Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is an important focus area for many organizations this year. The benefits of diversity include better innovation, higher revenues, and more profitability. And team members who feel a sense of belonging demonstrate a 50 percent reduction in turnover risk, a 56 percent increase in performance, and a 75 percent decrease in sick days.

But these benefits don’t always come easily. Diversity, equity, and inclusion requires consistent effort and some hard work to get it right. Here are some common diversity dilemmas you might encounter along your journey, and how you can approach them.

1. Low diversity in the local talent pool

You may want to build a diverse workforce, but struggle with a homogenous talent pool in your area. This dilemma can be especially common among companies located outside of major metropolitan areas. 

Many companies today can overcome this issue by expanding remote work opportunities. Remote work has grown in popularity during the pandemic, allowing organizations to access a more diverse talent pool from regions all over the country—or even across the globe.

It’s also important to remember that there are many different kinds of diversity. If your area has low racial diversity, for instance, you may still be able to improve in areas like generational diversity, neurodiversity, and socioeconomic diversity. 

2. Cultural changes due to mergers and acquisitions

Company mergers and acquisitions can impact local cultural norms and the sense of belonging your team members feel. For example, employee resource groups (ERGs) may grow to the point team members no longer feel heard, or they may dissolve altogether with leadership or budget changes. Or a new parent company may not have the same resolve toward DEI as the company they acquired causing your team members to become disengaged.

Try to be intentional about maintaining or merging DEI programs and policies after a merger or acquisition. Each People Ops team may have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to DEI, and there could be much you can learn from one another. But perhaps more importantly, stay in constant communication with your team members to collect feedback, find opportunities for improvement, and do what’s in your power to ensure a smooth transition.

3. Few applicants from underrepresented groups

You may be trying to expand your team, but seeing a shortage of applicants from underrepresented groups. Finding more diverse candidates to interview is actually cited as one of the biggest barriers to improving diversity—and the solution may require a multifaceted response.

First, examine your culture. Is it inclusive to team members from marginalized groups? Survey your team members to gauge their sense of belonging and get to work to fix any issues you find. Second, take a look at your employer brand. Do your website, social media channels, and employer reviews appeal to candidates from diverse backgrounds? Post photos and write compelling text to show candidates from underrepresented groups why they should want to work at your company. Third, proactively source candidates from underrepresented groups to build out a more diverse candidate pipeline if they’re not coming to you.

4. DEI initiatives resemble tokenism

Tokenism occurs when organizations do something to give the appearance that people are being treated fairly when that may not actually be the case. For example, taking pictures of team members from underrepresented groups to appear on your career site in order to attract a more diverse talent pool. Or putting a woman on every interview panel in order to attract more women, even if that means the same one or two female team members have to commit to every interview.

Even if you don’t mean to tokenize your team members, they may feel like you are. It’s important not to put too much burden on employees from underrepresented groups, and to respect everyone’s time and preferences. This is a great opportunity to engage your ERGs to help you navigate DEI initiatives and identify people who want to help. 

5. Cultural misunderstandings and personal belief differences

Different ways of thinking and varied past experiences can make your team stronger, though it can also lead to more misunderstandings, biases, or outright discrimination. For example, giving a thumbs up, using your left hand, or patting someone on the back are considered offensive in some cultures but completely acceptable in others. You could also come across a dilemma between religious and LGBTQ+ rights if conflicts arise due to differences in personal beliefs.

Focus on building an inclusive company culture above all else. This can help minimize this type of diversity dilemma and create a shared understanding that team member differences are an asset that should be celebrated. Try to be understanding, fair, and consistent when you come across cultural misunderstandings and personal belief differences, but also firm when needed so you can maintain inclusion.

Final thoughts on diversity dilemmas at work

It’s important to keep in mind that diversity is a journey, not a destination—and that there will always be a way to improve or a dilemma to overcome. Building and maintaining a diverse and equitable workplace requires intentionality, hard work, and some creativity. Stay in sync with your team to understand their needs, and make continuous improvements to help all team members feel a sense of belonging. When you start there, you’ll create an environment where diversity can thrive.

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Diversity Dilemmas at Work