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How to Talk About Diversity in the Workplace

Liza Hummel and Victoria Mattingly

Our first thought when we heard about the memo from the now ex-Google employee James Damore was, “Seriously? People still think that?” Our second thought was, “Isn't there a better way to talk about this?”

How to talk about diversityArguments of diversity, inclusion, right of expression, empowerment, the Left, the Right, and all sorts of HR buzzwords have been thrown around in the days since James Damore’s memo became news. If his goal was to start a conversation about diversity in the workplace, he certainly succeeded.

While we encourage anyone to read the memo, we aren’t going to debate its merits or deficiencies in this space. Instead, let’s talk about one of the underlying issues of diversity in the workplace: we don’t know how to talk about it.

Diversity. It’s a scary, ugly, trap-you-in-the-corner-and-take-your-lunch-money (and your dignity) topic that means different things to different people. Also, people have many, many gamut-running thoughts and feelings about it. Diversity, as it stood, wasn’t really doing what it was supposed to, so HR industry leaders added “and Inclusion.” Apparently, we still aren’t getting the point across. Why not? What’s so difficult?

Well, for one, it involves people looking at themselves and others, and acknowledging the differences. Fulfilling a diversity goal means hiring or promoting people who are different than others, especially ourselves. This could be in major ways, like gender, race, religion, or culture (i.e., surface-level diversity), or less obvious ways like personal experiences, skill sets, and motivations (i.e., deep-level diversity).

People tend to get hung up on surface-level diversity (here’s looking at you, Mr. Damore) when the more important conversation is about how organizations can benefit the most from deep-level diversity, or diversity of thought. Ironically, the quickest way to tap into deep-level diversity is by accelerating the hiring and retention of a diverse workforce. In order to work together and empathize with each other (and we should empathize with each other), we are taught to see and focus on the similarities between us and others. We are One.

Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) means not only recognizing and appreciating—and dare we say embracing–our differences. It means acknowledging what isn't the same and finding ways to incorporate people with differences in meaningful and valuable ways (the “and Inclusion” part). Wait, what? You have to see similarities and differences? How?

Truly committing to a diverse workforce calls for deep evaluation of practices and biases. It isn’t just our individual and collective workplace habits we need to rethink, like always turning to the same people for ideas or having a culture that maintains a homogenous status quo.

What are your unconscious biases you don't even realize? Are you concerned about hiring young women because you think they might not commit to work if they choose to start a family (news flash: men take parental leave, too)? What is systemic to the recruiting or hiring process that needs changed? Should you broaden where you advertise for company jobs? Or refuse to begin the interviewing process until obtaining a sufficiently diverse applicant pool? Like we said, scary!

If we can actualize why we don’t talk about D&I with as much candor and confidence as Mr. Damore, perhaps we can pinpoint ways to start having those conversations.

Why we don’t talk about diversity in the workplace

Starting the conversation about D&I is so difficult, in part, because we come from different experiences. We all bring baggage to this conversation and seek different outcomes when D&I is brought up in the workplace. Our core selves are at stake when something so emotionally charged is the topic of discussion.

Here are four things that might be quashing the conversation:

  1. We don’t want to offend others. We’d rather stay silent than be perceived as sexist or racist.
  2. We lack the awareness that it needs to be talked about.
  3. We hear conflicting research and “facts.” How do we make sense of seemingly contradictory findings?
  4. We risk hurting our reputation if we speak up. At a systemic level, women and people of color typically lack power and status in the workplace, so they may be less likely to speak up as to not lose credibility by being perceived as “self-serving.”

How can we talk about it?

Now that we’ve talked about why we can’t talk about the problem, let’s get down to the juicy parts. Here’s how you can address each of the points above:

  1. You can discuss topics in a way that doesn’t offend others by using the Interaction EssentialsSM. Your HR team will love you for them. When you build a house, you need tools for each job. That’s exactly what the Interaction Essentials are: tools for conversations. Genuine concern and interest are a must. If you don’t feel genuine, refer to #2 below.
  2. Remember, we can ALL benefit from a diverse and inclusive workplace. Get smart! Educate yourself about the topic. Here are some great places to start:
    • DDI's Global Leadership Forecast found that organizations with at least 30% women in leadership roles are significantly more likely to excel financially. There is a strong business case for D&I.
    • Benefits for D&I go beyond bottom-line outcomes. Read this Harvard Business Review article to understand the more long-term benefits of D&I on company cultural and society at large.
    • Research supports that interacting with those who are different than us increases innovation, problem-solving, and general thoughtfulness (and who wouldn’t want a more thoughtful workforce?)
  3. We're going to let John Oliver answer this one. See his awesome video on research integrity (keep in mind, however, that this video may not be suitable for viewing at work). Long story short: research your sources and proceed with caution when citing findings.
  4. This is where the role of being a good ally comes into play. Allies can partner with those less advantaged to use their status and power to help create a more inclusive working environment. This can be uncomfortable, but necessary, work that looks like:
    • Asking more questions of those who are different than you to understand their perspectives.
    • Challenging the assumptions of others (note the many, many op-ed pieces in response to the Google memo).
    • And stepping aside to giving others a voice—try this one in your next meeting!

And what about those people, such as Mr. Damore, who don’t seem to even realize they are being offensive? Try helping them to see another point of view with a role-reversal exercise. How different would that Google memo had been if Mr. Damore had taken a moment to put himself if the shoes of his female colleagues? Don't make the same mistake Mr. Damore did and ignore the perspective of others.

If done thoughtfully, D&I conversations can have a huge positive impact on the people taking part in them, not to mention the benefits to company engagement, retention, and financial health.

Liza HummelLiza Hummel is a consulting associate in leadership development at DDI. She is a roller coaster enthusiast and has ridden numerous record-breaking coasters. None compare to the ride that is being a people leader.


Victoria MattinglyVictoria Mattingly is a consultant at DDI and a Ph.D. researcher with expertise in training and development. Victoria also works extensively with DDI’s Women in Leadership practice. Aside from promoting gender equality in the workplace, her other main passion in life is live music. Like a great musical performance, great leaders inspire others with a well-executed and heart-felt delivery, meticulously developed over time.

Posted: 17 Aug, 2017,
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