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Introduction to the Human Resources Discipline of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion


The diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) function deals with the qualities, experiences and work styles that make individuals unique (e.g., age, race, religion, disabilities, ethnicity) as well as how organizations can leverage those qualities in support of business objectives. It also includes matters that focus on diversity-related careers, communications, legal and regulatory issues, technology, metrics, outsourcing, effective diversity practices, and global diversity issues. It touches on but does not primarily deal with federal, state and local equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws. These are encompassed under the EEO topic within both the staffing management function (for EEO matters arising in the pre-employment context) and the employee relations function (for EEO matters arising within the employer-employee relationship).

Studies show that teams or organizations made up of individuals with a diverse mix of qualities, experiences and work styles tend to have available a richer set of ideas, perspectives and approaches to a business issue. See 6 Steps for Building an Inclusive Workplace.

This overview covers the following major topics:

  • Relationship with equal employment opportunity and affirmative action.
  • The business case for DE&I.
  • Designing a DE&I initiative.
  • Elements of a DE&I initiative.
  • Diversity recruitment and sourcing.
  • Change management as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Careers in diversity.


Diversity has many definitions. Organizations frequently adapt the definition to their specific environment. Generally, diversity refers to the similarities and differences among individuals accounting for all aspects of their personality and individual identity. Some of the common dimensions of diversity are shown below, with a sampling of related content:


"Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance." —Vernā Myers

Diversity provides the potential for greater innovation and creativity. Inclusion is what enables organizations to realize the business benefits of this potential.

Inclusion describes the extent to which each person in an organization feels welcomed, respected, supported and valued as a team member. Inclusion is a two-way accountability; each person must grant and accept inclusion from others. In such an environment, every employee tends to feel more engaged and is more likely to contribute to the organization's business results. This type of environment requires people from diverse backgrounds to communicate and work together, and to understand one another's needs and perspectives—in other words, to demonstrate cultural competence. See Inclusion: Out of the Training Room and into Employees' Hands and Want a Diverse and Inclusive Workplace? Work on Your Culture.


Equity in the workplace refers to fair treatment in access, opportunity and advancement for all individuals. Work in this area includes identifying and working to eliminate barriers to fair treatment for disadvantaged groups, from the team level through systemic changes in organizations and industries. Effecting change through an equity lens generally requires an understanding that the societal systems in which we currently work are not equitable and that those inequities are reflected in our organizations. 


Do Your Employees Know Why You Believe in Racial Equity?

How to Ensure Pay Equity for People of Color

Barriers for Black Professionals

Intercultural sensitivity

Intercultural sensitivity and cultural (or intercultural) competence are characterized by sensitivity to differences among people from different cultural backgrounds and effectiveness in communicating and working with them. People are similar or different in varying degrees across all dimensions of diversity. Research shows that people who are substantially alike tend to more easily communicate with and understand one another. People who are very different tend to confront more obstacles to effective communication and mutual understanding. Research also shows that people consistently overestimate their intercultural competence, which poses a particular challenge for employers. See Effective Workplace Conversations on Diversity.

Relationship with Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action

There is widespread confusion about the relationship between diversity and inclusion on the one hand, and EEO and affirmative action on the other. This traces to the historical evolution of these complementary yet distinct concepts. In the United States, EEO concerns fairness and equality of treatment for specifically designated protected classes as defined by law. EEO means that the employer gives equal consideration both in hiring and in the terms and conditions of employment to all individuals, and that the employer does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, age, marital status, national origin, disability or sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity or expression).

Affirmative action plans are requirements for certain federal contractors and subcontractors to take affirmative action to ensure that all individuals have an equal opportunity for employment, without regard to race, color, religion, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity or expression), national origin, disability or status as a Vietnam era or special disabled veteran.

EEO and affirmative action are primarily matters of legal compliance, although they do help create a workplace that is more supportive of all people and more diverse in terms of the specifically included dimensions of diversity.

Many early diversity programs grew out of a company's EEO and affirmative action programs. Companies began seeing the business opportunity in focusing on awareness and sensitivity training, and later in building inclusion and intercultural competence. But the diversity functional area has evolved well beyond EEO and affirmative action compliance. DE&I is aimed at realizing competitive advantage and business opportunity.

The interrelationship among EEO, affirmative action, and DE&I persists, in part because some organizational structures place functional accountability for the disciplines under one office. Though this interrelationship can lead to some continuing confusion, progress in each of these areas reinforces and helps achieve the objectives of the others.

See What is the difference between EEO, affirmative action and diversity?

The Business Case for Diversity

The business case for diversity is an organization's statement of purpose in working on DE&I. There are many valid reasons for doing such work. The most effective reasons for any organization are aligned directly with that organization's key business objectives. Typically, these are the business objectives on which organizations measure and compensate their senior leadership's performance. In for-profit companies, these objectives relate to factors like sales, market share, profitability, corporate social responsibility and reputation. See Diversity Drives Better Business Outcomes: A Q&A with Sonia Aranza.

Business Case Self-Assessment

  • Who are your organization's key internal and external stakeholders whose needs and concerns must be considered by your diversity business case?
  • What are your organization's key business objectives that the diversity business case must directly support?
  • What changes are needed in your workforce to help ensure that your organization can meet its key business objectives?
  • What changes are needed in your workplace (i.e., how people work together) to help ensure that your organization can meet its key business objectives?
  • What changes are needed in your products and services, or in how they are produced, to help ensure that your organization can meet its key business objectives?

Business Case Action Steps

  • Obtain agreement with your CEO and senior management team about the key stakeholders and key business objectives.
  • Define the changes needed in the areas considered during the business self-assessment. Focus specifically on changes needed to achieve the agreed-upon key business goals.
  • Assess the current situation versus the changes defined in the step above to characterize the "gap."
  • Define initiatives to close the gap. Measure the extent to which the changes are put in place.
  • If your organization is global in nature, do not be satisfied with input strictly from corporate headquarters; rather, seek the counsel of all key world geographies represented in your organization.

Design of a DE&I Initiative

Effective diversity initiatives require starting, planning, speaking and acting solely from key business priorities. The design and implementation process should adhere to these principles:

  • Engage the CEO, senior leadership and other key stakeholders throughout the process.
  • Focus on achieving business results.
  • Start from, and stay aligned with, the business purpose.
  • Be grounded in ownership and accountability.
  • Plan ongoing internal and external communication to inform, engage and manage expectations.

If a diversity initiative is well-designed, it should be able to explain the:

  • Key business priorities the initiative will help meet.
  • Changes in the workforce that are needed to help meet business priorities.
  • Changes in the work environment that are needed to help meet business priorities.
  • Elements of a diversity initiative that will be put in place to achieve the needed changes.

The design process should address two additional areas—metrics and diversity training. Metrics can be designed once the needed changes are identified. Training may be designed to close specific gaps that are subsequently recognized. Both are integral parts of the overall initiative. See HR Tech’s Expanded Role in Supporting DE&I Initiatives and Does Diversity Training Work the Way It's Supposed To?

Elements of a DE&I Initiative

A DE&I initiative is an organization's formal strategic plan for addressing diversity and inclusion. See How to Develop a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative.

Effective initiatives tend to exhibit several characteristics. For example, they:

  • Align with the organization's key business objectives.
  • Focus on implementing specific changes to the workforce and workplace that will help achieve needed business results.
  • Identify the organization's level of intercultural competence and capacity to accept cultural change.
  • Use a strategic and ongoing approach to employee communication.

See What key elements should an employer consider when creating a diversity program?

Stakeholder analysis

The most common potential internal and external stakeholders for a diversity initiative are shown below.

Potential Internal StakeholdersPotential External Stakeholders

Board of directors

Community organizations and leaders

CEO and senior leadership

Customers (current and prospective)

Middle managers

Government agencies


Investors (current and prospective)

Employee resource groups

Labor organizations (e.g., unions, workgroups)


Prospective employees

Suppliers (current and prospective)


Each stakeholder group has unique needs that tend to shape an organization's DE&I initiative. Successful initiatives identify the primary stakeholders in two domains:

  • Stakeholders whose needs are most important and relevant to, and thus should most strongly influence, the organization's diversity initiative.
  • Stakeholders whose actions and behavioral change are most important to achieving the goals of the diversity initiative.

Domestic versus global scope

An organization's geographic footprint encompasses the regions in which it and its customers are located. It might be exclusively domestic, or it might be global. Combined, the primary stakeholders and the organization's footprint help determine whether the DE&I initiative should have a domestic or global scope.

Compared to most domestic initiatives, global DE&I initiatives are concerned with a richer and more complex set of issues. The reason stems from the wider range of cultural norms represented among all the stakeholder groups. Global initiatives tend to be successful only when they are adapted to and reflect the cultural norms and needs of each region or country. Diversity practitioners and business leaders need strong intercultural competence regardless of the scope of the initiative.  

Typical areas of focus

Comprehensive initiatives focus on revenue or analogous measures, expenses, employees, customers, suppliers, and external communities. All work must be tailored to the organization's specific business needs. The table below illustrates representative areas of focus for a diversity initiative.

FocusSample Action Steps
  • Use multicultural marketing, focusing on existing or new domestic or international markets.
  • Build innovation and creativity to bring new products or services to market.
  • Increase recruiting efficiency through more diverse sourcing and engaging employees in identifying candidates.
  • Increase retention by creating a more supportive and inclusive workplace, engaging employee resource groups in the onboarding process, and focusing on employee needs.
  • Mentoring.
  • Developmental opportunities.
  • Employee resource groups.
  • Process and policy improvement (e.g., performance management, succession planning, benefits).


  • See Revenues, above.
  • Build internal capacity to understand evolving and new customer needs.


  • Develop minority and female-owned business enterprise programs.
  • Supplier development.
External communities
  • Engage employee resource groups.
  • Develop relationships with associations to provide executive developmental opportunities and build reputation.


Employee resource groups

Employee resource groups (ERGs), also called affinity or business resource groups, are a popular element of diversity initiatives, especially in organizations with more than 1,000 employees. ERGs are employee groups that come together either voluntarily, based on a common interest or background, or at the request of a company. Examples of common ERGs are those formed around race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation, parental status, national origin, religion or belief, or generation.

Common objectives for ERGs include engaging employees, increasing diversity, providing developmental and networking opportunities, and ensuring that retention is consistent across all parts of the employee population. Two important success factors are clearly understanding the business purpose and dedicating resources to manage the relationships.

ERGs may benefit members, the overall organization, and the external communities in which the organization is located and operates. There also are potential downsides to be managed, such as the group's roles, external media presence, funding, structure, and use of the organization's name and brand. Proper planning and effective policies help realize the business advantages while managing the potential problems. See Today's Affinity Groups: Risks and Rewards and Viewpoint: Why Employee Resource Groups Shouldn't Be Colorblind.

Diversity Recruitment and Sourcing

Diversity recruitment means companies recruit individuals with a collective mixture of differences and similarities that include individual characteristics, values and beliefs, experiences, and backgrounds. Diversity recruitment is an important step toward creating an inclusive workplace that is reflective of the customers it serves and best prepared to compete in a changing economy and marketplace. See Eliminating Barriers.

Globally, the situation is even more complex. Different countries define diversity in different ways, and yet a significant majority of companies around the globe seek diverse workforces in order to remain innovative and, therefore, competitive.

Diversity recruitment can be wide-ranging (job board advertisements) or narrowly targeted (i.e., using websites to locate resumes of candidates who may not be looking for positions but who neatly match a set of exacting criteria). Diversity recruitment reaches out to everyone qualified, and the goal is to fill the talent pipeline with individuals qualified to perform the essential functions of the position. See 5 Steps to Improve Diversity Recruiting.

Diversity Recruitment and Sourcing Questions to Consider

  • Does your organization have established goals around diversity and recruiting? If so, are these goals internally driven or mandated by law?
  • What organizations/agencies can the organization partner with to find a diverse pool of candidates?
  • Have job descriptions for open positions been updated recently? Are they still accurate reflections of the skills needed to perform the job effectively?
  • Have the hiring goals for this job group been communicated to the hiring manager, checked for understanding and agreed upon to increase the likelihood of a good hire?
  • Is there a current job description for this position and clear-cut performance standards that can fairly evaluate any new hire without bias?
  • Where should the organization advertise to attract a diverse pool of well-qualified applicants for this position?
  • What policies and benefits are in place in the organization that would attract diverse candidates (e.g., flexible hours, job sharing, etc.)?
  • What training has the organization provided to hiring managers to ensure that the best candidate is selected?
  • Has the organization reviewed its onboarding process to make certain that new hires receive the right information and a welcome that will secure a partnership with the organization?
  • How will human resources follow up with the hiring manager and the new employee to make certain the new partnership is working?

Diversity Recruitment and Sourcing Action Steps

  • Obtain support from the CEO and executive team and include diversity recruitment as a commitment in the company's business objectives. Assess the organization's needs and opportunities.
  • Develop a policy related to diversity that includes the organization's recruitment and retention plan to enhance diversity.
  • Provide training for management regarding the company's diversity initiative, including the business case for diversity.
  • Put the right tactics to work. Get everyone engaged, get involved in diverse communities and integrate with mainstream recruiting tactics. Attend career fairs and affinity receptions for diverse alumni at nearby universities and colleges.
  • Allocate the money needed for diversity recruitment.
  • Borrow best practices from other recruiting campaigns.

DE&I Requires Change Management

Each organization has a maximum rate at which it can process cultural change. This depends in part on the organization's cultural competence and the magnitude of the gap between the current situation and the diversity initiative's objectives. Change management for diversity may occur in phases. For example, an organization might want to assign highest priority to changes with the greatest business impact and start with domestic diversity issues, expanding later to address global aspects. See 5 Leaders Who Are Disrupting Diversity.




Careers in Diversity

Effective and sustainable diversity initiatives drive cultural change into and affect almost every aspect of an organization. Diversity practitioners need partnering relationships with all aspects of HR and with functional areas outside HR, such as media relations, employee communication, R&D, marketing, legal, executive communication and investor relations.

Diversity practitioners must have a wide range of knowledge, skills and experience. Diversity-specific aspects include the field of DE&I, culture, cultural difference, deep self-awareness and knowledge of self, and an ability to identify and manage one's own biases and agendas. Related aspects include EEO, affirmative action, change management, relationship management, communication, and marketing and sales. See SHRM Inclusive Workplace Culture Specialty Credential.

Self-Assessment to Determine Competency Level

  • Have you led a major organizational change effort before? What were the greatest strengths you exhibited during that time? What were your development areas?
  • Can you articulate the case for diversity, particularly in business terms that a CEO or CFO would likely respond to? If not, who can you partner with to develop a business case?
  • Have you ever worked in a setting that was removed from your primary culture? Were you able to adapt to a different cultural environment easily?
  • Can you empower champions and delegate authority well?
  • What are your own biases and prejudices? Will you be able to effectively manage them while advocating an inclusive workplace for all? Conversely, do you have a "burning platform" (one diversity issue or identity group that you feel is primary in your worldview)? If so, can you broaden your own definition of diversity to include all issues and groups?
  • Are you familiar with the many different audiences that will be expected to embrace and enact this plan?

See Influencing DE&I Strategies: Tips for Emerging Professionals.

Competency-Related Action Steps

  • Take a cross-cultural competency assessment to learn more about your ability to work across and among different cultures.
  • Actively solicit feedback from trusted mentors, advisors and colleagues. Seek advice from people you trust to be honest with you, even if the news is not immediately to your liking.
  • Be brutally honest with yourself. Realize that if you take sole ownership of a diversity initiative without the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to do the job, you are hurting the process, not helping it.
  • Recognize that no one person is the perfect diversity practitioner, and that if you fall short in just one or two specific competency areas, you can assemble the right team around you to supplement your own skill set.
  • Recognize that a passion for diversity is one competency that can be put to use by a diversity practitioner—but that it in no way makes up for the lack of other competencies that have been listed above.


For more DE&I resources, see SHRM's Overcoming Workplace Bias hub page.