Busting Three Modern Myths of Diversity in the Workplace

The benefits of diversity in the workplace do not need to be proven anymore. We know for example that gender diversity at the top positively affects firm’s performance, and that suspicion of racial discrimination has a devastating impact on job attitudes, health and citizenship behaviors. But beyond the business case for diversity, and the efforts already engaged, more needs to be done because three myths of workplace diversity still exist. We set about busting these myths below.

diversity in the workplace

1. Diversity is always visible

While a lot of organizations have somehow moved forward on visible aspects of diversity such as gender, or race, there are “new frontiers” of diversity to address. In sociology, we distinguish visible and invisible stigmatization - invisible identities that can cause marginalization include aspects that are not obvious to co-workers (unless voluntarily made so) such as social class, sexuality or religion. A study of audit organizations, for example, showed how homosexual employees would feel marginalized because of the rhetoric associating virility and performance. Others have shown that workers may potentially conceal their social class because of the stigma they can suffer within organizations. The risk is that those minorities engage in huge efforts to conceal, which prevents them from being themselves at work.

Organizations have developed a number of practices to address this issue - for example, setting up mentoring scheme and making invisible minorities more visible within the organization. It however carries a cost for those minorities who have to engage in role modeling. More work is needed for organizations to show their openness to characteristics that are not visible, for example by associating themselves with key stakeholders - such as Stonewall for sexual identity- and engaging in common initiatives to encourage a broader understanding of diversity.

2. Diversity equals inclusion

Many organizations have been able to improve their diversity mix. They represent more broadly the different components of society, in particular through a careful approach to recruitment.

Unfortunately, this is not enough, because diverse organizations may fail to be inclusive. They may have gender parity overall, but fail to build diverse leadership teams, and have diversity at the top. Inclusion requires organizations to leverage diversity in all dimensions and aspects of organizing - and it requires organizations to bring diverse managers from the bottom to the top, and encourage their career progression. The Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), for example, quickly realized that its high performance with regards to diversity needed some efforts to translate into inclusion. To achieve this objective, organizations need to build a “pipeline” and offer clear trajectories to diverse hires. JP Morgan or BlackRock have for example set up highly successful programs for returning mothers, to ensure that top executives can jump back right to the career and responsibility levels they deserve.

3. Diversity is the responsibility of human resources

Recruitment will involve in most cases many more internal stakeholders beyond human resource management. Diversity and inclusion need to be a collective commitment and a shared responsibility in a wide range of areas including recruitment, career progression and opportunities, and the sharing of tasks and ideas.

We know that unconscious bias, and more generally diversity training, does not always work. Why? Because we always think diversity training is for someone else: we tend to perceive ourselves as free from prejudice, but unconscious bias is the evidence that we rarely are. Organizational members need to realize that diversity and inclusion are key issues, and require genuine efforts, even from those who think they are immune from prejudice. For diversity training to work, participants need to be committed to it and self-critical.

By busting those three myths, organizations can fully leverage the benefits of diversity and take their inclusion policy to the next level, thus building a competitive advantage and a stronger employer brand, by contrast with organizations who are still approaching diversity the same way they did ten years ago.


Ben Laker (@drbenlakeris a Professor of Leadership at Henley Business School, University of Reading, and an expert commentator of Political affairs at Bloomberg and Sky News.

Thomas Roulet (@thomroulet) is a Senior Lecturer in Organization Theory at the Judge Business School and a Fellow in Sociology & Management at Girton College, both at the University of Cambridge.

The trusted source for DC's Employers

Sign up and post a job now

Post a job today

Back to listing

The Washington Post Jobs Newsletter

Subscribe to the latest news about DC's jobs market