In the hit sitcom, “The Office,” bumbling Dunder Mifflin manager Michael Scott attempts to educate his staff about diversity in the workplace by making them pick an index card with a different ethnicity on it and pretend to greet each other with the stereotypes of that group. Employees get increasingly annoyed as Scott eggs them on, until the exercise finally devolves into ridicule and resentment. Though this fictional episode seems outrageous, it reflects how many employees feel about the futility of some diversity initiatives in the workplace.

It’s not that employees don’t value diversity—they do. Eighty percent of employees surveyed by Deloitte across different sized organizations and industries agreed that inclusion plays a key role in their decision to join, stay or leave an organization. Having an inclusive, diverse culture not only helps companies attract and retain the best talent, but it also boosts productivity and profitability, according to a McKinsey study.

Many Diversity in the Workplace Initiatives Falling Short

Businesses are investing more time, effort and resources in diversity and inclusion initiatives than ever, but many of these programs fail to resonate with the employees they intend to serve. The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) reported that while 98 percent of organizations polled had diversity and inclusion programs, a quarter of the workers targeted by these programs—including women, people of color, those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LBGT)—didn’t see the benefits of these initiatives. Likewise, these programs appear to be failing many black and Hispanic women, who say they experience isolation and exclusion as team members, according to a Harvard Business Review study.

Success of these initiatives often hinges on how employees perceive diversity in the workplace, organizational behavior experts say. Programs should focus less on quotas and more on welcoming professionals from a variety of backgrounds and experience levels. They should build trust among team members with differing viewpoints by providing them with a convenient and receptive forum for sharing and implementing their ideas. Leaders must also take the time to understand what employees need to feel fairly represented and recognized in the workplace. Because men ages 45 and older are typically the decision-makers for organizations, they often underestimate the barriers against women, minorities and others in hiring, retention and promotions, the BCG report found.

The Dos and Don’ts of Diversity in the Workplace

How can companies encourage more diversity in the workplace without creating tension among employees or alienating certain groups? Keep these dos and don’ts in mind to develop meaningful and relevant initiatives for diversity in the workplace and to cultivate an inclusive, respectful culture that your employees (and clients) will appreciate.

Do watch your language. Think carefully about the words you use in everything from job descriptions to company memos and meetings and be cognizant of any unconscious biases or assumptions you might be exhibiting toward any particular group.

Do broaden your perspective. Diversity is not limited to race or gender. It also extends to sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic backgrounds, physical abilities, and religious and political beliefs. Make sure your recruiting efforts don’t exclude any one group and your company culture shows an attitude of openness toward all employees, regardless of physical or social characteristics that make them different.

Do set benchmarks. Survey employees periodically to gauge their views on existing initiatives and gain a deeper understanding of their needs and concerns. Incorporate their feedback with industry benchmarks to set measurable goals for improving workplace diversity and inclusion.

Don’t treat diversity as just an HR issue. Support for diversity starts at the top and funnels down. Leaders should set the tone, participating in company-wide initiatives and mentoring and reaching out to those whose experience and background differs from their own.

Don’t ignore complaints. If any employee in your company is feeling marginalized or discriminated against, take his or her concerns seriously. Show that you care by hearing them out and investigating if necessary.

Don’t rely on the same hiring practices. To attract diverse candidates, look outside the typical places. Expand your search beyond local colleges or networking groups. Seek out prospects who can contribute a fresh perspective or challenge the status quo.

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