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A New Look at Workplace Diversity

How to best manage the diverse workplace.

Key points

  • When we distance ourselves from those who are different, or deny that any differences exist, we are not being inclusive.
  • Defensiveness and arguing that discrimination no longer exists are barriers to inclusion.
  • Devaluing others’ differences and asking others to assimilate into the majority culture work against workplace inclusion.

This post was authored by Jeffery Scott Mio, Ph.D. and Ron Riggio, Ph.D.

As you know, our workplaces are becoming more and more diversified. Diversity is not limited to differences in race or ethnicity but extends to differences in background, age, sexual orientation, gender, and culture. Many people who encounter diversity freeze up and don’t know how to handle it. This is because of the first four Ds of difference, but if they can handle diversity, they will find out that the fifth D of difference can be rewarding (Harrell, 1995; Mio, Barker et al., 2020).

The Five Ds of Difference

Distancing is when one tries to distance oneself from encountering those who are different. This distancing can be physical, intellectual, or emotional. If we avoid encountering difference, we do not have to confront our own feelings of discomfort from interacting with those who are different.

Denial is when we try to deny that there are any differences at all. For example, when lecturing in a graduate multicultural psychology course, one of us (Jeffery) mentioned something about being of Asian descent. A student said, “Jeff, when I look at you, I don’t see that you are Asian, I just see that you are a person.” This student was trying to deny that Jeff’s experiences of being Asian American was any different from her experiences as a White woman. Jeff’s response to her was, “Patty [pseudonym], that’s like me saying, ‘When I look at you, I don’t see a woman, I only see a person.' Of course, I see you as a woman, and for me to deny that means that I am denying that you have ever encountered sexism or some other form of discrimination that you may have encountered as a woman.”

Defensiveness comes when one encounters difference and one defends that there are any differences, or arguing that over the years things have gotten better and there is nothing to address, now. It is like saying that many civil rights laws were passed in the 1960s and that discrimination has been eliminated, so we do not have to address discrimination, now.

Devaluing is acknowledging that while there may be differences, these differences are minor or insignificant. Another form of devaluing is to believe that things that are different are also inferior, so if there is a difference, then people should work toward eliminating these differences by adopting the perspective of the majority – assimilating to the dominant group. This devalues the individual’s unique background and experiences.

What to do?

Managers who encounter workers who try to depreciate difference through one or more of the four D’s of difference should try to encourage workers to value the fifth D of difference: Discovery. By acknowledging differences and being open to exploring them, the individual discovers that these differences can enrich one’s own life and perhaps point to a way to make one’s life better or easier. For example, many White college students have commented, over the years, on how uncomfortable they initially felt when meeting families of their Latinx friends because they themselves had always been rather reserved and distant, only shaking hands with people when they met. However, they felt somewhat uncomfortable being hugged and kissed on each cheek when meeting Latinx friends’ families. Over time, however, they felt much more connected with these family members and have enjoyed such encounters.

From a business perspective, sometimes competitors have found a different way of doing business. At first, one might feel threatened and not want to value these differences. However, if one is open to these differences, one might discover advantages in doing things in new and different ways. An easy example is when some companies began having an online presence for their products. At first, people may have felt this was a fad that would blow over (devaluing the difference) or, because they did not have good computer skills, they may not have wanted to make their products available on the internet (distancing). However, this is how businesses have come to expand their income, and it is now the industry's standard.

What have you discovered about diversity?


Harrell, S. P. (1995, August). Dynamics of difference: Personal and sociocultural dimensions of intergroup relations. Paper presented at the 103rd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, New York.

Mio, J. S., Barker, L. A., Domenech Rodríguez, M. M., & Gonzalez, J. (2020). Multicultural psychology: Understanding our diverse communities (5th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.