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Defining Diversity and Inclusion

March 2, 2010

Defining diversity

In college, the one course I dreaded taking was “Cross-Cultural Communications.” I procrastinated on the 100-level course, waiting until my final semester of senior year to finally subject myself to the torture. I feared the professor would spend the fifteen weeks teaching us how to be politically correct.  I was disinterested in learning what I already knew: that words have power.

The course, however, wound up being one of the most fascinating explorations of how society works. Rather than teach political correctness, the course eschewed it; forcing us to look into ourselves, our assumptions, and our society to see the operations of society in a different light.

Through reading seminal works like Edward Hall’s Beyond Culture, we learned about how institutions, racial groups, and religious groups all share something in common no matter how different they are from one another: the need to coalesce around unified traits, speech, and actions. Many of the racial-political discourse in the United States, for example, could be looked through a cultural lens.  Take a look at the entertaining web site Stuff White People Like if you want a fun example about racial groups unifying around common speech and accepted social norms.

The working environment in companies is not exempt from culture. Each company, as a collection of individuals, has a culture: shared speech patterns (ever have to ask “What does that acronym mean?”), expected action chains (If you’re going to ask a favor of a Senior VP, do you have to go through a VP first?), and shared values (Can you “borrow” office supplies without getting into trouble?).

So it is no surprise that “diversity & inclusion” programs have gained traction in the business world over the past decade or more.

This week, we’re devoting our journal to diversity and we will post several articles:

  • Defining diversity & inclusion
  • Why diversity matters
  • Why white men are afraid of diversity
  • Why diversity is a CSR strategy

A WORKING DEFINITION OF DIVERSITY & INCLUSION

Culture is a very strong influence in society. In almost everything we see or do, an organization’s or group’s culture has played a role.  So what is diversity and what is inclusion? Are they simply concepts that, like what I thought cross-cultural communication would be, a guise for political correctness?

No.

Diversity is a collection of different life experiences and genetics.  All of us are different. We have walked down life’s paths and have chosen to diverge at many different forks in the road: whether to enter into the military service, where we live, what school to go to (or not), the clothes we wear, exposure to other languages, our political affiliation. In other cases, the paths we are on are due to predetermination via genetics: our race, eye color, height, sex, etc..

So when we work together in a diverse environment, it’s a moot point to point out the differences we all have. Who cares?  Even identical twins are exposed to different environments and are inherently different people. What does matter is whether we let that diversity create open and hidden discord.

The term “inclusion” is where companies can quiet this cultural discord. Inclusion is a set of policies, procedures, programs, set of norms, and actions (read: culture) that create an environment where the people who make up this diversity are able to use their difference to a company’s benefit, not to its detriment. A successfully inclusive company institutes inclusion to remove the shortfalls of conscious and subconscious bias in the attempt to make a company a meritocracy.

It’s not easy to do and unfortunately it’s easy enough for companies to fake it. But if you have the right leaders, the right environment, and the willingness to educate – you just might be able to realize the benefits a strong diversity and inclusion program can bring (see our next article).

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