On the face of it, diversity and inclusion might seem like similar concepts, but there’s a distinction there that’s worth understanding.

For most organizations, diversity is about numbers. How many people of color do we have? How many women? How many people from the LGBTQ community? Historically, this is where organizations have put most of their effort: into improving their “numbers,” so that they could be more diverse.

There’s a growing recognition, however, that diversity only works if the work environment is inclusive.

Inclusion is not about “counting” and “numbers.” Inclusion is about having people feel truly welcome within the organization, and able to bring their whole selves to work, rather than having to check certain parts of who they are at the door when they arrive each morning.

More than just ensuring that there is an environment where everyone feels seen and heard, inclusion is about making sure people feel valued. They are asked their opinions and deferred to for their knowledge and expertise, so that they feel truly engaged. This type of environment creates inclusion.

When you have an organization that is diverse, but not truly inclusive, you’re basically putting the cart before the horse – and you’re setting your diverse employees up for a less than satisfactory experience. You’re not providing an environment where they can flourish and be successful.

You have to be inclusive first, before you try to be diverse. Otherwise, you may be doing more harm than good.

A Systemic Overhaul

So, if an organization wants to be more inclusive, what sort of steps should they take?

The first step – and one of the hardest – is taking an honest look in the mirror and recognizing where you’re at as an organization. It’s very easy for organizations to bring in some degree of diversity, pat themselves on the back, and then feel like their work is done and nothing further is required on their part.

It’s much more difficult to ask the question: Are we actually inclusive? If an organization is astute enough and self-aware enough to realize that even though they may be diverse, they may not be inclusive, that’s half the battle. The next steps involve taking a closer look at the processes and practices that are in place across the organization.

For example, how do you determine promotions? How do you determine who moves up in the organization – and how fast they move up? These seemingly neutral aspects of operations are “signals” from the organization about who is valued and who is valuable.

Take a deep dive into compensation. Lots of organizations are already looking at gender inequities around pay levels right now. Organizations that want to be inclusive would be well served to go even further and see what other inequities exist around compensation for race, sexual orientation, or any number of other aspects of diversity.

Look at how ideas are surfaced in the organization. If you have a pipeline for ideas or feedback or suggestions, what does that pipeline look like? Whose voices are being heard? How do you collect those ideas – is it via in person meetings? An email survey? Who decides which ideas are discarded, and which are actually acted upon or implemented?

What about recruiting practices? Has the organization typically relied on asking the existing employees to refer people that they already know to apply for open positions? Does recruiting tend to pluck people from the same set of schools that most of the current employees attended? Doing the same thing you’ve always done tends to get you the same results, and the same people.

All of these practices and processes – from who gets to walk through the door in the first place, to how much they get paid, and how their success is measured – are baked into the organization. They are systemic.

The goal for any organization aiming for inclusion should be to establish whether people of difference are equally valued and appreciated and set up to succeed within the organization based on the particular systems that are in place. If not, changes to those systems need to be made.

Listening with an Open Mind

This focus on action at the systemic level shouldn’t obscure the importance of steps that organizations can take at a more human level, which can be as simple as asking employees of diverse backgrounds if they feel the organization provides a welcoming and inclusive environment.

Are your transgender employees comfortable with the bathroom situation? Do your LGBTQ employees feel comfortable bringing their partners to social functions and company events? Do your female employees feel like their input is valued as much as that of their male colleagues? Don’t guess – ask them. There are very few people of diverse backgrounds who wouldn’t be willing to say “Here’s what I need” if they’re asked in a sincere and open manner.

A word of advice here to help organizations on their journey towards inclusion: Don’t get hung up on ideas of fairness or what is or isn’t “fair.”  For example, an underrepresented group within the organization might benefit from having their own mentorship program. Instead of saying “That’s not fair. Why isn’t there a mentorship program for everyone in the company?”, recognize that you’re hurting the chances of people who might need extra support because of the reality that they’re facing every day.

Think of fairness like starting a race. A fair situation would mean that everyone is starting from the same place. However, in diverse organizations, the starting line isn’t always the same for everyone. Because of life experiences, it’s not uncommon that the starting line for diverse employees is behind the starting line for the majority.

Rather than fairness, the goal should be equity. Having a mindset of equity requires an understanding that everyone’s life experience is not the same, and that it is the company’s responsibility to “level the playing field.” Initiatives like mentoring programs, employee resource groups, or exposure to leadership can help bring employees from underrepresented groups to the same starting line as others. An organization won’t land at true equity for its employees, and true inclusion as an organization, without this internal shift in mindset.

Inclusion isn’t easy. It takes hard work, and the work never truly ends – but it’s worth it.

Whether you’re an organization that already has some diversity, or an organization with almost zero diversity, when you focus your efforts on inclusion, you’re ensuring that diversity can not only take root, but can flourish. Modern workplaces deserve nothing less – and they will be the better for it.