Millennials are a vocal generation, and one that prioritizes diversity and inclusion as strong core values. Roughly 44 percent of millennials in the United States identify as non-white, and in line with the blooming national focus on equal rights across gender and ethnicity, much of the millennial generation is speaking up about the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Unfortunately, instilling greater diversity and inclusion is harder than most millennials realize.
Aligning yourself politically with the cause is a positive step, but change can take place only through action. Before you can make any improvements within your own organization, you need to understand the specific challenges related to diversity and inclusion that you may face along the way—along with the right way to address them.
The Biggest Issues
If you want to improve your organization’s diversity and inclusion program, you need to be prepared for the specific obstacles that could prevent you from being effective, and sometimes from taking any action whatsoever.
These are the biggest challenges you’re likely to face:
- Demographic identification. When most people think about diversity, they think about issues related to ethnic and/or cultural representation, or perhaps gender. But the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lists other types of discrimination that might happen, including discrimination by age, disability, genetic makeup, national origin, pregnancy, race, religion, and sex. You should include each of these in the discussion on diversity and inclusion, rather than zeroing in on only one segment of the population. If you press for an improvement to your diversity program, but neglect one or more underserved demographics, the effectiveness of your work could be compromised.
- Hidden discriminatory hiring. Discriminatory hiring practices are the root of many organization-level diversity issues. If a company isn’t hiring fairly along lines of race, gender, and other demographic factors, the workforce will not be diverse. The problem often goes unnoticed, however, due to cloaked discriminatory practices, such as using qualifications of “culture fit” to justify turning down candidates. According to Katherine Reynolds Lewis, “a focus on culture fit can easily create a shield for discrimination. When hiring managers and top executives feel that a potential hire ‘doesn’t fit in,’ that may simply mean the individual in question is different from them in race, gender, class, sexual orientation, or education.” If you don’t notice these practices occurring, you might not be able to take action against them.
- Respect. All positive changes have to come from a foundation of respect. Without respect, people won’t listen to each other, trust each other, or take action when a course is suggested. Because respect comes from within, teaching and encouraging that respect can be difficult—especially within stubborn employees. You might also have trouble earning respect for your viewpoints, especially if you’re a new employee coming into a workplace with a long, unchanging history.
- Philosophical differences. Research shows that millennials have different definitions of diversity and inclusion than their older counterparts do, which can result in philosophical differences and roadblocks that stifle otherwise mutually beneficial progress. As one example, according to Deloitte, “Millennials are unique in viewing cognitive diversity as essential for an inclusive culture that supports engagement, empowerment, and authenticity–and they’re rejecting current programs and frameworks organizations are using today to foster inclusiveness.” (Cognitive diversity in this case refers to a diversity of perspectives and ideas, not of mental ability.) Other examples include millennials’ lower likelihood of using objective metrics to define and measure a diversity program’s success, and their perspective that understanding is more important than tolerance alone. Overcoming such conflicts is essential to generate any forward momentum, but difficult if you’re dealing with peers from Generation X and the Baby Boomer generation.
- Cultural competence. Finding solid ground for cultural competence can also be problematic. Cultural competence is the ability to engage effectively with people of other cultures, by both understanding and respecting their perspectives. Not all people have the same values when it comes to money, life goals, business, or future planning, so you need to work to bridge those gaps. For example, if you’re in a disagreement with a coworker about the best way to handle an upcoming marketing campaign, you can point out the root of the disagreement (such as an underlying cultural perspective, like favoring collectivism over individualism), and use that as a foundation to continue the conversation more effectively. The goal isn’t just to have your teammates tolerate each other, but to teach them to understand each other, too.
- Inclusivity in decision making. Inclusion is the key to making diversity programs impactful. It doesn’t matter what demographics are working for an organization if they aren’t actively involved in decision-making processes. Getting a diverse cast of team members into seats in a meeting—and getting their voices heard—is a major challenge to overcome, especially in an environment where diversity has become a secondary or tertiary priority. One important key here is to actively encourage people to speak up; Chime Bank, for example, has a policy that “every member of the team is an owner of the company and is encouraged to ‘Chime In’ on any part of the business.”
- Communication. Before you can expect people to make meaningful changes in their own daily work, you need to establish groundwork for effective communication. If that isn’t already there, it could take months of restructuring and gentle pushes for culture change to get there. Even once you establish clear, open guidelines for communication, there are certain limitations you’ll encounter when talking about diversity; you can’t preach to people and expect them to listen to you, nor can you complain to your leaders and expect them to take action. Learn how to express your opinions professionally, and always back your opinions up with data.
- Conflict resolution. Inevitably, during the course of diversity and inclusion development, conflicts will arise, such as bosses refusing to take action after being confronted with an issue, or a coworker becoming hostile or refusing to engage in a diversity-related discussion. Finding ways to address those conflicts, and resolve them peacefully through mutual understanding and compromise, can be incredibly difficult—but it’s vital if you want to preserve your forward momentum. Interpersonal and conflict resolution skills are musts here; try to understand the “why” behind each opposing voice, rather than being combative. For example, if your boss doesn’t want to step in to resolve a cultural misunderstanding or handle an intolerant employee, ask him why, and see if you can find a compromise.
Making Your Voice Heard
As a young professional, one of your biggest personal challenges may be making your voice heard on some of these issues. You can build influence in your organization by volunteering for more diversity- and inclusion-related programs, working with existing leadership to build better strategies, and remaining open to other ideas. Over time, as you gain respect and influence, you’ll be able to forge a career path for yourself in diversity and inclusion, or at least carry more decision-making power within your team.