Decoding Diversity Part 2: What causes diversity to fail

technology diversity

By now, the business benefits of diversity have become clear to most. I wrote on this topic in the first instalment of the “Decoding Diversity” series.

However, diversity is still getting a bad reputation in some circles as the newly failed business frenzy. Most recently, Apple’s board urged their investors to reject a diversity initiative, citing that the company has already done plenty for diversity (even if results are not that good). But diversity doesn’t fail because it isn’t good for the business world (that’s been made clear). It fails because it’s being done incorrectly and, like any business initiative, the quality suffers when it is not executed properly.

Lack of understanding

When diversity initiatives come into an organization, it is often done with a flashy CEO presentation about the benefits of “diversity”. The problem with that approach? You forget you’re talking about real people. Real people have feelings, emotions and thoughts. They act in a way that occasionally defies what you might think about them. The same happens for employees who come from diverse backgrounds.

Too often, companies are so excited at the thought of being socially aware and (soon to be) more profitable that they forget they are dealing with humans. This lack of understanding of the individuals in question not only causes tension within diverse communities, but it leads to overarching statements about the importance of diversity that end in white men feeling threatened (as Harvard Business Review reports).

Unconscious Bias

Unconscious bias has been the snake in the garden of diversity and inclusion since the beginning. The idea is simple; people tend to have pre-conceived notions about what it means to be a certain identity, have a certain background, or look a certain way. It is unconscious because we don’t think of it actively, but it sticks in our brains nonetheless. When hiring, managing, or promoting, unconscious bias works against diversity and inclusion; it is even sometimes prompted by diversity initiatives themselves (as is the case with the “threatened white men” discussed above).

The real damage of unconscious bias, however, is that it allows the idea to creep in that “different” means “worse”  (Check out this Fast Company article on how unconscious bias seeps into organizations). Unconscious bias started off as an evolutionary tool – it helps us process mass amounts of information very quickly – but it has become a thought pattern that now limits our ability to maximize the benefits of diversity in the workforce.


This is a fancy term that comes from people who collect “tokens” from their travels – little pieces or trinkets that remind them of their memories. In a diverse workforce, tokenizing is the idea that because you have someone of a certain identity in your office, they can speak for the entire identity (and now your diversity efforts can be completed).

It is wrapped into unconscious bias; we often assume people from similar groups will think and act similarly. Sometimes this is correct, but more often than not, two things happens when we tokenize any of our coworkers:

  • You miss out on cognitive diversity: By assuming everyone who looks the same thinks the same, the workplace misses out on the different perspectives that diverse people bring to the table.
  • The one person in question has unrealistically high expectations put on them for how they are supposed to act: Suddenly an employee now becomes a spokesperson, meaning they are pulled in multiple directions – that they may or may not have any expertise in – and cannot do their core job properly. This often leads to the “objective” assessment that certain identities are less productive at work, when in reality they are being given extra duties and responsibilities that are difficult to cope with in any environment.

So what’s the solution: An individual commitment to inclusion

When we make an individual commitment to inclusion, that is taking the reins on the path to diversity and inclusion. An individual commitment to inclusion:

  • Acknowledges difference
  • Seeks to get to know everyone around them as individual humans with defining characteristics, not as members of an “identity group”
  • Respects and understands that sometimes people will have experiences and thoughts completely different from theirs
  • Addresses differences with logic and human compassion, actively fighting against unconscious bias

So what?

Granted, it’s all easier said than done (and one person making a change does not always feel like it will have much effect in the scheme of things). However, making an individual commitment to inclusion is not about changing the whole world; it’s about making your immediate world an inclusive space.

What do you think? Do you have any experiences with diversity and inclusion efforts (successful or not) that you want to share? Put them in the comments!

This post originally appeared on


Stefan is a diversity and inclusion consultant and Founder of Ziversity, an online diversity recruiting and sourcing platform. He has a number of years of experience in the HR/diversity recruiting space, starting with his research at Yale University and continuing through numerous non-profit positions. He blogs about diversity, inclusion, tech, startups, and cultural commentary. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios. Business inquiries can be sent to

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