Article by Karima Mariama-Arthur

People often speak of diversity and inclusion as if they were interchangeable words, but the truth is they’re very different concepts.

When we speak of workplace diversity, we’re talking about the presence — or absence — of people from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, age brackets, geographical locations, and religious traditions representing an assortment of physical and mental abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities, and philosophical leanings. Diversity refers only to the demographic composition of the workforce, not to the workplace policies that address the various needs and wants of that workforce. That’s where inclusion comes in.

When we speak of inclusion in the workplace, we’re addressing the ways an organization makes its employees feel accepted. Inclusion encompasses the words used in the workplace, especially by executives and managers; the ways an organization celebrates holidays; the manner in which meetings are structured and run; and the types of accommodations available in a workspace. Inclusion is the signals — sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle — an organization sends to its employees, all of which can make a person feel valuable or valueless.

Too often, organizations pat themselves on the back when they implement a hiring policy that increases diversity. However, such a policy is nothing more than an empty gesture unless the company also addresses organizational culture. If your organization is hiring a diverse group of people but sending hostile signals to them, you’re going to lose them and find yourself back at square one sooner or later.

If your organization is serious about creating a truly welcoming environment for a diverse workforce, you should take a hard look at these three areas:

Consider the C-Suite

The composition of your executive team speaks volumes about your organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Unless those who hold the levers of power in your organization reflect the diversity of the wider workforce at a very basic level, you can’t call yourself a truly diverse and inclusive organization. Until those at the lower echelons of the org chart can see someone who looks like them at the top, they will be hard-pressed to feel they really belong. They may struggle to even feel inspired enough to try ascending the corporate ladder themselves.

Diversity doesn’t magically show up in the C-suite. For a diverse leadership team, you need to intentionally provide training and advancement opportunities to diverse groups of high-potential employees. That’s the only way to ensure the leadership talent pipeline can support a diverse leadership team.

Cut the Promotion Bias

Your organization’s employee evaluation and promotion process says a lot about its philosophy and priorities. If managers are allowed to apply disparate standards on a whim or employ discriminatory practices, the same kinds of people will keep getting those promotions.

Promotions are one of the chief means of showing employees they matter — not to mention the only way to advance diverse leaders through the organizational ranks — so you should do all that you can to remove bias from the process. That means training managers to recognize and confront their own biases (explicit and implicit) and standardizing requirements for promotions so that the rewards for hard work are more broadly available.

Talk to the Team

If your organization has already taken genuine steps to diversify the workplace, then you might already have a built-in mechanism for measuring the strengths and weaknesses of your inclusion practices. Even still, it’s important to ask your employees to offer feedback (anonymously, to ensure honesty and usefulness) on their interpersonal experiences, especially in the context of workplace culture. Then, you can use those evaluations to guide further substantive changes in your workspace.

If, for example, your employees are telling you they need a lactorium or a prayer/meditation room, consider providing those accommodations. The investment will pay dividends in the long run and help employees feel more comfortable as they work toward making their best possible contributions in the workplace.

Diversity and inclusion aren’t just good for an organization’s morale. This dynamic duo is also good for the bottom line. Inclusion breeds happiness, and happy employees are productive employees. According to a McKinsey & Company report, companies in the top quartile for ethnic and gender diversity are 25 percent likelier to show higher financial returns than less diverse companies.

In other words, diversity strengthens portfolios and corporate coffers. If you want to elevate the value of your company for the long haul, embrace diversity and increase inclusion. You’ll be glad you did!

A version of this article originally appeared on

A leading authority on leadership development and organizational performance management, Karima Mariama-Arthur brings more than 25 years of comprehensive, blue-chip experience in law, business, and academia to every client engagement. A shrewd advisor to distinguished organizations from DC to Dubai, Karima offers expert insights to help clients successfully navigate today’s ever-changing and competitive global business environment. She is the author of the internationally acclaimed and 2019 NAACP Image Award nominated leadership guidebook, Poised for Excellence: Fundamental Principles of Effective Leadership in the Boardroom and Beyond (Palgrave Macmillan), which launched at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She speaks regularly both nationally and internationally in her areas of expertise and serves in an advisory capacity on select corporate boards.

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