Defining Diversity & Inclusion

Defining Diversity & Inclusion

Defining Diversity & Inclusion (D&) is critical to the success of anyone leading– and for anyone involved in or affected by–a D&I strategy, initiative or program. We cannot and should not assume that everyone means the same thing when we use those two words “Diversity” and “Inclusion.” Nor should we assume, as recent research confirms, that everyone hears the messaging in the same ways (this will be a topic of another blog post). 1

A clearly defined definition does the following:

  • Level-sets everyone (It’s okay to disagree, but allows everyone to be on the “same page” so to speak so there is a reference point).
  • Provides the foundation for clarity on the what, the how and the expected outcomes.
  • Supports context (A corporate leader in an organization will likely have a definition different from a social justice leader in the community) while providing an opportunity to discuss and recognize different definitions.
  • Minimizes assumptions, and hence misunderstandings.
  • Promotes inclusion and engagement.

As a D&I professional for nearly three decades, I have made it a point to start every conversation, every workshop, with a definition of Diversity and Inclusion—and along with my own, I often share one particular corporate definition which I have found to be a powerful and practical. 3M has defined Diversity as:

“Respecting Differences

Valuing Uniqueness

Synergizing collective talents.”

I find the action orientation of that definition powerful. One can define what respecting, valuing and synergizing means in actions and behaviors and outcomes.

As someone who has worked primarily for Fortune 500 companies, but also across industries globally and with government and not-for-profit sectors, I tend to focus on the organizational context. I define diversity as:

  1. Fact—Diversity is a global, demographic fact in the talent pool, workplace and marketplace. The talent pool is diverse, the workplace should ideally reflect that talent pool and the marketplace. Diversity is here and now, it is not a future event.
  2. Implications— MITs Thomas Kochen says, “…managers and researchers alike should recognize diversity is an inescapable social fact and figure out how to maximize its benefits while minimizing its negative effects.” 2
  3. Action—The things we do to minimize the downside and maximize the upsides.

The Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarks (GDIB) provides a nice definition of Inclusion: “Inclusion is a dynamic state of operating in which diversity is leveraged to create a fair, healthy, and high-performing organization or community. An inclusive environment ensures equitable access to resources and opportunities for all. It also enables individuals and groups to feel safe, respected, engaged, motivated, and valued, for who they are and for their contributions toward organizational and societal goals.”3

A universal, one-size-fits-all definition is not necessary, not practical, and would not capture the diversity of diversity. However, clarity and specificity matters. And, context and creating common ground for understanding makes a difference. I often pose the question, “What does it look like? In behaviors? Actions? Outcomes?” So, I will ask the reader. When you say “Diversity & Inclusion,” do you know what it looks like in behaviors, actions and outcomes? Are others sure of what it looks like or will look like?



1 Beyond One-Size-Fits-All: Tailoring Diversity Approaches to the Representation of Social Groups.

Apfelbaum, Evan P.; Stephens, Nicole M.; Reagans, Ray E.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Jul 18 , 2016,

2 Thomas Kochen, “The Paradoxical Effects of Diversity,” MIT, Sloan Management Review, 2003

3 O’Mara and Richter, Global Diversity & Inclusion Benchmarks (GDIB), 10th Anniversary edition.

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