Workplace Culture

You Have a Chief Diversity Officer, but Is Your Workplace Inclusive?

By Staff Report

May. 25, 2016

Many companies tout their efforts at ensuring their workplaces are diverse and inclusive.

It has become a common refrain for companies to claim that their diversity and inclusion initiatives lead to a more welcoming workplace and improved bottom-line performance through improved retention and better alignment with an increasingly diverse customer base.

Unfortunately, merely having a chief diversity officer or a diversity and inclusion council as well as sponsoring companywide employee resource groups or affinity groups is not sufficient to create and foster a truly inclusive work environment. Diversity professionals and companies need to go beyond merely establishing committees and affinity groups to ensure their workplaces are both diverse and inclusive.

Legal June 2016In academic experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers identified what they described as an unusual effect that organized diversity and inclusion initiatives had on perceptions of workplace fairness by what researchers referred to as high-status groups, white Americans and white men specifically.

The researchers found that for members of high-status groups, the mere presence of diversity councils, targeted mentoring initiatives and affinity groups created an impression of fairness when it came to assessing the treatment of members of under-represented groups in the workplace.

The authors found that members of these high-status groups retained this belief in enhanced workplace fairness even when presented with information that brought into question the effectiveness of these initiatives and even when they were shown anecdotal information of possibly unfair treatment of members of underrepresented groups.

While the perception of a fair workplace is a laudable goal, creating and maintaining a fair and inclusive workplace is the actual objective of most diversity and inclusion initiatives.

A 2015 Catalyst study reported that both men and women who felt included in the workplace were more likely to suggest new ideas and be more productive than those employees who do not feel included. The study defined inclusion as both recognizing and valuing team members’ different talents and experience and creating a sense of belonging or sharing of certain common goals or attributes.

Other studies have highlighted the cost of failing to have a diverse and inclusive workplace. For example, a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy published in the Harvard Business Review in 2011 reported that closeted lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees were 73 percent more likely to state they planned to leave their current employer within the next three years than employees who were out at work.

What questions can employees ask to assess whether their workplaces are inclusive? While corporate cultures vary widely, some basic principles apply across industries and corporate cultures. Does the company ensure that all employees know what the expectations and performance standards are for their current job? Is there transparency when it comes to defining career paths? 

Do the company’s training and development initiatives include programs that coach managers on ways they can foster an environment in which sharing different perspectives and experiences is encouraged? Does workplace training on discrimination and harassment include scenarios that cover the full spectrum of today’s workplaces and not focus exclusively on heterosexual sexual harassment? Is upper management actively involved in seeking talented people with different backgrounds and experiences and ensuring they have the tools to succeed?

Studies have found that conflict may increase in teams of people from different backgrounds, but teams on which people know each other and establish personal connections see less conflict and tend to be more creative.

It has been known for a long time that, regardless of the management structure of the company, to have an effective diversity and inclusion initiative, there must be an ongoing commitment from the top. Such support includes not only the backing of companywide diversity and inclusion initiatives but also personal investment in being an inclusive leader.

How can leaders demonstrate a commitment to diversity and inclusion? The same Catalyst study revealed that employees felt included when their leaders empowered them to develop their skills, held their direct reports accountable for their decisions and outcomes they could control, sought different points of view, acknowledged their own limitations, and stuck to their principles even when doing so might be contrary to the leader’s personal interests.

Fostering an inclusive workplace requires consistent effort and commitment to broaden the pool from which talent is drawn not only at the hiring stage but also at every stage of career progression. It requires leaders’ personal involvement and investment in fostering an inclusive environment.

Companies will begin to truly reap the rewards of their diversity and inclusion efforts if they continually re-examine how their efforts are shaping the workplace.

Mark Phillis is a shareholder in the Pittsburgh office  of Littler Mendelson, where he handles a wide range  of employment issues with a focus on those related  to the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. To comment, email

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