There are many benefits to diversity in the workplace. Different perspectives, opinions, and ideas can lead to more innovation and better problem solving. This can help companies better serve their customer base, reach new business markets, and gain a competitive advantage.
A diverse workplace may also foster a stronger sense of belonging among those in traditionally underrepresented groups. When an employee is no longer the only woman, person of color, or person with a disability, they may begin to feel more integrated into the team. This can lead to higher employee engagement, lower turnover, and better productivity.
But bringing a diverse group of people together can also lead to some challenges. Let’s explore what those are, and how you might overcome them.
Communication issues can be somewhat common on diverse teams, and for a wide variety of reasons. There may be language barriers, different communication styles or preferences, or people with hearing loss on your team. It’s important to address these challenges before they become problematic.
Let’s say, for instance, you find a generational difference in communication preferences. Your younger team members prefer to communicate via Slack, while your older team members prefer to use the phone. Some guidance on when and how to use each platform could be highly beneficial to both groups. That is, you may suggest Slack for quick questions and informal communication, while you use the phone, in-person meetings, or Zoom calls for more in-depth conversations.
Or, you may find that someone who speaks english as a second language, or someone with hearing loss, is struggling to follow the conversation in meetings. If so, the meeting leader should remind attendees to speak clearly and slowly, and each attendee should feel comfortable asking for clarification if needed.
Misunderstandings can also be common when you bring people from different cultures together. For example, giving a thumbs up, using your left hand, or patting someone on the back are offensive in some cultures.
Building an inclusive workplace can help the offended team member identify a misunderstanding as just that. When people feel confident that their team members respect their differences, they are more likely to give others the benefit of the doubt.
An inclusive workplace will also create an environment in which team members welcome feedback and education when they’ve said or done something potentially offensive. Teachable moments can help each team member do their part to create a more inclusive workplace, while expanding their own knowledge and understanding of other cultures.
Slower decision making
Different perspectives, opinions, and ideas are great for innovation, but can slow down decision making and progress toward goals. For instance, a team member who challenges the status quo in a meeting may bring up an important point that needs to be explored.
Make space for this to happen by allowing more time for teams to consider different ideas, debate them, and come to more informed decisions. There are many benefits to allowing people to speak up, even in an area outside of their expertise.
However, there should always be a final decision maker who can take all ideas into consideration and decide how to ultimately move forward. In doing so, it’s important that they acknowledge and recognize contributors to ensure other team members feel valued for their ideas.
An inclusive workplace may mean something different to everyone. For a transgender team member, it might include a space to add pronouns in your People platforms and gender-neutral bathrooms. For a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, it might include a mental health benefit and flex hours to see a therapist. And for a working parent, it might include a childcare flexible spending account and planning team building events during work hours. As such, it’s very possible that your workplace will feel inclusive to some, but not to others.
An inclusive workplace will always be a work-in-progress, and should be driven by team member feedback. Focus on what will impact the most people, but also pay attention to the feedback from those having the worst employee experience. For example, you may only have two team members who openly identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ+), but they feel the least supported. Use their feedback to elevate their experience and create more equitable inclusion.
As you diversify your team, it’s possible you could see more biases, discrimination, and harassment. In fact, 61 percent of workers have witnessed or experienced discrimination in the workplace based on age, race, gender, or LGBTQ+ identity. This can hold employees back from bringing their authentic selves to work, hindering innovation, creativity, and teamwork.
Diversity and inclusion (D&I) must go hand-in-hand. Communicate the importance of both to your team, and set expectations through a Code of Conduct. Discuss your D&I goals and progress throughout the employee lifecycle, including during recruitment and employee onboarding, as well as during team meetings. Everyone should be clear that D&I is a priority, and that discrimination will not be tolerated.
Final thoughts on the challenges of diversity in the workplace
As with any major initiative, achieving and maintaining diversity in the workplace has its challenges. But most of these challenges can be addressed and do little to overshadow the positive outcomes of focusing on diversity and inclusion. This is important work that can benefit our communities and our teams, and it deserves our attention.