A diverse workplace is a workplace where a wide range of genders, races, religious and cultural backgrounds, ages, abilities and sexual orientations are represented. When a workplace is diverse, employees from all walks of life feel empowered to participate equally and pursue advancement opportunities. Not all workplaces are diverse, though. When a workplace is not diverse, many unique problems can arise.

The effects of lack of diversity in the workplace manifest in different ways, depending on who is experiencing the low-diversity workplace. For an individual who is part of the majority group, such as a white male in a workplace staffed almost exclusively by white males, the lack of diversity in his workplace means he has few or no opportunities to understand other groups’ perspectives and have his own biases and worldview challenged. For an employee who is not part of the majority group, such as a black woman hired at a company staffed almost exclusively by white males, it can mean an isolating, stressful workplace experience.

Fewer Allies for Discrimination Victims

One of the primary problems with lack of diversity in the workplace is that when harassment or discrimination occurs, the victim can easily feel alone. This results in victims’ reluctance to report discrimination as one of the biggest effects of lack of diversity in the workplace. Failure to report discrimination does not only hurt the victim’s career; it also creates a workplace culture where harassment and discrimination are accepted and overlooked. Toxic workplace cultures are one of the biggest problems with lack of diversity in the workplace.

Potentially Tone-Deaf Deliverables

When there are diverse voices in the workplace, potentially offensive and otherwise inappropriate deliverables can be stamped out before they reach the client – and even before they leave the conference room. An employee’s age, race, gender, religion and other personal characteristics inform her point of reference and can potentially enable her to catch offensive content and keep the company from embarrassing itself.

A recent example of a worldwide brand releasing a tone-deaf product onto the market was H&M with its infamous “monkey shirt.” After facing public outrage on social media, the clothing brand pulled the offending shirt from its stores and online catalog. Many online commenters criticized H&M for its failure to consider how the shirt’s slogan would be perceived by black audiences.

Other examples of tone-deaf deliverables being one of the problems with a lack of diversity in the workplace are:

  • Poor translations of titles, slogans and other text
  • Products that are not accessible for disabled users
  • The unintentional use of derogatory or offensive language due to misunderstanding certain words’ connotations
  • Ineffective marketing to all but one demographic group
  • Assumptions about how different consumer groups will interpret and use products

Limited Perspectives in the Workplace

Just like tone-deaf deliverables are one of the effects of lack of diversity in the workplace, so are shortcomings within the workplace due to a lack of diverse perspectives from its workforce. This might mean a company leave policy that fails to consider certain religious groups’ needs or an office floor plan that makes it significantly more difficult for employees with disabilities to access the restroom, the kitchen and other important employee areas.

Limited perspectives due to the lack of gender diversity in the workplace can lead to policies that unfairly put a greater burden on women than on men, like a dress code that requires female employees to wear restrictive clothing or a specific amount of makeup, or a short-term disability leave policy that fails to provide the type of support pregnant women need. Even in architectural and interior design planning for offices, a lack of gender diversity in the workplace can lead to structures and layouts with unintended consequences for one sex, like glass-bottomed walkways that expose the undersides of women’s skirts.

A lack of gender diversity in the workplace is not the only lack of diversity that limits the perspectives companies have to consider when developing products and strategies and implementing internal policies. When a company’s workforce does not include diverse religious and cultural practices, its operating schedule might ignore certain holidays or fail to consider certain employees’ needs, like Jewish employees’ need to be home shortly after sundown on Fridays for Shabbat.

Limited Role Models

Another challenge that can arise when there is little or no diversity in a workplace is underrepresented employees’ inability to find and connect with mentors. Not having the same type of support at the beginning of their careers that their colleagues have can leave them behind as their colleagues’ careers advance, costing them tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of their careers.

For example, a foreign-born employee has many experiences that an American-born employee does not have. She might have had to learn a new language after arriving in the United States, navigate the naturalization process and adapt to a completely new culture. When there is a more senior employee at the company who also emigrated to the United States, that senior employee can empathize with the foreign-born employee in a way that others in the workplace cannot. In her role as a mentor to the newer employee, she can address specific challenges related to being a foreign-born individual living and working in the United States.

Intersectionality in the Workplace

Intersectionality is an important concept to understand in any discussion about diversity. Intersectionality is the concept that an individual’s unique experience in society stems from his overlapping social identities. Nobody is just black or just male or just transgender; we all have numerous identities that increase or decrease our privilege levels and impact our lives every day.

By understanding intersectionality, company leaders can develop effective, relevant diversity policies and practices. Every person’s experience in the world is unique, and privilege and power go beyond concepts like white privilege and male privilege. Making intersectionality a discussion topic during diversity trainings can push employees to examine their own privileges and how their multiple social identities overlap and color their experiences with the world.

Inherent and Acquired Diversity

There are two types of diversity that can be present in a workplace: inherent diversity and acquired diversity. Inherent diversity is the type of diversity most people think of when they think of diverse workplaces: a workforce composed of people from various religious and cultural backgrounds, people from multiple generations, able-bodied people working alongside those with mental and physical conditions and men and women present in various roles. Acquired diversity is just as important to a company’s success as inherent diversity. It refers to a workforce’s diverse range of skill sets, experiences, knowledge and education types.

Although inherent and acquired diversity are fairly different, they intersect regularly. For example, a workforce composed of primarily people under 30 does not have the range of experiences, knowledge of industry history and trends and educational attainment that a more generationally varied workforce has.

Making Workplaces More Diverse

A company cannot force its workforce to become more diverse. A company’s diversity often depends on the region where the company is located – businesses that operate in homogenous cities tend to have workforces that reflect their cities’ demographics and, in this case, company leaders might feel like hiring a diverse workforce is impossible. But every hiring manager can make an effort to hire and retain the most diverse workforce possible for her company.