Diversity Is Only Half the Story: How Tech Can Help Foster Greater Inclusivity in the Workplace

Today, technology is playing a key role in creating corporate environments that encourage constructive discourse and empower underrepresented employees. Here are three buckets of technology that HR and IT teams can tap to turn inclusivity goals into realities.

By Stephanie Walden, Contributor

Statistics about diversity—a 50-50 male/female split, X percentage employees of color, LGBTQ-friendly policies—often serve as points of pride on boardroom presentations about company culture. There’s a reason these stats have become crucial benchmarks for so many companies: Studies suggest that diversity is important not only for employee morale, but also for profitability.

A strictly numbers-boosting approach to diversity, however, ignores a fundamental fact about modern workplace dynamics: Just because an organization hires a range of ethnicities, cultures, sexual orientations, abilities, genders, and generations doesn’t mean that members of those groups feel valued—or that they’ll stick around.

Failing to factor inclusivity into the equation, says Tom Morgan, head of Morgan Intercultural, a consulting firm that conducts inclusivity training for Fortune 1000 companies across 70 countries, is a business risk with direct ties to the bottom line. “If you don’t get [inclusivity] right, you’re going to be a training academy for your competitors who are getting it right,” he said. “In other words, if [employees don’t] feel heard and valued and included and seen, they either [mentally] check out or they leave.”

Today, technology is playing a key role in creating corporate environments that encourage constructive discourse and empower underrepresented employees. Here are three buckets of technology that HR and IT teams can tap to turn inclusivity goals into realities.

Tech that Fosters Empathy

Morgan says that much of corporate America has adopted a habit of “minimization”—a mentality that tiptoes around cultural differences and takes the approach of treating everybody alike. “That might be equal, but it’s not equitable, because people need different things,” he asserted. “To get inclusivity right, you have to actually call out those differences.” Doing this effectively requires a blend of data collection and analysis, face-to-face training, and technology platforms.

“What this topic really boils down to is a mindset and developmental stages.”

– Tom Morgan, founder of Morgan Intercultural

On the data side of the equation, Morgan’s company uses a series of online, interactive assessment tools, which help companies measure and record their “cultural profiles.” The data collected by these tools includes dimensions of culture like communication styles (direct versus indirect, instrumental versus expressive) and leadership or team structure preferences (hierarchical versus flat, task-oriented versus relationship-oriented). This intel informs future programming.

“’When you’re talking about diversity and inclusivity—or D&I—in companies, we can measure it [through tools like the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI)],” said Morgan. “What this topic really boils down to is a mindset and developmental stages. When [employees] take this test, one score tells us where they think they are, and the other tells us where they actually are.” Nearly everyone, Morgan adds, thinks they’ll score higher than they actually do when it comes to inclusive thinking, behaviors, and policies.

Virtual reality may also soon play a role in inclusivity training. In a Stanford study, the “virtual shoes” experiment showcases how VR helps people understand others’ perspectives. In the study, subjects donned virtual reality gear to “viscerally embody avatars” representing people from different ages, races, economic statuses, and abilities. The users then “experienced” a variety of scenarios in which they were subjected to prejudice. The study’s initial results were promising, and the team behind the experiment is currently partnering with scientists to examine how self-other merging situations reduce bias on a neurological level.

In the workplace, the implications for VR empathy training have countless use cases, from managers experiencing one-on-one sessions from their employees’ points of view and role-playing solutions for individuals experiencing workplace conflict to social learning initiatives that include immersive, perspective-shifting exercises.

Tech that Improves Communication

Communication—both verbal and nonverbal—is one of the underlying tenets of an inclusive workplace. Assessment tools like the ones employed by Morgan Intercultural can help teams become aware of nonverbal communication cues like micro-inequities (small, subtle behaviors that indicate unequal power dynamics) and culture-specific gestures. Understanding these elements can help companies create an environment where employees feel understood by both their peers and superiors.

Through machine learning or facial recognition technology that automatically identifies—and suggests corrections for—problematic communication behavior isn’t yet fully realized, there are promising advancements in the field, particularly when it comes to the written word. Textio, for example, is an augmented writing platform that identifies potentially disparaging language in corporate communications. It can help businesses craft inclusive text for everything from recruiting efforts to company-wide mission statements.

There are also a variety of digital apps that facilitate open and honest conversation in the workplace. Bravely is one such platform that serves as a third-party mediator. An intelligent algorithm connects underrepresented employees with professionals who provide guidance on how to have challenging conversations with colleagues. In one recent case, a woman of color who was ready to leave her job after being passed over for a promotion used Bravely to gain skills to appeal to her employer—and, ultimately, secured the salary increase she’d been seeking for months.

“We’re cultivating a proactive, constructive, healthy dialogue that is the heart of conversations making underrepresented voices heard and building trusting relationships among teams,” explained Toby Hervey, co-founder and CEO of Bravely and board president of the non-profit organization Out in Tech.

Tech that Encourages Inclusive Collaboration

Employee resource groups (ERGs) and affinity groups—voluntary, employee-led communities, both online and in-person—are emerging as valuable resources in promoting inclusivity. Although ERGs themselves aren’t a new concept, they’re becoming increasingly digitized, with members around the globe uniting via platforms like Slack.

When it comes to encouraging ERGs, Mikaela Kiner, founder and CEO of UniquelyHR, a human resources consulting group for fast-growing companies, said that organizations should do “everything in their power” to be supportive. “ERGs are a [buzzword] right now, but companies need to say more than, ‘We welcome employee resource groups.’ They need to make sure that people have time to participate in them. Some companies may also consider providing these groups with a meeting space, whether [digital] or in the office.”

Third-party online communities also help give voice to underrepresented groups. Rita Kakati Shah, founder and CEO of Uma, a company that assists women reentering the workforce after pausing their careers to raise kids, says that while internal chat platforms and ERGs can enable productive communication among colleagues, niche digital communities can galvanize groups across geographical and organizational boundaries. Her company uses digital resources like social media to provide members and affiliate companies with a roadmap for successfully implementing inclusivity measures.

The Ultimate Role of Tech and People

While technology advancements give organizations tools to better promote diversity and inclusion, Morgan, Hervey, Kakati Shah, and Kiner all agree on one thing when it comes to inclusivity in the workplace: Inclusion should start with and filter down from the people at the top.

“The structure at the top helps shape the entire vision for the company,” said Kakati Shah. “If you set the precedent at the top to have an equal number of men or women in leadership, or people from varying ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, it becomes easier to train management on how to maintain those standards and create an inclusive environment.”

Kiner added that inclusivity training—and the tech platforms that companies use to support it—should be implemented in a holistic way that makes sense for all parties. “Any technology tool has to come with training and proper change management,” she clarified. “The process needs to be more than just an add-on. Teams and managers should be prepared to gather feedback and willing to iterate and improve as they go.”

Hervey echoes the sentiment that diversity and inclusion should be a joint effort between people teams and tech platforms. He concedes that tools like Bravely are just “one part” of a comprehensive solution, noting that tech can help HR professionals automate the rote parts of their role in order to focus on what matters most: Proactively developing people.

“We don’t think you’ll ever be able to remove the ‘human’ from human resources,” he said. “Tech is going to give HR superpowers, allowing them to serve people in ways they haven’t been able to historically.”