Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace

The Business of Leading Change

Hannibal B. Johnson 


Each of us is a complex individual. Yes, we are different from one another, sometimes in significant ways. But what we have in common—our shared humanity—overarches those differences. A Yiddish proverb suggests we are all kneaded from the same dough, but some of us are baked in different ovens. Seeing differences, yet seeing beyond them, enables and ennobles us. Embracing diversity and inclusion allows us to be our true selves and be true to all others.

“Takatoka,” the moniker for my workplace diversity and inclusion paradigm, is a Cherokee word meaning “standing together.” It evokes a sense of solidarity in the face of a multitude of human differences and emphasizes the exponential power residing within the community of individual selves. Fundamental to individual and group development under the Takatoka model is the recognition of our shared humanity.

At its core, Takatoka requires: (i) acknowledging the humanity of others (i.e., according others dignity and respect); (ii) ferreting out and reducing/eliminating injustices; (iii) celebrating differences; and (iv) seeking common ground (i.e., identifying common or community goals and working toward their accomplishment elevates both the unique individuals within the group and the group itself).

Andres Tapia, in his book The Inclusion Paradox—The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity, noted:


[T]he possibilities for an exponential explosion of creativity, innovation, and life-improving products and services birthed through the union of diversity and inclusion [are evident]. Embracing the mix and knowing how to make it work will give us the power to create an alternative, uplifting, and creative vision.


[C]orporations, not-for-profits, government, law enforcement, and the military will have to attract and retain the best talent from multiple labor pools if they are to survive the talent war. The key to attraction lies in creating truly inclusive environments. Don’t be fooled by how soft and effortless that sounds. Inclusion is one of the hardest things to achieve.


Andres T. Tapia, The Inclusion Paradox—The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity (Lincolnshire, Illinois: Hewitt Associates 2009), at 15.


Tapia got it right. The work of diversity and inclusion is tough and never-ending. There will always be detractors and challenges, but if businesses, organizations, and communities are to reach their full potential, it is work that must be done.

Research on community by Dr. Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, indicates: (1) diversity is inevitable; (2) diversity is an imperative; and (3) diversity leadership that fosters a spirit of inclusion is paramount. Being inclusive, in Dr. Putnam’s view, requires developing “a new, broader sense of ‘we’.” Too much of an “us” and “them” mentality still persists, not just among individuals, but systemically, among organizations.

The success of diversity and inclusion initiatives turns on five propositions:


  1. Diversity and inclusion is both a moral imperative and a business necessity.


  1. Diversity is. Inclusion may or may not be.


  1. Contact is necessary, but not sufficient.


  1. With change comes resistance.


  1. The work of diversity and inclusion is ongoing.


I. PROPOSITION #1: Diversity and inclusion is both a moral imperative and a business necessity.

The case for diversity and inclusion is two-dimensional: one moral, the other economic and pragmatic. The moral case is straightforward. Universal values grounded in most national, cultural, and religious traditions teach us to treat others with respect and to value the humanity of each and every person.


The business case for diversity and inclusion has become pervasive and persuasive.

The demographic imperative is undeniable.

America is browning: There are increasing numbers of people of color. America is graying: We are, on average, getting older and, with that, the number of persons with disabilities (another dimension of diversity) is rising. America is gaying: There is an increasing prominence of and advocacy for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) community. These groups—people of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and LGBT people—represent incredible human capital and substantial purchasing power. Firms that invest in diversity and inclusion—open up employment processes and reach out to untapped and underserved markets—will reap substantial dividends in the form of workplace capacity, creativity, and culture.


We are a global society. We are increasingly connected to the rest of the world, with its rich diversity of language, religion, and culture, in terms of our workforce, marketplace, and economy. Within this global context, we are in the midst of “the talent games.” Getting top talent now means casting a wider net; tapping markets once largely ignored.


By 2020, “minorities” will make up an additional 20% of the workforce. Women continue their rapid entry into the employment sector. Generational diversity is prominent in the workplace. Already, there are four generations—Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials—represented.

Our present reality and the relevant trends echo the business case for diversity and inclusion, the most obvious benefits of which include: workforce talent attraction and retention, productivity gains, expanded markets, expanded perspectives, a heightened self-image among employees, and an enhanced workplace culture. Business survival depends on giving diversity and inclusion its due.

II. PROPOSITION #2: Diversity is. Inclusion may or may not be.

Diversity refers to the many and varied differences between and among us, sometimes apparent (e.g., gender; race), but often not (e.g., learning styles; political/philosophical identity; economic status). For most of us, certain aspects of our diversity loom larger than others. Often, these “core dimensions” of diversity include gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and ability status.

Inclusion comes with the recognition that what we as people have in common far exceeds our differences. Inclusion is a state of being respected, valued, and supported within a community such that each and every person has the opportunity to reach his/her full potential.


The related concept of cultural competence involves enhancing one’s awareness, attitudes, knowledge, and skills around diversity and inclusion. Cultural competence may be viewed as diversity and inclusion actualized.

Diversity already exists all around us. It is non-negotiable, especially in the long run. Inclusion requires intentionality: commitment, persistence, and sustainability, all of which start at the top of an organization.


No business, and indeed no organization, will realize its full potential without appropriate attention to diversity and inclusion, and without some focus on creating the kind of cultural competence that translates diversity and inclusion into meaningful positive action.

III. PROPOSITION # 3: Contact is necessary, but not sufficient.

Diversity means more than simply accumulating persons of varying backgrounds. Putting different people together in a shared environment—essentially, the contact theory—may, over time, help reduce individual biases and prejudices, but it is insufficient to address systemic inequities and create the kind of synergistic capacity businesses need. Skilled, thoughtful facilitation is required to leverage diversity in ways that benefit the collective by elevating and empowering its individuals.


Inclusion in the workplace involves not just recruitment and hiring, but also retention. That means addressing systemic barriers to equal opportunity. It requires creating supports for all employees–mentoring, regularized feedback, opportunities for growth and development, avenues through which to communicate problems/grievances, and networking channels (e.g., business resource groups, conferences, and community engagement opportunities). Finally, workplace inclusion necessitates holding people accountable for creating an environment that offers every employee equal avenues for success.

IV. PROPOSITION #4: With change comes resistance.

Change is difficult. Culture change within an organization can be especially difficult. Embracing diversity and inclusion means tackling the “but-this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” syndrome. Resistance and roadblocks should be expected and, just as certainly, confronted. Stifling dissent is not the goal. Molding behavior consistent with core organizational values is.  

An organization faced with diversity and inclusion pushback should: (i) identify the negative behavior; (ii) articulate the real or potential business impact of the behavior; (iii) seek feedback from the individual on the reasons underlying the behavior; (iv) point out alternative, more positive, ways to behave; (v) monitor the behavior; (vi) reevaluate the situation within a time certain. Stifling dissent is not the goal. Molding behavior consistent with core organization values is.  

V. PROPOSITION #5: The work of diversity and inclusion is ongoing. 

Progress continues to be made in the diversity and inclusion arena. Indeed, progress and promise are essential to keep alive the Utopian ideal of a wholly egalitarian world. Yet, there will always be work to do: new people to educate; sectarian strife to stifle; and interpersonal crises to quell. Diversity and inclusion issues should be viewed as an ongoing journey. It is essential to stay the course despite temporary hazards and setbacks.

On an individual level, it is surprisingly simple to make a difference in terms of diversity and inclusion. On getting things done, famed tennis pro and humanitarian Arthur Ashe once said: “Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can.” So it is with diversity and inclusion. Reach outside your comfort zone. Learn about your own culture history and background. Support diversity and inclusion causes.

Individual efforts to foster diversity and inclusion, while necessary, are not wholly adequate. Businesses and organizations play critical roles in nurturing diversity and inclusion, both out of social responsibility (the moral dimension) and business necessity (the economic dimension). What are the hallmarks of an inclusive organization? Inclusive organizations

1. Value diversity & inclusion;


2. Engage diversity & inclusion;


3. Set high expectations for all;


4. Fashion a personal development culture;


5. Embrace conflict;


6. Nurture creativity;


7. Define their mission and goals clearly; and


8. Foster an egalitarian culture.


Leadership is the key to meaningful, sustainable workplace diversity and inclusion efforts. Each of us is capable of that being part of that leadership, but we must first assess our own awareness, attitudes, knowledge, and skills around issues of diversity and inclusion. That process begins with the question: What are the core dimensions of my own diversity and how do they affect my interrelationships with others? That inquiry requires us to reach down to our own racial/ethnic/cultural roots, explore gender and sexuality dynamics, examine notions of ability/disability, and peer into the politics of class (and, arguably, caste).

Each of us can be a constant catalyst for individual and institutional change. We can advocate for—champion—diversity and inclusion within our own spheres of influence. We can speak truth to power. We can mentor and support others who share similar visions. We can celebrate incremental positive change while fighting more transformational movement.

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, our work is never done. But when we recall that these efforts are part of a mission-critical values proposition, we should be emboldened to carry on. This is business.