Diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Dealing with resistance to inclusion in the workplace

May 23, 2024 | Maureen Frank

Last week, I received a message from a senior leader that really took me by surprise:

“Sorry, I think all this diversity and inclusion in workplaces, especially gender diversity stuff has gone way too far. Everyone is equal, so why are some MORE equal than others! And get favoured not on merit but by statistics in our organisation.”

And then, just a few days later, another message landed in my inbox:

“My thoughts are that this topic is destroying the fabric of society. The world has always been diverse and inclusive, the media are the problem.”

Inclusion and diversity are a high priority for companies in the top quartile who want to have a workplace culture that thrives, but resistance from employees and overall sentiment on diversity still has its challenges. Resistance is alive and well. Companies need to be aware that this resistance exists and need to build a culture where different groups of individuals can thrive and where equality and fairness of opportunity exists. To make this happen we need understand that D&I best practice has changed. We must create a culture where having diversity in the workplace is important, but inclusion is critical to ensure the workplace experience and the likelihood of financial outperformance as a result of an inclusive culture. 

After 18 years in working hard to create diverse and inclusive workplaces, it’s rare to hear such direct anti diversity in the workplace comments. To most organisations, inclusive leadership is important because leaders know that diversity is also an indicator of a great place to work. Inclusion in the workplace creates greater employee engagement, profitability and productivity.

Ensuring we create a work environment that has an inclusion strategy that focuses on inclusion and belonging as its north star is how we get there! Usually, the resistance is more subtle: “I am pro-DEI, I get the business case for diversity, BUT…”. This made me realize that many of you might also face these kinds of comments while trying to foster inclusive environments, because we know that inclusion matters! An inclusive workplace is likely to outperform, but getting the message through to everyone is still a journey. 

Here are five ways I would respond to such remarks:

1. Courageous Curiosity

One of my habits for creating inclusion at work, which I discuss in my book The 6 Habits of Being an Inclusive Leader, is courageous curiosity. It’s a way to get a real pulse on how employees feel in your organisation.  It’s challenging because we fear a negative reaction, but it’s essential in moving to a clearer relationship between diversity and being inclusive.

Example Dialogue:

  • You: “I’m curious why you think that way. Can you explain more?”
  • Leader: “I just feel like merit is being ignored.”
  • You: “Could you give me a specific example where you felt merit was overlooked?”

By digging deeper, you often find a specific story or incident that has shaped their belief. Addressing these specifics is more effective than tackling generalizations. You need to tailor how you respond to different employees. 

2. Discussing Merit

Comments like the ones I received often stem from personal experiences of being passed over for promotions or job opportunities, feeling that a ‘diversity candidate’ was chosen and they feel that this is not equitable. We see real push back when there is a perception that diverse talent has been favoured in hiring practices because of ethnic and cultural diversity, sexual orientation, gender-diverse recruitment practices, notwithstanding the benefits of diversity. 

Example Dialogue:

  • You: “Are you sure the other person wasn’t actually the best fit for the job?”
  • Leader: “I don’t think so; they got it because of diversity quotas.”
  • You: “Do you think merit can be subjective, influenced by our personal perceptions?”

Encouraging them to reflect on what ‘merit’ means and how it might differ from person to person can open up a more nuanced discussion, rather than them focus on the difference like racial diversity. 

3. Explaining Privilege

Privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t struggled; it means your journey was different and perhaps easier in some ways compared to others. Its an important concept to understand in an inclusive workplace. 

Example Dialogue:

  • You: “Imagine you had to ride your bike over a mountain to get to a job. It was tough, but you made it. Now, think about Rita, who had to do the same journey on an old bike with no gears and no water. Both of you struggled, but her journey was tougher.”

This analogy helps people understand that while everyone faces challenges, some have it harder than others due to systemic barriers.

4. Reconsidering Fairness

One of my habits, “Fairness Tailored to You,” suggests that fairness is not about treating everyone the same but meeting individual needs. It’s a habit that requires some understanding and professional development. 

Example Dialogue:

  • You: “Is treating everyone the same truly fair?”
  • Leader: “Isn’t that what fairness means?”
  • You: “But if we aim to get the best out of each team member, shouldn’t our approach be tailored to their needs?”

This can help them see that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work in a diverse workforce.

5. Balancing Diversity and Inclusion

Resistance often arises when organizations focus only on hiring diverse candidates without fostering an inclusive environment.

Example Dialogue:

  • You: “What if every team member felt excited to come to work because they felt they belonged?”
  • Leader: “That would be ideal, but how do we achieve that?”
  • You: “By focusing on inclusion first, we ensure that everyone, including you, benefits from a supportive environment.”

Encouraging them to be advocates for inclusion can transform their perspective and support sustainable DEI efforts.

Final Thoughts

We need to be clear that the business case for inclusion in the workplace, researched extensively by organisations like McKinsey and the Diversity Council of Australia, make it clear that when you have an inclusive culture your likelihood of outperformance continues a growth trajectory compared to your peers. 

When faced with inclusion and diversity resistance, it’s crucial to stay curious rather than furious. Understanding the root cause of their objections can turn these challenging conversations into opportunities for growth. Remember, overt objections can be a gift, revealing deeper issues that silent whispers might hide. Don’t shy away from these discussions; they are essential steps toward creating an inclusive culture. Start small, be patient, and take that first step today.

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