The evolving paradigm of inclusion: Where are we headed?

Ableism. Latinx. Non-binary. Alternative spirituality. Transracial. Mansplain. The landscape of diversity & inclusion is no longer Black and White, or Female and Male; it requires the ability to navigate culture in a manner that is vastly different today than ever before. But just wait until tomorrow!

Countless studies have shown that diverse employee representation at all levels of an organization has a quantifiable impact on financial performance. In fact, it is now commonly acknowledged that diversity & inclusion serve as the engine for many corporations to ensure the knowledge, critical thinking, and innovation required to successfully achieve business and mission-critical objectives. But haven’t we been talking about “the business case” for diversity & inclusion for some time? How much progress have we, as diversity practitioners, really made in our corporations and more broadly throughout society? And does the next generation of diversity leaders have a different agenda from that which we are immersed in today?

Diversity & inclusion started receiving widespread use throughout corporate America in the early 1990s. At that time, efforts to advance this work were largely compliance-related and focused on equal employment opportunity laws, which initially concentrated on limited protected classes. Fast forward nearly 30 years later and we have made great strides. Or have we?

  • Only two of the 300 case studies read by first-year Harvard Business School students include illustrations of Black executives.
  • In 28 states, there are no explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations.
  • Despite growth in recent years, only 6.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women.
  • Thirty percent of workers fits the federal definition of having a disability yet less than half disclose that information to their employer which exemplifies the absence of a culture of inclusion and safety in the workplace.

Earlier this year, I tuned in to watch the reboot of comedy pioneer, Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” and its spinoff series “The Jeffersons.” The live event recreated the original episode from both of the Emmy-winning comedies which debuted nearly 50 years ago. The brash comedy illustrated in both sitcoms played on the politically charged, and often times bigoted and sexist, environment of the time. Strikingly, amidst the contemporary backdrop of today’s #MeToo, #LoveWon, and #BlackLivesMatter movements, Archie Bunker is still relevant. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Over the past 30 years, we have looked at diversity as an approach to foster representation and ensure access into the workplace. Moving forward, diversity emphasis will continue to shift towards strategies that drive equity, inclusion, and social justice. When you focus on inclusion, diversity often comes naturally. Representation will also look different for tomorrow’s workforce. We are already learning expectations from the newest generation to enter the workforce. Generation Zers self-identify as competitive, spontaneous, adventuresome, and curious, not to mention multicultural with membership and belonging to various diverse communities. Investments from younger generations, and the positions they occupy, will affect how companies make business decisions.

Transformation is an urgent business requirement, and cultural competency will be fundamental to that transformation. Developing integrated business strategies to level the playing field across cultures with metrics such as employee engagement, customer satisfaction, impact on bottom-line, as well as retention and termination rates, will be instrumental to accelerating the development of culturally proficient and nimble organizations. Companies that actively accelerate transformation are dedicated to fostering a work environment where people from diverse backgrounds work comfortably in teams to achieve shared goals. These organizations recognize that talent and ability are not limited, but enhanced, by the diversity and cultural expertise that individuals bring to the workplace.

While we have made tremendous progress, we realize that diversity & inclusion is a journey, not a destination, where no one, myself included, knows everything there is to know about every single culture. Instead, we have to collectively develop the cultural humility to learn that which we do not know with the end goal of enhancing the level of respect, civility, and dignity that we demonstrate to one another – at work and in our communities.