Workplace diversity refers to a place of business that has male and female employees from multiple races, ethnicities, age groups, sexual orientation and religious affiliations. Such a business may also include employees who are veterans or have disabilities. Characteristics of workplace diversity include employing people from different backgrounds across all departments and pay levels, from front-end customer service and sales people to C-level officers.

History of Diversity in the Workplace

Workplace diversity was first encouraged in the U.S. by the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. This law required equal pay for men and women performing the same job. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. This included making hiring or firing decisions based on these backgrounds. So far, sexual orientation is not one of the federally protected categories under equal rights laws. However, businesses may incorporate sexual orientation consideration when embracing workplace diversity.

Characteristics of Diversity

Diversity has multiple benefits to the workplace. One of the major principles of diversity says that a company that has diverse employees has a greater understanding of the global marketplace.

According to, employers reported that their diverse organizations benefit from a variety of viewpoints, higher productivity and profit due to company cultures that encourage employees to perform to their highest ability.

Employers may also recognize immediate benefits of workplace diversity. Customers who speak different languages or come from overseas may require customer service in their language. In industries such as marketing and advertising, knowing what consumers across different backgrounds want is crucial to success.

Examples of Diversity Challenges

Miscommunication and lack of understanding is bound to happen in diverse workplaces. Having a policy of diversity and utilizing team-building exercises can help employees learn to communicate and respect each other. Diversity training should be implemented from the top through the bottom of the company hierarchy. Employees are more likely to consider policies fair if those policies can be seen firmly in place at the manager level. Having zero tolerance for harassment and discrimination can help companies avoid costly lawsuits.

Diversity Action Steps

First, assess your company's diversity across all departments. It may help objectivity to hire an outside consultant to perform a diversity assessment. Document what things you want to change, and then make a plan to start diversifying your business. Set up reasonable goals for your company; you may want to revisit your company's policy of diversity every quarter or annually.

Be aware of the difference between pursuing workplace diversity and affirmative action. Affirmative action, which is the process of considering a person's racial background during the hiring process, has been challenged in the courts. The Supreme Court has generally frowned on workplace quotas. Employers should be careful to avoid "reverse discrimination" during the staffing process. For example, pursuing workplace diversity is not the same as having positions that are only open to women or people of color; this is illegal.

Things to Consider

A common misconception about workplace diversity is that simply having one or two employees of a minority background is enough. Workplace diversity should actually be a significant portion of a company's workforce, across all departments. For example, if your company has no C-level minorities, your company is not practicing diversity. Another misconception is that workplace diversity is only about race. Workplace diversity is much more than just having a group of racially mixed employees; all age groups, education, socioeconomic backgrounds and religions should be represented.