46% of LGBT workers have experienced unfair treatment at work at some point in their lives;
  • 29% of LGBT people of color were denied a job opportunity; 
  • 11% of LGBT employees of color reported being fired or not hired in the past year.

The study speaks towards a generally hostile professional environment faced by LGBT employees. This means that, despite legal protections, LGBT employees are forced to be strategic about the workforce they join and how they express themselves in their working environment. 

Why Does It Matter?

We’ve come a long way in the past decade. Policymakers and business leaders have made meaningful strides to promote diversity and improve equity and inclusion in the workforce. But the journey toward a more just, equitable corporate climate has just begun. 

Here’s how employers will benefit from greater workforce diversity.  

Legality and Values

There are a dozen laws that protect federal and state workers from all forms of discrimination. These laws, acts, and orders are designed to ensure that workers receive reasonable accommodations and are not subjected to unfair dismissals or abuse while at work. 

Falling foul of anti-discrimination laws can land businesses in legal trouble that comes with a hefty bill. Employees who lose out on pay are often entitled to back pay and damages. This can be particularly expensive if an employer has caused distress or harm that requires medical intervention. Some breaches of employment law have a maximum payout while others are uncapped. 

But businesses shouldn’t promote diversity just to avoid anti-discrimination lawsuits. Being a diverse employer aligns with most people’s democratic values and ideals. This means that promoting diversity at work will ensure that your business aligns with your employee’s values, leading to greater wellness at work and an improved sense of belonging amongst all your workers. 

Productivity

It may sound Machiavellian, but promoting a diverse workforce leads to greater productivity at work. When a workplace cherishes diversity, workers benefit from greater exposure to unique perspectives and ideas. This is particularly important for remote businesses where creativity and productivity are vital for long-term success. 

Research conducted by Deloitte echoes the idea that diverse workplaces are more productive and profitable. Companies that leverage diversity can enhance creativity and innovation by 20 percent. Those same companies are also able to spot operational risks and reduce their prevalence by 30%. This results in a 17% rise in team performance and a six-fold increase in agility. 

Being a diverse employer leads to a more productive, content workforce. But the benefits extend beyond the work day. Employees who work in more diverse settings may have a better work-life balance and time management, as burnout is likely to be avoided when employees feel included and valued in the workplace. 

What Can You Do? 

Being a diverse employer is the right thing to do — it’s also more profitable and leads to a healthier working environment. 

But working towards building a more diverse workforce can be tricky. There are plenty of potential potholes along the way and you need to take a strategic approach to properly promote diversity in your business.

Diversity Audits

As an HR professional, you already know the importance of metrics and quantitative data. However, assessing diversity in your business takes more than a simple demographic review. 

While compiling quantitative indicators of representation and diversity, you should also create surveys that aim to assess employees’ perceptions of diversity at work. To achieve this, you can follow the example of culturally aware counselors and ask 

  • Have you ever been treated poorly at work due to your ethnicity, race, or beliefs?
  • Do you feel well represented within the business? 
  • How does your experience growing up impact your view of professional life today?
  • Have peers or managers made incorrect assumptions about you due to your identity?
  • Do you feel that you have a career path within the organization? 

These questions are designed to help you avoid any confirmation bias when completing a diversity audit. If possible, they should be asked anonymously and with assurances that findings will remain confidential and only be used to enhance diversity within the business. 

Policies for a Diverse Workspace

Your diversity audit will give your business direction and a clear indication of diversity-related issues in the workforce. You must take these findings seriously and act swiftly to ensure that employees feel heard and respected. 

The exact policies you settle on will largely depend on the context of your business and the industry you are working in. At a minimum, you should seek to involve folks who are traditionally underrepresented in business. 

Working with underrepresented folks will help you craft a policy that affirms your commitment to diversity and holds your business accountable for future action. This policy should include key details like: 

  • Non-discrimination regulations in line with the law;
  • Actions to promote greater diversity beyond minimum requirements;
  • Response to discrimination to protect morale in a diverse workplace.

Each of these policies should seek to promote diversity to overcome barriers to hiring, promotion, and success in your business. 

Equitable Hiring and Promotions

Having a policy to promote diversity is only worthwhile if you make meaningful commitments to hiring and promoting underrepresented employees in your workplace. This is particularly important if you have a distinct lack of diversity in leadership roles. Underrepresented employees are far less likely to apply if they do not see themselves adequately represented in leadership teams. 

You can increase your chances of accessing a diverse talent pool by posting job adverts in multiple venues. You can find job boards that are specifically designed to help people of color, women, folks with disabilities, and LGBT employees find jobs. 

You can also promote greater diversity at work by advocating for more promotions for employees who are typically underrepresented. Of course, all promotions should still be earned on merit, but if two candidates cannot be separated by any other metric it may be worth awarding the promotion to an under-represented member of staff. 

Community Engagement

Working to improve the diversity of your own business is an important first step toward promoting diversity in the business world. However, to signal your commitment to diversity, you must engage with community efforts to improve diversity in your industry. 

For example, if you work in a field that leans heavily on STEM-related skills, you can find charitable organizations that improve access to high-quality STEM classrooms in your area. You may be able to achieve this through initiatives with local schools or universities. Alternatively, you might begin your own grant to fund STEM research to be completed by traditionally underrepresented groups.

Conclusion 

Workforce diversity is vital for the productivity and well-being of almost any business today. Recent progress shows that more diverse workforces are also more agile, innovative, and creative. This is particularly important if you work remotely, as you need to respond quickly and collaboratively — even when folks aren’t working together in the office. 

You can start your journey towards greater diversity at work by drawing up a robust diversity policy. This should include a statement that ensures everyone has an equal opportunity to thrive within your business. You can also sponsor community events and initiatives to improve the pipeline of diverse talent at your workplace and ensure that future generations can grow up in an equal corporate environment. 

Indiana LeeFeatured Guest Expert – Indiana Lee

Indiana Lee is a writer, reader, and jigsaw puzzle enthusiast from the Pacific Northwest. An expert on business operations, leadership, marketing, and lifestyle, you can follow her on Twitter @IndianaLee3

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