Overcoming the Barriers to an Inclusive Organization

By Guest Contributor

November 19, 2018

De Pree Journal

Near the start of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed at the synagogue in Nazareth that he was the one, foretold in Isaiah 61, who would set the oppressed free (Luke 4:14-28). In doing so, Jesus announced that a central aim of his ministry would be leveling social hierarchies in which some people were favored over others. We see him doing this throughout the gospels, as he affirms those who were marginalized in his day—women, Samaritans, prostitutes, tax collectors. We see Paul continuing these themes in his letters, most notably in Galatians 3:28, where he makes the radical declaration that in God’s kingdom, all people—male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free—are viewed as equal.

One way in which we might continue this work in our own lives is to apply the same lens to our workplaces: to see people of both sexes and all races as equal and to provide them the same opportunities for employment and advancement. And not only is creating a diverse and inclusive workplace in line with Jesus’s mission on earth, it also has tangible benefits for the organization: Diverse companies make more money, have more customers, and make better decisions than homogenous ones.

While most organizations say they give equal consideration to men and women and people of all races, very few demonstrate that in practice. Most org charts reveal that white people and men are overrepresented in both hiring and promotion. When asked about their efforts to create a more diverse workplace, many leaders offer a number of reasons why they haven’t been able to or why they think their work is done. Among the most common:

“We’re doing fine—we have women and people of color in our organization.”

Perhaps the most common misconception about organizational diversity is that the end goal is to meet a certain number—to have X percent of employees be women or people of color. But numbers aren’t the end game. If you have a critical mass of women or people of color but none are in senior leadership, your decisions are still being made by the same people who’ve always made them. You aren’t taking diversity seriously until women and people of color become stakeholders and have a say in how things are actually done.

This is a daunting proposition for many organizations, because diversifying your leadership is a threat to the way things have always been done. Most organizations resist this kind of change, either explicitly or implicitly. Introducing new perspectives has the potential to create more conflict—though research shows that these challenges lead to better decisions and higher performance—and any change to the status quo will usually face some resistance. But if you’re serious about giving a voice to people from different backgrounds, and if you want the aforementioned benefits of organizational diversity, then that means providing opportunities for different voices to speak and to shape how the organization works. Otherwise, you’re simply trying to meet a quota and minimize its impact.

Not only is creating a diverse and inclusive workplace in line with Jesus’s mission on earth, it also has tangible benefits for the organization.

“We’d love to hire more women and people of color, but we’re limited by who applies for the positions we post.”

It’s true—you can’t offer a job to someone who didn’t formally apply. But you can take steps to try to get your job posting to as many people as possible and to make good candidates interested. For one, the language you use in your job descriptions can influence who applies. Studies have shown that postings with more masculine language—ones that emphasize the company’s dominance or competitiveness, for example—tend to attract fewer female applicants because they don’t think they’ll fit into the organization’s culture. So being mindful of the language you use is crucial to attracting as wide an applicant pool as possible.

In addition, consider the ways in which your openings are disseminated. Your network is likely to be mostly people in your particular demographic, so if your primary means of advertising your openings is word-of-mouth or forwarding it to your friends, your applicants will probably be people who are like you. What are you doing to reach people who aren’t like you? What contacts do you have who could spread your posting to people from different backgrounds? What connections have you made with professional organizations for women and people of color in your field? If you live near a university, what recruiting efforts are you making for women and people of color there? Are there mentoring or internship opportunities you could provide? This may seem like a lot of work, but one of the unfortunate realities of our country is that throughout our history, certain groups of people have formally and informally been excluded from education and advancement opportunities, and we still feel the effects of those decisions today. It takes some effort to try to rectify these injustices, but you have the opportunity to do it.

“We’d love to hire more women and people of color, but the ones we hire don’t often stay long-term.”

If you’re having a problem retaining women and people of color, something about your organization may be intentionally or unintentionally discouraging them from staying. Are there women and people of color in senior leadership positions? If not, you may be inadvertently communicating that opportunities for promotion are limited for these folks—or there may be some bias in your promotional processes. What is your organizational culture like? Are there mentorship programs or networks for women and people of color? Establishing support systems for these employees is critical; they may not feel completely comfortable within the organization, especially if they’re clearly outnumbered, and they may be treated differently within the organization, unintentionally or otherwise. Both mentoring and training programs have been found to improve retention and promotion of these groups. For example, in 1995, Johnson & Johnson launched an in-house initiative to prepare women for leadership roles; by 2013, the number of female executives at the company had grown from 300 to 2,000.

What unintentional messages might your organization be sending? Are the after-work hangouts often held at more male-centric places, like bars or golf courses? For staff-wide outings, do you do things that are historically associated with white people, like camping? In order to retain good employees from all backgrounds, it’s essential to examine both your official processes for review, retention, and promotion, as well as the unintentional messages that your organization may communicate.

Since we naturally gravitate to people who are similar to us, creating a diverse organization can feel like fighting an uphill battle. But the results are more than worthwhile: Not only does it yield significant benefits for your organization, but it also provides you an opportunity to do kingdom work at the office.

This article was previously published on November 7, 2016.

Elizabeth Lin is a Senior Fellow at Newbigin House of Studies in San Francisco, CA, and the co-founder of Progressive Asian American Christians. She has a PhD in clinical psychology, as well as master’s degrees in psychology and theology, from Fuller Theological Seminary. You can find more of her work at mynameiselizabeth.com.

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