Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) as an organizational initiative goes far beyond simply doing the right thing. Research shows that a diverse and inclusive workplace improves innovation, motivates collaboration, and increases retention of young talent. But even today, the definition and importance of diversity and inclusion, as well as how companies approach it, remains in flux. That being said, there is one bucket within DE&I that has stayed consistent over the past few decades: the intersection of DE&I and the generations topic. We have found that leading the DE&I conversation with a generational lens can help people begin from a point of inclusion, safety, and confidence—thus paving the way for tougher but more genuine and impactful conversations.
When BridgeWorks was born in the ’90s, the extent of many organizations’ DE&I initiatives went as far as a diversity day sponsored by an employee resource group. It was a one-shot attempt at generating awareness and promoting a company’s commitment to fostering a diverse workplace. But things change. These days, we tend to see more comprehensive approaches to DE&I that reflect the expectations of the workforce, and each generation of talent plays a crucial role in this transformation.
When not handled effectively, DE&I can be a confusing, obstacle-ridden business imperative; even leading companies with the best intentions can trip up. (Think: that one coffee chain, or your second-favorite cola beverage. You know the ones.) But operating with a generational lens can help ease people into it. Here are three reasons why this sociological approach will help connect your whole organization to a broader conversation and create openness to other important aspects of diversity and inclusion.
1.) Inclusivity: There is something for everyone
By nature, every other lens of diversity has the potential to feel exclusionary. Some people “are,” and others “aren’t.” Some sneetches have stars, others do not—as Dr. Seuss so eloquently put it. Consequently, people often feel uncomfortable talking about diversity because they do not see themselves as a part of the discussion. Every person on your team, however, is part of a generational cohort—thereby giving them an experiential voice in the conversation.
2.) Comfortability: This is easy to talk about
Other lenses of diversity often involve understanding and addressing the tension between those with and without power as a result of historical viewpoints or bias. While bridging this divide is necessary in a just society, it requires a level of courage that many find difficult to summon. Generational theory has no history of oppression. It is an objective study of how the events and conditions at a unique time in history shaped the traits and values of people who grew up in that era. Because those resulting qualities can be seen as positive attributes, people are more inclined to engage.
3.) Consistency: It’s not going to change
In a well-intended effort to remain sensitive and responsible to the ever-changing needs of society, other lenses of diversity become moving targets. About the time we think we understand a people group, its preferred title evolves, expands, or overlooks a nuance of a subset of people within that experience. In other words, what was okay to say yesterday, might land you in trouble today. In contrast, generational research has shown that while individuals do change, generational cohorts retain their core sociological identities throughout their life stages.
Because people feel included, safe, and confident, the generations topic has made for an empowering springboard into deeper conversations through self-discovery and shared experiences. Dialogue may open with a personal story or a formative moment in history, but with a little facilitation, it can quickly cascade into deeper topics such as hiring, retention, and, you guessed it, inclusive leadership. Some organizations are further down the path than others, and that’s okay. Assessing the readiness and willingness of the industry, people, and business ecosystem that make up an organization before pushing concepts, policies, and initiatives is essential. Without a proper upfront assessment and an appropriate framework for guiding a DE&I initiative, well-meaning efforts can be costly and, more importantly, miss the mark when it comes to driving meaningful organizational change.