On Diversity and Inclusion: Why the misfit may be the best fit

The best companies draw talent from the broadest pool, finding and hiring those who will contribute the most to the company’s success. These companies make their organizations approachable and welcoming to all who join. They ensure fairness and opportunity across the entire organization. This recipe of diversity, inclusion and equity leads to the best business results over time.

Diversity: misfit may be the best fit

When hiring, you don’t look only for skill, experience or motivation of the person. You also look for what is called “fit”. This is often misunderstood. Many think it means likeness to existing employees or perhaps even friends. In reality, what a team or company needs is not likeness but a complementarity, contrast or an entirely new dimension. A person who brings more diversity to a team may be the best candidate. In a sense, the misfit is often the best fit.

If a team is diverse, what do they have in common? Mission, goals, and values! Every employee may come from their own distinct direction, but all share a commitment to the company’s mission. They are working towards the same goals. They operate under a common and unified set of values. The company culture is strong and coherent, yet every member of the team is unique in their own special way.

It has been shown that diverse teams perform better. They base their decisions on a wider set of considerations and ideas. They are more creative. They are more responsive to change.

The challenge is that it takes effort to understand, accept and value differences between people. Although we rationally agree with the principles of diversity, we typically also have a narrow-minded lizard brain that will only appreciate likeness in other people. Diversity does not happen by itself. We must decide to enact it, and we must follow through on our decision. The first reward will be a happier and healthier workplace. Over time, financial results will improve on a sustainable basis.

Diversity, equity, inclusion

Hiring: widen the network

Organizations that are not diverse explain themselves in a similar way. They say “We would love to be diverse but where we are located there are no suitable job candidates that would represent diversity.” They also say “We are just hiring the best candidates and this is what we end up with.” Both arguments, although rational at first glance, are fallacies.

If there is a lack of diverse job candidates, the company can start a program for training people in the job functions they need to fill. They can also establish a program for relocating employees from other locations to the site of the company. These actions will naturally be an additional expense to the company. The point is that such investments pay themselves back over time.

If the company believes it is hiring the best candidates out of a diverse pool yet ending up with a non-diverse team, they are actually not hiring the most suitable candidates. Perhaps their job ads are unknowingly written in a way to be uninviting for certain groups of people. The interview process or candidate assessment may be biased. Often the companies may unknowingly signal to candidates of diversity that they are not welcome.

Inclusion: small steps

To arrive at diversity, the organization must practice inclusion. This is the myriad of small steps to make sure that even the most unlike person can feel welcome, included and at home in the organization. Without our knowing, we establish practices that favor our own type of people. We don’t realize that we are looking uninviting to others. A team of only one gender may set up office routines in a way that makes the other genders feel like they would not fit in. A team of one ethnicity may seem intimidating to members of another. It can even be a question of educational background or dress code.

For instance, if you are hiring software developers and you state that you are looking for “rockstar developers” or “ninjas”, you are less likely to get female applications. It has been shown that women typically don’t react positively to those words. They are often scanning the job postings looking for statements about what the purpose and meaning of the job is.

Many teams and companies produce t-shirts with their company logo or to celebrate events and accomplishments. It is good to remember that people come in many sizes and women typically prefer other cuts than men. Even within the genders, people come in many sizes, and everyone would like to look good in the company outfit. It also matters where you put the logo or other print, because that area of the garment will draw looks which may make someone uncomfortable.

If social activities at the workplace are geared towards specific hobbies or interests, there may be groups who don’t feel they belong. People are of course free to indulge in whatever hobbies they like in their spare time, but if it is coordinated by or linked to the employer, the program needs to be selected so as to offer each one something they can feel is for them. Also, if the company will acknowledge religious or ethnic holidays, it should do so for as broad a set of events as possible. Chinese new year, Persian new year, Hanukkah, Ramadan, Diwali, Holi, Christmas, and this is just the beginning of the list.

The words we use to denote people at work deserve special attention. Ideally we should only use words that can include any type of employee. Kudos to the Finnish language for having inclusion baked in; there is just one word for person: “hän”. There is no “she” or “he” in Finnish. In English we can say “he or she” and often we say “they”. In many places it is common to talk about “guys”. In plural it can mean both men and women, but in singular it mostly means just a man. So ideally we should stop using it and find something that does not convey even a hint of unconscious bias. Peeps is a neutral word.

One more word on inclusion: True inclusion means inclusion also of those who may not know or care about inclusion. We cannot expect every employee to be a full “inclusionist” from the start, and we are not practicing inclusion if we would somehow exclude those who are not in agreement about the principle of inclusion.

Equity: take down barriers

In this context, equity means the fairness, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people involved. We need to strive to identify and eliminate barriers that prevent the full participation of anyone. Improving equity involves increasing justice and fairness within the procedures and processes or systems, as well as the distribution of resources. Equity is about democratizing opportunity as in making small and large opportunities available to all, without prejudice.

Tear down invisible walls

To many people, especially those who value traditions, some of these suggestions sound unnecessary or even neurotic. Traditionalists may worry that we are trying to reform mankind in an unnatural direction – that we are abandoning what makes us human or settling for something less than good. At the surface, it may indeed look and feel so. But it is not the case at all.

We can be colorfully and personally ourselves, living out our full masculinity, femininity or androgyny, as the case may be, yet acting with respect and inclusion at the workplace, eradicating words and practices that would otherwise uphold an impression of segregation. Someone with a disability most typically also has a unique strength. We can blend all races, ethnic groups and religions. We owe it to mankind to further evolve our civilization and make it better than it has been before. As part of that, we can tear down the often invisible walls to inclusion. Our own personal uniqueness is not threatened by the presence of people with other uniquenesses.

Once an organization is diverse, inclusive and has equity, business results and workplace satisfaction will improve. It is more rewarding to work with people who have the goal in common but come at the task or question from uncommon angles.

Great teams strive towards the same goal adhering to the same values, but they differ greatly in viewpoint, world view, constitution, background and gender. It may feel burdensome to have to make the changes required by inclusion. It may take extra effort to learn to work with someone who is unlike oneself. But the journey is worth it. Once you get over that hump and learn to work with diverse people, there is no looking back. On the contrary, you will expand your mind and learn new things faster. This gives you a boost in your career.

Marten Mickos

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