Differences Should Be Valued, Not Normalized or Erased

June 05, 2020 - Christine Gantt-Sorenson

Intolerance of minorities and differences continues to be evident in society and, thus, will also be present in workplaces. While it is true employers have a legal obligation to prohibit adverse employment actions or harassment on the basis of protected status, compliance with the law or meeting EEO quotas does not amount to embracing a diverse workplace.

Employers focusing on creating a more welcoming and inclusive workplace are also working towards a more open and positive workplace for all employees, not just those associated with the majority, whether that be defined in the narrow confines of protected status or the broader aspect of differences.  An employer who desires to honor and value differences in its employees adopts practices and rewards that reflect that desire. Doing so begets a more loyal and productive employee base. As an added benefit to creating an ethical work environment, businesses with a diverse workforce dependent upon their employees to sell a service or product are better able to attract diverse clientele, where a homogeneous workforce cannot. Diversity and inclusivity increase a business’ footprint. 
Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” identified needs in three categories - basic, psychological and self-fulfillment - that can be met or not in a workplace. An employer recognizing this would encourage, if not require, a workplace that honors differences and would implement measures that do not normalize or erase those differences. While presumably most agree with this sentiment, the understanding comes in the form of how accepted individuals feel in the workplace and if they sense they are valued. Much will depend on what an employer requires with regard to workplace diversity and inclusion, or what an employer is willing to tolerate or ignore. Even more can be gleaned from what management honors with reward and acknowledgment.  Creating a diversity committee or hiring a diversity leader without tying efforts to meaningful reward is disingenuous and likely a hindrance to an inclusive workplace climate.
An accepting workplace is one that reflects diversity and differences. Difficulty retaining diverse groups of employees is more likely an indicator not of the workforce but of the workplace climate. If excelling in a workplace requires conformity, differences are not accepted. If individual excellence is judged by the same standard, an employer would need to work hard to ensure recognition of all qualities that the business needs for success.
An employer considering its workplace might ask:

  • When we seek recruits, do we seek people who “fit” with our culture? Or do we seek recruits who represent all cultures reflected in our community?

  • What are we doing to grow a workforce that meets our growth vision (which may or may not be reflected in the community)?

  • What demographics are under-represented in our workforce when compared to the community and other businesses similar to ours?

  • What do our under-represented employees say about our workplace culture?

  • How receptive are we to different ideas and different approaches? How committed are we to hiring people who not only do not look like us but also do not think, sound, talk and act like us?

  • What messages are our leaders sending? How involved in diversity efforts are our leaders?

  • Are we receptive to criticism, complaints, ideas about doing things differently?

  • How do we react when someone brings us an idea? How do we receive different ideas?

  • Are our meetings open and communicative, or stilted and silent?

  • How many paths to achievement do we offer?

  • Is there only one way to become successful or are there many ways?

  • Who is successful in our company? How do we define success?

  • What do we value? How is that reflected in our compensation system?

  • What does our compensation system say about what we value? How does that differ from what we say we value?

  • Who receives the hand-up in our workforce?

  • Who am I helping up? Who helped me? Do they look, think, act and sound like me?

Diversity training should reflect on these issues rather than compliance. It should seek to invoke thought in the leaders, managers and employees on their efforts to encourage a diverse and inclusive workplace, what conscious and subconscious biases and prejudices they bring to the workplace and how they might help to make the workplace a more welcoming and inclusive workplace. Training should be integrative, not passive, and should entertain open discussion and focused efforts designed to grow and maintain an inclusive workplace simply because doing so creates a healthy, happier and more productive workforce that benefits the employer as much as the employees. It should be consistent if not constant, as opposed to annually. Most importantly, it should be reflected in all an organization does.