Diversity & Inclusion

Encouraging Diversity While Avoiding Divisiveness

Employer focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), however well intentioned, needs to be handled properly, or it may have a detrimental effect on the workforce. While many employers promote DEI as “the right thing to do,” it’s essential for DEI success and acceptance that the right thing isn’t done the wrong way.

Factors to Consider

First, it’s important to think about diversity as more extensive than a focus on protected classes. The enrichment within a diverse workforce is more than the primary areas of focus—race, gender, and sexual orientation/identity. Expand your thinking of what’s considered diverse to include interests, education, political beliefs, family background—in essence, the great variety of personal experiences that help to enrich the workplace.

Next, be careful of making specific goal targets based on protected classes. There are two primary reasons for this. First, it may signal to others in the workplace that those selected were chosen to meet the goal and not because of their qualifications. Specific goals may create the impression that promotions and other workplace opportunities aren’t awarded based on merit. Creating goals based on protected class may also give the impression that those selected couldn’t achieve that opportunity on their own merit. This has been referred to as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

The second reason is legal: Making these kinds of goals creates the potential for discrimination claims. What an organization communicates about its DEI initiatives and how employees are selected or promoted may result in discrimination litigation. What is required legally is equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.

Finally, it’s a good idea to expand the equality of opportunity outreach. For example, if your organization seeks college graduates in a particular field, include recruitment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). If your organization is seeking bids for a particular project, specifically reach out to include minority- and female-owned enterprises. The selection is based on merit, but the opportunity to compete is proactively more inclusive.

Bottom Line

An expansive approach to DEI may contribute to a workplace of diverse thoughts and ideas, the outcome of which could be a better product or service and a culture that employees are proud to be part of.

Richard Lehr is a shareholder at Lehr Middlebrooks Vreeland & Thompson, P.C.. He can be reached at at rlehr@lehrmiddlebrooks.com

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