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Here’s Why Diversity of Thought Is Often a Workplace Oxymoron

Nov. 30, 2022, 9:00 AM

We hear a lot about the importance of diversity of thought. But in many workplaces, it is more bromide than reality.

Instead, too often, there is group speak that stifles viewpoint diversity. And that group speak morphs into group think when those with different views exit the conversation.

One of the primary business benefits of demographic diversity—such as race, ethnicity, gender—is that differences in experiences associated with identity often translate into different perspectives. If differences in perspective are not valued, then one of the business benefits of demographic diversity is undermined.

For example, there is a clear consensus that employee resource groups are a valuable, if not essential, element of a robust diversity, equity, and inclusion program.

Except that there is no such consensus.

There are undeniably benefits to ERGs relative to engagement and inclusion. But some leaders have shared concerns with me about the focus on “identity.”

These concerns are shared sotto voce or under their employer’s privilege. Publicly, such leaders go along to get along to avoid being attacked or out of fear of being “cancelled.”

Would not it be better if the concerns were shared more openly so that the concerns can be addressed, or at least heard? That’s rhetorical—the answer is “yes.”

We must do more to increase the expression of and consideration given to diversity of thought.

Define Diversity Broadly

Organizations should define diversity to include not only Equal Employment Opportunity demographics such as race, ethnicity, and gender but also other differences in experience, skills, and perspectives. Perspective is the hook for encouraging and considering diversity of thought.

It is also important for legal reasons that the definition of diversity go beyond EEO demographics. This is because employers almost never can consider gender, race, or ethnicity to increase diversity. The lawful way to increase demographic diversity is to focus on other differences that are meaningful when making hiring and other employment decisions.

Broadly Defined

When defining diversity of thought, include diversity of belief. We cannot tell employees that we want them to feel comfortable being their authentic selves, but then tell them to check their faith at the workplace door. The exclusion of diversity of belief may raise legal issues and certainly raises cultural issues.

Please address political perspective, too. While I hug the center, I am increasingly uncomfortable with how conservatives are shut down when they share conservative thoughts, and therefore, many understandably become reluctant to do so.

The failure to embrace diversity of political thought is primarily a cultural issue with economic implications if those with such thoughts disengage. But it also may have legal implications in those jurisdictions where there can be no discrimination based on partisan affiliation or political perspective, such as Washington, D.C.

Offer an Educational Program

Offer an educational program to all employees on the benefits of diversity of thought. Make clear that you want to hear different views and, more specifically, that you don’t want a culture where an employee says what the group thinks as opposed to what the individual thinks.

Emphasize in the educational program the importance of respect and civility. While always important, these values are tested when we disagree. We want diversity of thought, not ad hominem attacks.

While talking about respect and civility, please keep in mind that the NLRB has invited briefs on what the standard should be for evaluating the legality of work rules under the NLRB. If the board changes the standard, which is one suggestion, rules on respect and civility will carry with them greater legal risk.

Respectfully, I could not disagree more with the board if it were to go that route. More importantly, this legal risk can be mitigated with appropriate thought as to how expectations for civility and respect are framed.

Invite Contrary Opinions

Whether it be formal processes, such as engagement surveys, or more routine workplace events, such as meetings, ask specifically and directly for different viewpoints.

When I facilitate a meeting and everyone is agreeing, I say something like, “I very much need to hear a different view. More specifically, I want to hear from someone who does not agree that [insert].”

Make sure to thank those who speak up. It takes courage to take a position contrary to one’s colleagues, particularly leaders. Encourage it and praise it to stimulate more.

Avoid Statements Discouraging Diverse Views

Be thoughtful about the meta messages that you may be sending that stifle diversity of thought, even where goal may be simply to create some commonality. Here are but two real-life examples:

“I know I can speak for everyone when I say [insert].” Actually, you can’t speak for everyone when it comes to workplace policies, programs, and culture. So, don’t.

“We all should be grateful for X’s leadership with regard to [Insert].” Message heard don’t challenge the thoughts of that leader. Result: you are hurting the leader by creating an echo chamber for them

Value Thought Diversity in Decision Making

The true test for whether diversity of thought is valued is whether it is weighted in decision-making regarding hiring and other employment decisions.

For example, before making a hiring decision, consider asking: what could this person add in terms of perspective, skills, knowledge, or ability that we don’t already have? Notice I did not say in terms of race, ethnicity, or gender.

In conclusion, agree with my viewpoint on diversity of thought? Terrific! Disagree with my viewpoint? Terrific, too!

Cause you to think more about diversity of thought? For me, best of all!

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Jonathan A. Segal is a partner with Duane Morris. A former litigator, he focuses on legal compliance, risk, and culture, with concentration on diversity and inclusion, discrimination, harassment and retaliation, wage and hour compliance, and workplace investigations.