Sparking a Dialogue on Diversity

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Steve L. Robbins, Ph.D.

Certainly diversity is the right thing to do for any 21st century organization, but it’s also the smart path to business success. The first step is to determine the state of diversity and inclusion in your workplace. Then leaders can implement strategies that encourage an ongoing dialogue on diversity and inclusion.

Here are seven signs that "unintentional intolerance" may be alive and well in your organization:

  1. Extracurricular Diversity and Inclusion programs. When D&I workshops are presented as extracurricular activities, it indicates that the company's commitment to cultural competency is mere lip service. A serious D&I program isn’t just an "extra" that's subject to cost-cutting down the road.
  2. High turnover. Do certain groups of people repeatedly come and go? If the turnover rate is significantly higher for women or particular ethnic groups—Hispanics, Asians, African-Americans, and so on—that’s a red flag.
  3. Poor performance. It's people—not systems or structures—who are blamed for performance problems. Yet, poor performance and productivity often results from other factors: workplace stressors, lack of opportunity, and flat-out exclusion, among them.
  4. Heavy-handed decisions. Discouraged from taking risks or trying something new? Is "my way or the highway" the edict from on high? While a single method for getting things done may seem efficient, it discourages new perspectives and marginalizes diverse talent and ideas.
  5. Homogenous leaders. Is management—from department heads to C-level execs—an all-white boys' club? Companies that truly value diversity and inclusion practice what they preach—and have a full range of people in leadership roles.
  6. Water-cooler slights. All those "innocent" jokes—mocking age, gender, race, religion, body size, and so on—speak volumes about a company's culture and its tolerance of disrespectful actions and behaviors. The use of mascots or symbols, as well as the celebration of "exclusive" holidays, can also spell trouble.
  7. Same ol' suppliers. Companies that are fully committed to building an inclusive organization also seek out new and diverse suppliers. As a result, they not only honor their commitment, but often become more competitive as well.

Business Benefits of Diversity and Inclusion:

  • Generates creativity and innovation
  • Uses more people’s skills and talents
  • Increases employee engagement and enthusiasm
  • Widens customer reach
  • Avoids discrimination lawsuits
  • Boosts competitive advantage
  • Enhances organizational learning
  • Maximizes cognitive flexibility
  • Increases employee adaptability
  • Prepares organizations for the future
  • Enhances trust and teamwork

Ten Group Activities for Sparking Diversity Dialogue

  1. Mine for new problem-solving approaches. If problem solving at your organization is routinely dominated by one approach or faction, try this. Ask every group member to write down a solution to the same hypothetical problem on a sheet of  paper. Collect the answers, read them aloud, and discuss ideas that diverge from the usual approach. Note the value of offbeat solutions.
  2. Invite opinions from an outsider. Routinely seek out a colleague who isn’t part of your usual “team"—and perhaps seems wildly unrelated in his or her expertise—to contribute to a project or pose an answer to a problem.
  3. Question equality. Most people confuse equality with fairness. Ask employees to brainstorm examples—such as having the same number of stalls in a bathroom for women as for men, or giving left-handed children the same scissors as their right-handed peers—that prove the opposite. Now ask them to brainstorm conditions at your company that may also be equal—but not fair.
  4. Value the other person’s lens. Discuss a recent workplace policy change or a newspaper article, asking people for their perspectives and reactions. Discuss how each person’s “lens”—background, upbringing, and experience—shaped his or her opinions.
  5. Open up to hidden talents. Think about your own untapped talents that people at your organization don’t know about. In a group setting, ask each person to brag about an area of expertise, a skill, or passion that others are unlikely to know about. Brainstorm how your organization could use these newly discovered gems.
  6. Assess your organization’s diversity. Using a flipchart to record your observations, ask the group to analyze the makeup of your organization, work group, or office. Do people of all colors span all levels of your organization? What about gender and age? Identify three or four concrete actions your group can take to fill the gaps at each level.
  7. Hire from new places. Discuss where your organization has historically looked for talent. What types of measures could be put into place to ensure a broader, more comprehensive search? How will you attract and retain the best and brightest workers going into the 21st century?
  8. Imagine a perfect world. Have each group member write down the qualities, characteristics, and actions that would fall under the category of “doing diversity and inclusion well” in your organization. Read them aloud. Where does your organization fall short? Discuss specific ways these shortfalls can be transformed into opportunities for growth and improvement.
  9. Examine the structure. Outline some of your organization’s people problems. Discuss how these might be symptoms of a systemic problem rather than isolated people problems. How might your organization address these structural weaknesses?
  10. Weigh the benefits. On a flipchart, make two columns labeled Impact A and Impact B. Use column A to outline the benefits your company will reap as a result of engaging its increasingly diverse demographics. Use column B to outline the impact of staying homogeneous. Think long-term.

About the Author(s)

Steve L. Robbins, Ph.D., is the author of What If? Short Stories to Spark Diversity Dialogue (Davies-Black, 2008). A business consultant and professional speaker, he is president of Steve L. Robbins & Associates. Contact him on the Web at