I once worked with an organization to provide a public program on how diversity strengthens business results. It was a different kind of venture for both of us, in a community that had been fragmented by diversity challenges.
Both the client and I were excited by the possibilities and aware of the pitfalls. We coordinated closely, communicated openly and gave ourselves plenty of time. You can imagine my surprise when, after months of planning and PR, the client asked if I could do the program without using the word, “diversity.”
Since then, three different clients have made the same request about work in their respective organizations. Some – but not all – of the shock has worn off.
Is it possible to build an inclusive workplace or community culture without using the word, “diversity”? Perhaps. I’ve never tried. It’s not something I recommend.
Defining diversity is a best business practice.
Defining key terms is part of any successful change effort. It’s a benchmark among top companies for diversity. It’s a criterion for the most credible diversity awards.
Yet, a 2007 study by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) with 1,400 survey respondents found that less than one third of the companies represented had working definitions of diversity. Those that did used several different words for the term. Their definitions ranged from what it means to what you do with it, from how you do it to what results you expect.
Sure, it’s hard to talk about this topic but it’s harder to set goals, let alone measure progress toward them, without a clear and shared vocabulary.
Language shapes culture and language is shaped by culture. Organizational and community cultures are no different. It is not possible to build inclusive culture without adopting commonly understood language about what you want to create, what barriers you face, and what is needed to be successful. This includes defining – and using – the “D” word.
Diversity means variety. In human terms, it is the variety of attributes, backgrounds, cultures, identities and ideas that people bring with them, wherever they live and work. Diversity includes all of our similarities, all of our differences and the differences among those differences.
Not just in companies and communities.
Language is both a defining aspect of culture and, at the same time, shaped by the culture it defines. This idea, once called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”, forms a critical basis of political think tank and media strategies as different groups vie to mold public debate on key issues of our times.
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