Part 9: Issues and Problems with Diversity in the Workplace

*Editor’s note: Download our full Diversity and Inclusion Handbook for more than 70 pages of tangible strategies to help you cultivate diversity and inclusion on your team.

We believe passionately that diverse and inclusive companies make for more innovative, engaged, and happy teams, and we speak with forward-thinking talent leaders all the time who feel the same. We’re writing this series on how to improve diversity and inclusion in the workplace because people are ready for the next level of discourse around diversity and inclusion; one aimed at actual solutions. In it, you’ll find tactical advice, beneficial resources, and examples of what companies are doing today to make real progress in diversity and inclusion. Read the series introduction to see what we cover throughout the series. 

Pop quiz to kick things off: What year was the term “sexual harassment” coined?

A) 1895
B) 1923
C) 1940
D) 1975

The answer is the most recent option, 1975. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not very long ago, is it? In fact, gender discrimination in the workplace only became a mainstream social issue in the 1970s, leading up to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 1986. Before that, abuse and harassment was rampant for working women in the era of “Mad Men.” But it was only a few decades ago when our society realized it as a problem.

Here’s the thing: progress is hard to see when you’re in it. It’s tough to drown out the noise of everything that’s going on, and the present distracts us from seeing things from a big-picture view. Only when we look backwards can we appreciate the progress made, the lessons learned, and the sacrifices of those who came before us. In contrast, when we look forward, our visions for the future are often idealistic, which leads to unexpected setbacks and reactions of surprise.

But if we only focus to the present, we’d be limited to make only incremental progress. Given where we are today, we’re ready for big changes when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Even if things don’t play out as perfectly planned.

Diversity and inclusion work is not supposed to be perfect; it never was. Not only is this field still nascent, it is deeply personal. Decisions can trigger very emotional, often polarized responses. The common misconception about diversity and inclusion efforts is that it only serves women or other underrepresented groups. In reality, it’s about every employee, no matter what demographic, and designing a professional environment where they achieve their full potential.

What’s challenging is that there are no universal best practices we can agree upon yet. Plus, what works for one company and culture won’t necessarily work for another. That leaves us no other method than trial-and-error, and learning from mistakes to see what works and what doesn’t. Obviously, this can feel intimidating, and understandably so. But the fact that we can’t predict every potential scenario and response shouldn’t prevent us from trying. We hope that you are not getting discouraged by a program stumbling or a few people raising a complaint. Not only are they signs that you’re taking some kind of action, but more importantly, that people are engaged.

In this post, I’ll be sharing common patterns of how D&I efforts can get derailed. These learnings are based on my 3 years of co-leading diversity and inclusion efforts at Lever, as well as from conversations with dozens of startups tackling this work.

1. Diversity and Inclusion is seen as a joke, or your employees are skeptical of the importance and benefits.

What it looks like: Announcements about new programs are met with snickers. Instead of being taken seriously, it gets pushed aside as another office chore. Or, the employees asking questions seem ready for a big debate, making the interaction seem more confrontational than necessary. They seem unsatisfied by responses that are emotional in nature, or can’t be explained by data or purely rational arguments.

Why is it happening? There are two types of detractors – those who are so egregiously prejudiced and set in their thinking, they may never see the light of this work and how it benefits them too. Call us optimists, but we believe this type are relatively few among us. We can get to a more productive place by engaging the second type: those who don’t feel comfortable around this topic for whatever reason, but are open to discussion.

When we feel uncomfortable (which is not surprising and in fact, expected, given how personal these matters can get), a common response is to use humor to lighten situations. Some are also not used to taking a less than straight-logical approach to business initiatives, and are suspicious of programs that seem too “touchy-feely.” Others may perceive diversity and inclusion as “not cool,” because it feels “corporate” or superficial.

What to do about it: Your approach may not be personal or specific enough to your team to feel relatable. Often, a pattern in diversity and inclusion is focused solely on underrepresented groups, which alienates those who are just starting to become aware and curious. But it’s those folks who are probably the majority of your company. When messages don’t resonate, it may be that the initiatives are too ambitious, or lacking in authenticity. Start small, cut the jargon, and get more concrete:

1. Focus on the human aspects. When talking about the “why” behind diversity and inclusion, focus more on storytelling than data. Arguments based on numbers about rates of women leaving STEM fields or racial minorities reporting aggression at work are actually pretty ineffective at changing people’s minds. But it’s a different story when your coworker with a disability shares a story about the everyday challenges she faces in the office. You realize you had no idea how this affects the life of a team member, someone you have come to care for as a person. When the discourse becomes concrete and personal, as opposed to abstract and distant, the case for diversity and inclusion becomes so much more compelling.

2. Address detractors directly, but kindly. Engage them in one-on-one conversations, while always assuming good intentions, showing compassion, and seeking to understand. Only when we feel heard and valued, can we fully consider the experiences of others. Diversity and inclusion can pose a lot to wrap your mind around initially, so give people the benefit of the doubt to start. Some people will feel threatened, even if it doesn’t make any sense to you. Those feelings are still valid.

3. Respect people’s timelines and offer accountability. Some employees come from workplaces where diversity was promoted without substance or authenticity. Skepticism or negativity stemming from past experience are much more understandable from that lens. Instead of dismissing these skeptics, fully own your initiatives and commit to transparency. Demonstrate regular progress, and you might find that some people just need more time and proof than others.

4. Engage your company’s leaders. Commitment from the executive teams and cultural influencers is one of the biggest levers in your toolbox, since they hold the keys to speeding up buy-in and participation. It won’t matter how brilliant, thoughtful, or original your ideas are, if the Head Designer has been undermining D&I efforts through casual jokes and side comments. People take their cues from their leaders, so it’s critical that they’re included in the strategy and execution of this work. Not only will they back you up when the detractors start making noise, they can preventatively step forward as supporters, setting the tone for the rest of your team.

2. People don’t see diversity and inclusion as ‘their problem’ and are too scared of saying the wrong thing

What it looks like: Conversations, events, and ideas repeatedly draw in the same smaller subset of the company. Despite repeated invitations and internal marketing pushes, participation can be distilled down to “the usual suspects.” Even the supportive members of the majority group (e.g. straight, white men) decline to get involved further, though they’re sure to reassure you they think that particular event/initiative/program is a great idea. They appreciate the work for how it benefits others… but they prefer to stay to stay on the sidelines for now, thank you.

Why is it happening? Lack of participation is often connected to uncertainty and fear of what will happen if they do speak up. As a Google study found, psychological safety is critical to an employee’s sense of belonging and the ability to achieve their full potential. Say you’re a well-intended member of the majority group. Attending a seminar focused on LGBTQ issues or the struggles of those who identify as PoC (People of Color) might feel like walking into the lion’s den. You’re aware that you understand very little about the personal experiences of others. Ultimately, the fear of saying the wrong thing, or even potentially getting attacked, kicks in – so attendance just doesn’t seem worth it.

What to do about it: You have an opportunity to reinforce what diversity in the workplace is all about: creating a space so everyone can voice their honest, authentic feelings without judgement. Design and implement ways to amplify psychological safety, the principles of which are core to building highly productive and cohesive teams in general, not just diverse ones.

1. Clarify the goal. Write down the purpose of your diversity programs and make it easily accessible/visible, so that people have a clear idea of what it stands for. A heavy emphasis on “inclusion” is key, to show that everyone benefits from the programs, not just the “minorities.”

2. Set some ground rules. Explain how to address issues around diversity and inclusion in company communications and feedback norms. FAQs, codes of conduct, lists of “do”s and “don’t”s are especially helpful, as they provide objectivity and transparency. This is also an opportunity to re-frame passivity, since people who’ve felt guilty about not already the answers can now educate themselves independently. Setting these explicit guidelines will provide clarity to everyone. (You’re welcome to borrow/adapt our phrasing: “If you notice someone being left out or unfairly treated, say something. You’re just as much at fault if you stand by and watch.”)

3. Lay out guidelines for a shared vocabulary. It might seem rudimentary, but sometimes you have to spell things out. Explain that it’s ok to use words like “black” or “gay” at a workplace diversity group meeting. You’d be surprised how many people get tripped on the fundamentals. Not wanting to feel stupid or be attacked (“How do you know that already?”) can hinder further participation. Assure the team that if and when they do mess up, their words will not be twisted against them to hurl blame.

4. Once again, engage the leadership. They can’t be passive supporters for all of this to work; they must walk the talk. Leaders have a disproportionate effect on setting the tone of culture. If they’re actively engaging with your initiatives, it sends a signal to the rest of the company. And bonus points if they’re members of the majority group: they’re the ones who will make others think, “Jim’s been going to that seminar every month, maybe I should check it out too.” Approach them one-on-one and make a request for their active support.

5. Lower the barriers to entry. Ideally, your programs will speak to a range of employees on the wide spectrum of awareness and advocacy. If most initiatives are targeted to the already-active participants, it creates divisions via artificial, binary labels of “diverse’ people and “non-diverse” people. Nobody wants to be labeled by either. These categorizations often further alienate those who just aren’t there yet in their own journey of awareness. (At Lever, we found success in designing a session specifically for the “beginners” in mind, called “D&I for Supporters”).

3. Initiatives fall short of their full potential, despite employees’ excitement and good intentions.

What it looks like: Diversity and inclusion is certainly present in conversations, but initiatives have not resulted in significant changes. New programs get a lot of fanfare at launch, but fizzle out quickly. You’re tapped out on programs that everyone else seems to be doing, e.g. Unconscious Bias Training. The team is at a loss for what to do next. Even worse, employees start questioning whether the focus on diversity and inclusion is to “look” good instead of doing the right thing. Finally, new hires keep committing “sins of the past,” and you spend a lot of time “policing” or correcting small behaviors here and there.

Why is it happening? Likely a combination of two root causes: (1) D&I supporters show high enthusiasm, but underestimate the need for rigorous execution, just like any other business initiative. (2) Scaling and adapting is difficult; the strategies that used to work a year ago no longer do.

Because this work is so personal, its supporters and advocates are often motivated by emotions. Emotions are critical to raising awareness and inviting others into the conversation, but when it comes to actually implementing organizational change, being “fired up” is not enough. Diversity and inclusion must be worked on like any professional problem: through research, collaboration, design, and continuous learning through experimentation, feedback, and iteration. A passionate group of volunteers may be great catalysts, but without organizational support (guidance, goal-setting, budget, recognition, etc.), their impact will be limited.

And speaking of volunteers… again, they serve an important purpose as catalysts, but as time goes on, diversity and inclusion must be built into the culture of the company for it to scale. Band-aid solutions that address problems in the moment or rely solely on one-on-one interaction will lead to bigger problems as the company scales and changes. That is, unless, you switch to big-picture thinking and problem-solving.

Note: In some cases, a third root cause is at play: leaders at the top wanting to appear to prioritize diversity as opposed to truly believing in it themselves. It’s unfortunate but increasingly common. Watch out especially for leaders appointing a figurehead or external consultant to outsource the effort and squash employees’ growing requests for more of an effort. Impactful programs almost always require sincere support from the very top.

What to do about it: Shift from talk to action, and adapt a business mindset, as you would in your normal job. And remember that you can’t be, nor should be, the only torch-carrier in this work. 

1. Give diversity and inclusion visibility. Out of sight, out of mind. Incorporate commitments into the code of conduct / employee handbook. Put posters around your office.

2. Fold inclusion into other training sessions. Add a diversity and inclusion session to the new hire onboarding. Partner with the recruiting team to add a section about biases in candidate search kickoff meetings with hiring managers. Similarly, require deeper training when employees get involved in certain high-stakes activities: management, performance reviews, etc.

3. Pilot liberally and ship things in bite-sized pieces. If past initiatives haven’t gone well, try piloting programs, or engaging beta testers. Before launching things company-wide, test out messaging, ideas to a smaller subset that’s willing to help by giving feedback and strengthening the programs.

4. Go small. It’s tempting to go straight to the lofty, ambitious goals (“We will become 50% women in engineering!” “Let’s build a university recruiting program covering 25 schools!”). But ultimately, a few smaller ideas executed well is better than one big idea abandoned halfway through. Build momentum by taking actions on things you know you can get done – here’s a post on 50+ ideas you can start today.


Things will go wrong, they always do. Humans are far too complicated, and the workplace is too full of biases, assumptions, and misunderstandings. Add to that the deeply personal nature of diversity work and you have yourself a perfect storm of potential landmines and hurt feelings. However, It’s how you address the obstacles and new challenges that defines the integrity of your programs.

A few good rules of thumb: Be ready to act on-the-spot, with good intentions, and with as much empathy for all sides as possible. Follow up with formalized documentation, so that expectations and rules of engagement are clear. Develop an explicit mechanism for bottom-up feedback and suggestions. Awareness within leadership is key, so make sure people feel safe to raise issues that others can’t see.

A final note on the importance of leadership buy-in: If you’re not getting the support from executives and more concretely, they’re not willing to engage in discussion, it may be a sign to start looking elsewhere. This may be hard to swallow, but too many passionate advocates are simply in the wrong companies. I recognize this isn’t always an option, but if you can, vote with your feet – go where you will be appreciated and empowered to have a greater impact. There are increasingly more companies that are prioritizing and embracing D&I as a key cultural value, and would love to have you onboard. This work is too important for your efforts to be wasted.

Your company is unique, so copying others’ diversity and inclusion strategies may not work. There’s a lot of uncertainty and risk involved… but every company is learning just like you are, and I assure you, nobody is perfect. Don’t let mistakes or fear discourage you; every setback or challenge is a learning opportunity to do better next time. Continue looking inwards to figure out what will work specifically for you and your company. Listen, engage your team, and embrace the constant change. Above all, keep on experimenting – because as long as you’re trying and open to feedback, that’s how you’ll move the needle.

For more, read our next post for radical ideas on how to take your efforts to the next level, and download our Diversity & Inclusion Handbook for hundreds of impactful tactics like the ones above.