One of the hardest things for any leader is to admit their mistakes.
But as corporate America takes a step back to examine its posture toward underrepresented groups of people, board members will have to admit to past missteps in an attempt to cultivate a more inclusive workplace.
On the one hand, it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as these mistakes are the result of genuine ignorance. After all, everyone has blind spots, and it’s easy to overlook the cultural differences now present in the American workplace.
But if company leaders are serious about DEI initiatives, then executives will need to adopt a new set of habits to achieve these goals. Here’s how board members can respond to rising challenges and opportunities in the workplace.
DEI in the Workplace
By any measure, the American workplace is becoming far more diverse than it was just a few decades ago. For example, in 1979, only 23% of the American workforce was nonwhite, Latino, or both. By 2019, this number had risen to 40%.
Race is only one of several ways in which American businesses are becoming more diverse.
Today, DEI programs are aimed at celebrating diversity across such categories as:
- Religious identity
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity
Additionally, a majority of American workers (56%) see DEI policies as a net positive for the companies they work for. Not surprisingly, women and racial minorities place the highest value on workplace diversity, illustrating that these programs can indeed empower those who have not historically had a voice or a place within corporate America.
Given the importance placed on DEI in recent years, it’s important for executive leaders to recognize common missteps — or even the potential for missteps — to better navigate these issues in the future. Here are some common examples of mistakes made by corporate leaders.
Focusing on Only Certain Criteria
One of the biggest mistakes that leaders can make is to consider diversity and inclusion only along racial or gender lines. In reality, workplaces are diversified by sexual orientation, religious tradition, and other cultural factors. Even age can contribute to an organization’s diversity.
If leaders fail to recognize how all of these elements contribute to workplace diversity, they run the risk of minimizing the contributions of demographic groups they’ve overlooked. In the case of age diversity, corporate managers may miss out on years of experience if they fail to include boomers as well as emerging adults in workplace decisions.
Neglecting Cultural Traditions
Sometimes organizations attempt to do the right thing but do not consider the full ramifications of their decisions. For instance, it’s possible to neglect cultural traditions even while attempting to be inclusive.
Imagine that you have a workplace with many employees whose cultural background is vegetarian. Your workplace party planning committee may attempt to accommodate vegetarians in their plans, but if they create only a single option, they have neglected the cultural tradition represented by a significant portion of their workforce.
This is an example of how workplaces can make a misstep by giving token attention to a cultural tradition, not realizing how much it affects the people who work there. Pursuing greater diversity will demand a more accurate consideration of the traditions represented by your staff members.
Assuming Common Holiday Traditions
In December, Christmas is the dominant holiday, with nearly 9 in 10 American consumers celebrating Christmas in 2023. So it’s only natural for workplaces to have Christmas parties, display Christmas decorations, or distribute Christmas cards to their workers.
But it may not make sense to ask your entire workforce to participate in a distinctively Christmas event, considering that some of them may not celebrate. Assuming a common tradition can alienate those who do not share that tradition — in this case, Jews or Muslims.
Forging a Way Forward
If any of the above missteps sound familiar, it may be time to get serious about your workplace DEI policies. This starts with the executive leadership team. Here are some suggestions for how governing boards can pursue diversity initiatives in their local setting.
Admit Your Wrongs
This is the hard part. But it may not be possible to chart a course for the future if there is any residual ill will regarding the past. Boards can model humility by doing two things.
First, take inventory of any missteps that may have occurred in the past. Second, admit that you may not have recognized these issues (or these persons), and express your intent to rectify these missteps moving forward.
Pursue Flexibility in Cultural Expressions
A simple way to address the missteps above is to create a culture where workers have the flexibility to practice their own cultural expressions. For example, during December, you could allow workers to select the best dates to take time off. Those who don’t celebrate Christmas may take off time on a different date for religious observations without having to use personal time.
Listen More Than You Talk
Sometimes leaders can accomplish more by sitting quietly and listening to people from other cultural backgrounds or other experiences. Inviting engagement from your workers can be a learning experience that also promotes empathy, and doing so may serve as a valuable example for your company’s other leaders and managers.
Pursue Progress, Not Perfection
The American workplace is undergoing rapid change. Executive leaders should extend grace to one another and their employees as they adapt to new initiatives and opportunities. You’re unlikely to achieve workplace utopia in a short period of time, but you can champion progress toward positive change that improves your company culture for years to come.
Move Beyond the Numbers
For some leaders, the mere mention of DEI is associated with diversity quotas and an urgent need to hire the “right” number of diverse candidates. While this is helpful, it’s not always the ultimate goal.
Instead, the willingness to reexamine leadership habits and corporate strategies can go a long way toward creating a more inclusive, empathetic workplace that benefits employees from every background.
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