Inclusion: Controversial, Emotional, but Not Optional — by Deborah Levine

Inclusion is not new

Six years ago, I described how Inclusion-related policies and legal regulations have long been part of economic and social change, and, at times, part of emotional and combustible debate.  Inclusion took 50 years of wrangling after the first Women’s Suffrage conference in the mid-1800s to achieve a constitutional amendment granting women the vote.  It took another 50 years for the Civil Rights Movement to seriously impact the workplace and establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Now, with COVID-19 and serious calls for racial justice, we are seeing another major societal and economic transformation that questions how we can achieve an inclusive diversity.

Six years ago, I thought that topping the controversies of the past will be quite a feat.  Affirmative Action was so contentious that it was largely replaced by the somewhat fuzzy concept of multiculturalism and later, diversity.  The then popular term, “Diversity, and Inclusion” (D&I) acknowledges that tracking diversity by the numbers  was not necessarily productive.  There had to be effective strategies for including the increasingly diverse demographics, markets, employees, and vendors in our businesses plans if our to stay relevant. Is this possible, or doable?

We thought the  issues couldn’t get more complex: religious diversity, LGBTQ issues, regional and international culture clashes, generational and class differences as well as long-standing issues of race, ethnicity, and gender. The vocal, visual, and non-stop world of social networking made controversy is rampant around these diversity, multicultural, and pluralism issues.  Staying relevant meant moving faster than previous generations. We knew that there was no longer a time frame of 50 years for these controversies to filter through our social and legal systems.

The COVID-19 Era Challenge

As a nation, Americans are heading towards a shared focus on the economy of the future. We aspire to new and diverse markets, innovation and Big Picture thinking, STEM expertise, global and local investment/jobs, as well as cross-cultural and multilingual expertise. Yet, the inclusion debate is often mired in emotional baggage just when we need to move forward with the knowledge, experience and problem solving skills that Diversity and Inclusion (DEI) brings to the table.

The Emotional Divide

At one end of the emotional spectrum is a movement to jettison regulations and diversity policies along with freedom from lawsuits and time-consuming training.  For these companies, there is often a downsizing of diversity departments and professionals, or elimination of them altogether. However, downsizing does not seem to result in a decline of the importance of diversity in the workplace. According to compliance experts, the number of complaints filed under EEOC guidelines multiplied since the economic downturn of 2008. The complaints reflect, the employees’ improved awareness of their rights and heightened emotions and fears of losing their jobs. Rather than less conflict, new areas of complaints are emerging, including claims of disability and religious discrimination.

The Other Emotional Response

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum are demands for equity in the economic, academic, and social arenas.  Frustrated with declining resources, services and opportunities, there is a swelling desire to re-investment in social justice. This movement isn’t limited to the underserved, the vulnerable and the disenfranchised.  Rather, it is championed by diverse communities, including economists who view the lack of inclusion and equity as a major fault line in the economy. Whether in recruitment, team-building, marketing, sales, retention, entrepreneurship, or leadership, D&I is increasingly central and necessary to economic success.

Now What?

Regardless of which end of the spectrum a company finds itself, inclusion professionals will be needed to advise on diversity-related conflicts.  The current contentious environment will result in an increasingly smaller windows for conflict resolution before they are pushed into the legal arena. Rejecting diversity-related requirements and policies might seem helpful in the short run, but is likely to result in more, not less, confusion and disarray. Further, Human Resource Departments are often not equipped to replace diversity departments in managing the growing complexities of a diverse workforce, changing recruitment needs, and local-global cultural differences.

The Assessment

The difficulty of creating a basic Inclusion plan with customization options for specific targets may actually increase demand for D&I professionals. The ability to plan for constantly changing demographics internally among employees and externally, through suppliers, markets, and local communities, requires experience as well as education.  Understanding how to assess emerging inclusion conflicts and anticipating multiple consequences is the hallmark of an expert. This is how inclusion strategies become a key tool for the successful business of the future, rather than a huge burden.  The strategies must embedded into the business plan before there is a crisis and be re-visited when there is a crisis.  They must be designed with sophistication, wisdom, and flexibility and consider an array of players and consequences, past, present, and future.


Too many inclusion initiatives fail, or even makes a situation worse, because they are designed with hope rather than expertise.  For example, vertical diversity training that involves everyone in a department from the supervisor to a seasonal part-time worker in the same room, at the same time, is idealistic rather than practical.  Every department with a conflict, each layer of leadership with an under-p


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