DEI Podcast

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Workplace

In this episode of Workplace Matters we look at diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace; the key elements in creating an environment where everyone feels represented, accepted, and has access to opportunities.

Dr. Adia Harvey Wingfield of Washington University in St. Louis has studied Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the workplace. We asked her to define the problem, and to offer evidence-based recommendations for workplaces to address these important issues.

Michael: You’re listening to Workplace Matters. The workforce consists of individuals from many different races, genders, sexualities, backgrounds and countless other factors which contribute to its diversity. However, the diversity of the available workforce has not always resulted in a diverse, equitable, or inclusive workplace. Today we will look at diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace or DEI. What is it? Why we know it isn’t present and why previous methods of achieving it have failed. It’s benefits both financially and for safety and health, and finally substantial methods of fostering DEI in the workplace.


Michael: Dr. Adia Harvey WingfieldDr. Adia Harvey Wingfield is a professor of Arts and Sciences and associate dean of faculty development at Washington University in St. Lewis. Dr. Wingfield has contributed to Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, Slate and numerous academic journals on the subject of Diversity Equity and Inclusion in the workplace.

Adia: When I think of diversity, I think about the representation of different groups of people and different types of people in an organizational setting, but when we talk about equity, we are talking about something a little different, and that is the opportunities that each person has within the organization. And even inclusion is something a little bit different than that.

Michael: Equity and Inclusion are about making sure workers have equal opportunities and their opinions and ideas are valued. All three work together make a diverse workplace where employees feel accepted and appreciated.

Adia: So it’s not that difficult to have diversity without equity. It’s not that difficult to have diversity without inclusion. But all of those things, I think, are essential factors to pull together if an organization is going to really be as successful as possible.

Michael: Research has shown that organizations lack diversity in upper and middle management positions, and often have little equity and inclusion present at all. This does not mean every organization is inherently bias, but, as Dr. Wingfield explains, the biases of a few workers can create ripple effects through an entire company.

Adia: If we were talking about how racial disparities are often present, we are more likely to see white workers and disproportionately white men workers who are at the top levels and even at the middle management levels of organizations. So let’s say you have someone who’s in a middle level of an organization. They are more likely, we know today to be in a position where they are responsible for hiring. They’re more likely to have more of an outsize role in hiring in some organizations. But let’s say that person has biases against people of color in leadership roles, that one person’s biases can have an impact on who gets hired, on who advances, on who they want to work with as a potential mentor, who they sponsor an organization. So even though they are one person, that can really have a ripple effect that spreads more broadly to have a larger impact in how the organization functions. And that’s only if we’re talking about middle management, right? Imagine if we’re talking about someone who’s in a leadership role at the very top level of an organization who’s responsible for setting the organizational culture or has an outsized role in shaping policy. If that person comes with particular biases, then that can really set the tone for an organization and make it more difficult for that organization to be a place that is able to really become a diverse organization that is able to meet the needs of a wide array in a wide variety of workers.

Michael: Beyond denying workers of color and women of all races equal opportunities and inclusion in the workplace, a lack of DEI can negatively impact workers of color’s mental health as well.

Adia: Research very broadly can tell us that if we’re talking about workers of color in particular, having more racial diversity and more inclusion, and what I mean by that is being in workspaces where there’s less of a sense of stress, less of a sense of racial strife, less of a sense of racial harassment and so forth, can really be beneficial to the mental health of workers of color in those environments. Research does indicate that for workers of color, when they are in environments where they are not experiencing the physical manifestations that can come with being in settings where racial bias or racial harassment feels rampant or explicit or overt, then the absence of that phenomena can be very beneficial to their- their mental health at least, and that that can have implications for their physical health as well.

Adia: For example, for black workers in particular, we know that experiences with racialized stress don’t just kind of drop away at the door when you go into a workplace or when you start work, since many of us are working from home. So we know that those experiences with racialized stress are not things that you just leave behind once you clock in or go into your office, whether it’s at home or out of your house or what have you. Those are issues that are going to be part of who black workers are when they come into the workforce. So if you’re in an environment where you’re regularly seeing police shootings or police killings of people of color on a daily basis, that’s something that has an impact on many black workers that they are going to bring with them into the workspace because it does have an impact on their psyche, on their stress, on their emotional well-being and so forth.

Michael: Diversity is far from a new problem. Most businesses have policies and training specifically for diversity in the workplace. But more often than not these solutions are ineffective and can even have the opposite effect. So what’s been wrong with previous attempts at DEI?

Adia: Organizations and employers in particular may assume that if we want to address these issues of diversity and inclusion, you know, we get a trainer in here and maybe we hire a woman of any race or a person of color for a high-ranking position and boom, we solve this problem. We did it. That’s not so accurate. Right. And that’s not, again, what experience and research indicate.

Adia: Lauren Edelman is a sociologist at University of California at Berkeley who writes that often organizations are more engaged in what she describes as symbolic compliance, showing to regulators and investors that they understand that these issues are things that they have to say they’re doing something about, more so than to actually try to create more racial diversity. My colleague Frank Dobbin at Harvard has also shown that as the focus of these programs shifted over time from explicit focus on affirmative action in addressing racial and gender disparities to diversity at large, that’s grown to include things like diversity of thought, diversity of opinion, diversity of feelings, very broadly defined categories that allow managers and organizations to avoid focusing on specific issues of racial and gender inequity. And in my own work, I’ve actually found that black workers and organizations, particularly higher status black workers who have more direct involvement with diversity initiatives, are more likely as well to find those a frustrating waste of their time, because they’re not seen as the type of initiatives that can really address the systemic processes that they see in organizations, particularly the ones that affect themselves. So I’m just giving a brief overview of some of the recent studies here, because I think these illustrate a common thread when it comes to these issues of diversity training. One is that they aren’t designed to focus explicitly any more on drilling down on these issues of racial and gender disparities that continue to exist in workplaces. They are often designed to sidestep those issues. They’re designed to be very broad and to be very ambiguous and amorphous. And at the same time, they are designed to allow organizations to say that they’re doing something without really pushing them to do the type of solutions or engage in the types of solutions and strategies that we know actually move the needle and create real results.

Adia: What we do know does actually move the needle is when managers are fully brought into and are a part of the interest in and desire to create more racial and gender diversity; and that they are tasked with doing this work explicitly; and that they have the resources and administrative and managerial support to actually make these gains happen. And that seems somewhat straightforward and self-evident. But there actually are many organizations that don’t go about it that way. But we know that from the research, when organizations involved managers and when they are a key part of helping to draft these solutions, when they know that racial and gender diversity is important and that that’s an organizational goal and that they’ll be held accountable for achieving that goal and they have the resources to do so, that actually is where the data show that organizations have been able to successfully make changes.

Adia: One thing that managers can do is to think about structuring hiring processes in ways that aren’t so subject to personal biases or personal views in ways that can be detrimental to these issues. I think other things to consider are leadership training programs and organizations that can help to offset the ways in which workers of color and women workers of all races may be left out of the informal mentoring and sponsorship processes that can often elevate certain groups without everyone having the same opportunities. These are just a couple of things that, again, research has talked about and that researchers have shown can help to shift a lot of the policies that are in place in workplaces to make them a bit more available to workers across the spectrum.

Michael: Diversity equity and inclusion in the workplace isn’t a fire drill. It’s not a once a year topic that is briefly discussed and practiced. It’s something that needs to be worked at, and resources need to be devoted to it. Even if an organization doesn’t have a budget flexible enough to devote many resources, a concerted effort from the leaders of a workplace can have a great impact.

Adia: Large corporations, large businesses may be in a better position to have more resources to put towards this problem. Bigger companies are more able to say, look, we are going to focus on this this way and we’ve got this budget that we can devote to this. I do worry that in smaller companies, there may simply not be the available resources to focus on these issues in the way that many larger companies do. But I don’t think that necessarily means that these are issues that smaller companies cannot tackle. I think that with organizational leadership and will it may just be that smaller companies need to think about how they can use the resources that they do have to try to address these issues, right? It may mean that a smaller number of managers come together to solve these issues and that they do so with the backing of leadership. That’s something that can be done even in a small organization. And it may mean that in that small organization, there may be more ability to kind of be nimble and to be flexible about what sorts of changes may need to to be made. But I do think that small organizations may face different challenges in trying to address these issues than larger ones. But that doesn’t make these challenges impossible. I really do think that a lot of the wherewithal and ability to address these issues does come down, in many cases, to organizational support, managerial involvement, resources and leadership. And I think that those are things that smaller organizations certainly have.

Michael: Creating diversity, equity, and inclusion is achievable for any business that focuses leadership and resources to it. In the description, we will link to even more resources of practices and policies that have been successful in creating more diverse workplaces. Beyond the individuals who will feel more supported, the benefits of focusing on these issues can extend throughout an entire organization.

Adia: I think that when we think about the demographics of the United States and where the country is going and the fact that we are moving to a space where the US is becoming increasingly multiracial, more so than it has been at perhaps any other point in our history, it’s actually incumbent on organizations to be able to be prepared for that racial diversity by adequately reflecting the populations that they serve, by making sure that their workforce is reflective of that population. It seems to me to be difficult to imagine an organization that can meet the needs of an increasingly racially diverse society if that workforce and if that leadership is so out of touch with the constituents and the communities that that organization seeks to serve.

Adia: So I would stress and urge employers not to think that these issues of diversity and equity and inclusion are things that can be solved by these sorts of quick, easy fixes that are often commonly used. Really, making an organization diverse and equitable and inclusive requires work, and it requires time and it requires focus. And often it requires changing the everyday systemic practices that have been part of an organization for a long time. It’s also worth it for the value that it brings to making an organization more open to and inclusive of a broad array of viewpoints and perspectives and experiences and ideas. And it’s also worth it for how I think that positions in organization should be prepared for the way that our society is changing in ways that that organizations are going to need to be equipped to deal with.

Michael: Workplace Matters is supported by the national institute for occupational safety and health. To listen to more podcasts, view our ongoing video series, or for more information, visit healthier workforce center .org. Thank you.

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