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Rethinking how we define and track workforce diversity

As the conversation expands around the idea of diversity, we can't forget what's at stake.

7 min read




Diversity is now reported to be the No. 1 recruiting trend for 2018 for businesses. However, despite decades of trying to improve workforce diversity in the workplace, the commercial sector has yet to make much progress. Even though there are few signs of statistical progress, the workforce diversity discussion seems to be moving on and evolving anyway.

Specifically, it is exploring the question of why diversity matters at all, and what kind of diversity matters most when it comes to building an effective workforce.

Evolving the workforce diversity discussion

It’s worth stepping back to look at what “diversity” means in the 21st century. “I’ve always defined diversity as ‘any differentiation between one person and another,’” says Michael Hyter, managing partner of the Korn Ferry Washington, D.C., office. “We’re all a stew of experiences and talents. To leverage those different talents, companies must be inclusive of these differences.”

Hyter makes the point that these differences don’t always break out into a few neat categories. For example, “[g]enerational differences cut across all other categories. The way a 25-year-old black woman views the world and the way a 45-year-old black woman views the world are completely different.” Along with his leadership responsibilities in the D.C. office, Hyter manages Korn Ferry’s diversity and inclusion practice.

In part to recognize these kinds of differences, diversity discussions founded decades ago in social justice objectives have evolved beyond simple categories. Diversity explorations have also expanded as research has found strong correlations between improved business results and diversity on teams, in leadership and in the workplace at large.

Such research underlies a strong business case for continuing to seek ways of building diverse workforces, not just because hiring women and minorities is “the right thing to do,” but also because it’s “good for business.” As the reasons for building a diverse workforce expand, so does the idea of what kind of diversity produces such improved results. Together, these trends generate new and better ways of thinking about diversity overall.

Traditional definitions of diversity stem from the civil rights movement’s benefits of a workforce with diverse external characteristics like race, ethnicity and binary gender expression. Newer ways of examining the workforce diversity question, however, still reference these demographic categorizations but are more motivated by the demands for employee populations to be innovative in order to keep up with the speed of disruption. This has given birth to new definitions of diversity itself, including experiential, age and cognitive (or thought) diversity.

New voices (especially millennials) in the diversity discussion have noticed that groupthink and undynamic work cultures can persist even in externally diverse groups, potentially dampening an organization’s’ potential to respond creatively and quickly to external market changes. Thus the question has been raised, regardless of what the people around the table look like on the outside, is a team’s potential to respond innovatively more affected by what each participant carries on the inside? And does the company culture invite these inner strengths forward or shut them down (i.e., force people to “cover” aspects of themselves)?

Should we expand our definition of workforce diversity?

In researching the wisdom of including aspects of personality, experiential and cognitive endowments in our workforce planning dialogs, I’m truly divided on whether and how to start adding these new dimensions of diversity into the discussion.

The upside of an expanded definition of diversity seems obvious if it can lead us to find sound business reasons to be even more inclusive of people who have been shut out of the system due to unconscious bias. It gives us reasons to encourage budding trends towards greater inclusion for people regardless of military work history, marital status, genetic proclivities, personality type, gender expression and dis/ability status1.

As the research showing business benefits indicates, evolving our concept of diversity provides individual leaders an expanded lens through which to examine their own leadership style and potential for unconscious bias. It provides sound business reasons to invite everyone on the team (regardless of their race, gender or extrovertism) to participate fully in conversation and problem-solving. For organizations, it provides a new challenge for us to grow our leaders to become more aware of their biases and give them tools to challenge themselves to grow beyond them.

As Hyter advises, “Effective leadership has always been about managing each individual based on what they’re interested in and what they bring. Even when your employees look the same, good leaders don’t manage them as though they are the same.”

On the other hand, and this is my major hesitation about expanding definitions of diversity, I am concerned that such an evolution has the potential to water down, if not shut down, efforts to pursue the social justice that is inherently buoyed within genuinely multicultural and gender-equal groups. I worry that by shifting the conversation to what we carry inside that makes us diverse, we may decide we no longer need to measure and strive for a workforce that looks diverse on the outside.

In redefining what a diverse workplace looks like, I worry that it will give the leaders who’ve made the least progress, and who are unwilling to be introspective, an excuse not to take unconscious bias and workplace discrimination head-on.

In short, I am afraid that headlines like “demographic diversity isn’t the whole picture” could be read by some as a reason to step away from efforts toward workplaces that aspire to simple civil rights for their employees.

Hyter agrees. “Representation of women and people of color in the C-suite is embarrassingly low. No executive gets a pass on race and gender diversity in favor of abstract ideas of diversity such as cognitive or personality differences. We can’t let core definitions of diversity become collateral roadkill in our pursuit of truly diverse business cultures.”

It’s far too early to allow such collateral damage to be done to traditional metrics of diversity. For one thing, our access to data even in these basic race/gender categories is seriously lagging. In addition, says Hyter, “Even these basic categorical differences can be enlightening when you look at more granular data than number of people interviewed or employed.”

According to Hyter, when you look for race, gender and veteran statistics in analyses such as employee engagement, customer complaints, interview-to-hire ratio and employee turnover you can see some very dramatic trends that show you where you can improve. “As I told one CEO, ‘If you’d kept every black and brown person you’d ever hired over the last few years, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,’” Hyter shared wryly.

As we reframe the workplace diversity we seek, we must be vigilant and ensure that the discussion is an expansion, instead of an excuse to leapfrog, the harder cultural problems that obscure unconscious bias, racism, sexism and discrimination against all kinds of people in our workplaces today.


What do you think about the changing-slowly face of corporate culture? Join the Future-proofed conversation on LinkedIn to share your thoughts on changes that will affect your career.

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Coaching. An executive coach and thought leader on change, she cracks the code on personal power in the workplace. In addition to her private practice, Theus helps organizations bring emotionally intelligent coaching services to middle management through facilitation, consulting and group coaching. Follow her on Twitter @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.


1Employment is up in all these sectors, though it’s unclear whether the generally positive employment environment is simply lifting all boats.