Two white doors wide open representing access to the workplace

Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace: 10 Common Mistakes

Access to the workplace isn’t the same as inclusion in the workplace. We’re paraphrasing a quote by Anthony Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard and the author of a book on how elite schools fail disadvantaged students. Anthony argues that Ivy League schools invest heavily in diversity recruiting, but do little to include underrepresented groups and help them succeed. 

Sadly, the same is true for many organizations. Diversity in teams is achievable; equality, openness, and belonging—the core components of inclusion in the workplace—less so. Companies can be diverse and still be seen by their employees as biased, unequal, and unfair. 

A social-listening study that analyzed employee reviews online showed that the feelings workers had about diversity in their organizations were much more positive (52% positive, 31% negative) than those about inclusion (29% positive and 61% negative). Employee sentiment about leadership and accountability on these issues was mostly negative (56% negative), as were feelings about equality and fairness of opportunity in the workplace (between 63%-80% across all industries). 

Inclusion in the workplace: what companies are doing wrong

So what are organizations getting wrong in their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts? Here are some of the most common DEI mistakes. 

Note: The list below is based on the webinar “10 Diversity Mistakes at Startups”, by Startup Recruiting Bootcamp, and includes quotes from Strive’s Conversations on DE&I as well as from this Y Combinator video featuring Claire McDonnell and Jennifer Kim.

Mistake 1: Failing to embracing intersectionality

Many companies decide to initiate their DEI efforts by focusing on a single group, like “women.” By doing that, they ignore the identities that exist within that group—in the case of women, that of black women, queer women, women with disabilities etc. That’s not only ineffective, but it can also be harmful in the long run. (For example, if those efforts end up increasing opportunities for white women only.)

In the webinar 10 Diversity Mistakes at Startups, AnnE Diemer, Human Resources manager and DEI expert, said that the best approach is to embrace intersectionality and focus on the most underrepresented groups. “When you’re thinking of building your initiatives, build for the most marginalized person, a person with multiple marginalized identities. You’ll end up creating processes and products that fulfill everyone’s needs and making sure everyone has some representation.”  

Mistake 2: Focusing on the wrong data

The number of “diverse” professionals a company employs may not reflect a true commitment to inclusion. For example, the overrepresentation of Asians in tech companies can obscure the fact that they are the least likely to be promoted into management positions.

That’s why leadership coach Lulu Cheng recommends looking beyond the number of minority individuals employed and into data regarding their promotion and retention rates. In a DEI conversation with Strive, she said, “it’s not enough to look at what percentage of people at my company are Asian. Break it down by level—entry level versus manager versus executive. You’re probably going to see a steep drop-off.”

Angela Ju, DEI business partner at Dropbox, told Strive it’s a good idea to disaggregate employee data. “We need to give people the opportunity to self-report in a way that’s more nuanced and more specific to their individual ethnicity,” she said.

Mistake 3: Sourcing underrepresented minorities from universities

Sourcing candidates from universities might be a creative recruitment idea, but it shouldn’t be companies’ DEI “solution.” When organizations hire underrepresented minorities for entry-level jobs only—which is exactly what happens when they source from universities—they’re not really giving minorities a chance to make a difference. Rather than focus on hiring junior employees to boost their diversity numbers, companies should strive for diversity at all levels, especially at the management and executive levels, where employees can effect the most changes.

Mistake 4: Asking underrepresented minorities to “handle” DEI

Companies sometimes transfer the invisible, emotional labor of DEI to underrepresented minorities, essentially giving them a second, unpaid shift. This takes time away from their regular jobs, which could end up hurting their performance, and ultimately, the cause of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. 

Instead of burdening diverse employees with DEI responsibilities, companies should focus on supporting them to be the best professionals they can be. Bukky Adebayo, a black female engineer, believes that showing up to work is the most meaningful way underrepresented minorities can contribute to DEI. “I’ve realized that by being myself, I can be a beacon for others. (…) I can be a living, breathing, ‘Black people are welcome here’ sign,” she wrote.

Mistake 5: Engaging in “performative diversity”

If a company is committed to diversity and inclusion, it makes sense to incorporate this into their employer brand. What’s not okay is for organizations to misrepresent themselves—also known as “performative diversity.”

Companies engage in performative diversity when they promote values that are inconsistent with the experiences of actual employees; tokenize underrepresented minority workers; fake diversity through stock imagery; and lie about where they are in their inclusion journey.  

In the webinar “10 Diversity Mistakes at Startups,” AnnE Diemer recommended that companies be honest about their DEI challenges and optimistic about where they are going.

Mistake 6: Having disorganized employee resource groups (ERGs)

Employee resource groups (ERGs), or groups of employees based on a shared identity—are critical to companies’ DEI efforts, but without a structure and clear goals in place, they’re just outlets for venting. For ERGs to drive meaningful change, they should be formalized and structured, work in collaboration with Human Resources, and have specific tasks and commitments, such as creating policy or documentation. 

Mistake 7: Placing all bets on hiring a Head of DEI 

Some leaders believe that hiring a Head of DEI is the solution to their “diversity problem.” It shows they’re committed to DEI while allowing them to outsource DEI work so they don’t have to think about it. But while hiring a Chief of Diversity Officer (CDO) is a great step for organizations that are well into their inclusion journey, for most companies, especially startups, it’s not the logical next step. 

“[A CDO]…will need a commitment of at least $500,000 to begin implementing best recruiting practices, improving trainings, and building external partnerships,” notes Mita Mallick, CDO at tech company Carta. 

Small businesses that are just starting their DEI efforts and don’t have a big budget are better off tackling low-hanging fruit instead. A great place to start is by educating team members on essential DEI topics. To that end, there are great resources available online for free, including Facebook’s Managing Unconscious Bias Training.

Mistake 8: Having unchecked biases

If company leaders say they are all for diversity, but…(insert biased comment here) it means that they haven’t fully grasped what diversity is and what it means for business. They might view DEI efforts as a chore and diverse as synonymous with inferior. Similarly, managers and employees at all levels have unconscious biases they need to identify and address

“For me, the Achilles heel of an inclusive culture is unchecked biases,” said Claire McDonnell, Chief Operating Officer at fintech startup TrueLink Financial. In a Y Combinator webinar on building an inclusive company culture, she shared TrueLink’s strategies for keeping unconscious biases in check. 

One of them is building a culture of no-blame. “There’s a lot of research that shows that women and people of color get less credit for their accomplishments and are blamed more,” she said. “So when there’s a mistake or a screw-up, what we collectively try to do is solve the problem, not focus on blaming someone for it.”

Another is reducing interruptions. “If you want a quick and easy way to not replicate bias and weird power dynamics, slowing down interruptions at your company is a good way to do that,” she said. “There are simple ways to reduce people interrupting each other. You can assign someone at the meeting as the interruption police whose job is stopping that, or remind people with one sentence on the wall.”

Mistake 9: Remembering DEI only in moments of crisis

Some companies confuse DEI efforts with crisis responses. When a tragic event happens, they send messages of support to their underrepresented minority employees and put out public statements condemning violence and injustice. But if moments of crisis are the only times a company is discussing DEI issues, they’re not doing DEI work properly. DEI shouldn’t be something companies engage in reactively; it should be continuous work that is integrated into everything they do.

Mistake 10: Not truly committing to inclusion in the workplace

Companies don’t go far in their DEI efforts if they don’t commit to making meaningful changes. Experts make it clear that building an inclusive company culture doesn’t just “happen”; it’s a conscious effort that requires continuous investment. 

Working towards inclusion in the workplace at Smile

At Smile, we’re on a journey towards becoming more inclusive. We’re making a conscious effort to increase diversity in the company, including in leadership. “We’re not looking for a culture fit—we want our team to be filled with people from diverse backgrounds and with diverse experiences,” says Marcie Arvelo, our Lead Recruiter. 

Tackling diversity and inclusion in the workplace can be overwhelming, so we’re starting small. For example, our team members who are involved in hiring processes have recently participated in Unconscious Bias Trainings in which they assessed their unconscious biases and discussed ways to keep these in check. We’re learning a lot in the process and are excited by the DEI initiatives we’ve committed to taking on.

Where is your company in the DEI journey? Which of the mistakes have you witnessed firsthand? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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