How to Benefit from Diversity in the Workplace

Why the potential of employee diversity is often not realized.

Posted Jul 24, 2018

Increasing internationalization and migration are making the labor market more diverse. People with different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds will be working together on shop floors and in offices more often. This can be a source of uncertainty and misunderstanding. How can businesses turn these differences into an asset?

Potential Not Realized

In theory, there is added value in diversity. A mix of people should make it easier to accommodate a wider range of clients, develop new products and adapt quickly to new developments. All this is good for business. Research has shown this to be particularly the case in sectors which revolve around innovation and flexibility.

Yet, the potential of a diverse workforce is often not realized. Workers who are in some way ‘different’ from the majority in their company can feel excluded or undervalued. They usually cope by doing one of two things: some adapt as they learn how all company workers are expected to behave. Others who continue to feel out of place, become disheartened and leave.

The presence of different kinds of people in a company may look like a diverse workforce. But when those who have a distinct contribution to make feel they have to fit in or opt out, the added value of diversity is not realized. This also makes it difficult to see why working with people who are ‘different’ might be beneficial.

Fitting In or Opting Out

In our research among women in the workforce we observed that women who are successful in a male-dominated environment—such as the police—show extremely masculine behavior. This helps them to advertise the fact that they can be as ambitious and competitive as their male colleagues. Of course, there also are women who won’t conform to this type of behavior. However, many of them feel out of place and decide to leave. In professions and organizations where women are underrepresented a drive to recruit women often sees them exiting as quickly as they came in.

The result is that nothing changes: employment numbers show more diversity but this provides little added value. Some companies noting this have abolished their diversity programs, after they observed that successful women behaved in exactly the same way as successful men.

Adaptation Lowers Commitment

In other studies we examined how people belonging to a cultural minority functioned at work. Muslim women, for example, felt less committed to their jobs and did not have the same ambition to excel or aim for a promotion if they were encouraged to adapt to the majority.

Only when they felt their cultural identity was valued and acknowledged did their motivation to do a good job increase. Paradoxically enough this also meant they were more willing to accommodate their employers’ wishes to adapt specific behaviors.

Concealing One’s Stigma Raises Shame and Guilt

The downside of encouraging workers to go along with the majority can also be observed among homosexual employees. These are often encouraged to conceal their sexual orientation as an easy way to escape stigmatization at work, as in the US Military ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy. In our research among homosexual workers, those who tried to hide their sexual preference in order to conform at work came off worst.

Across the board, we found that attempts to hide a stigma reduce work satisfaction and lower commitment to the job. Shame and guilt about a key aspect of their identity they are hiding makes it more difficult for these workers to get along with colleagues. Unexpectedly, those who revealed their homosexual identity at work ended up feeling more accepted and better able to work well with others—as they were alleviated from the pressure to conceal their true self.

When Diversity Policies Fail

Many companies have well-intentioned diversity policies. But this doesn’t mean everything is solved. When responsibilities for diversity are delegated to a single department or diversity officer—often someone with little decision making power and a modest budget—this can do more harm than good. Relying on the diversity officer to tell them what needs to be changed can make others in the company less vigilant for practices or procedures that implicitly exclude or discourage those who are different. Focusing on personnel statistics as an indicator of company diversity can be misleading when minority representatives feel out of place, are not promoted, or quickly leave the organization.

Respect and Inclusion

Many companies aiming for diversity hope that employing more women or minority representatives will automatically make the company perform better. Or, conversely, they worry about the problems that will surely crop up if people from different cultural or religious backgrounds have to work together.

They key factor is not how many differences there are among employees, but how managers and policy makers handle diversity. When those who are different are encouraged to adapt to the majority their performance suffers. Companies that build a climate of inclusion—by communicating that differences are a fact of life and can be useful—benefit all workers as this motivates them to contribute to shared company goals and cooperate with each other.

Securing a workplace where everyone feels included requires that majority members too are reassured of their continued value for their contribution, and are respected for being who they are. When managed well, diversity and inclusion can be a business asset that improves company innovation and performance. Building a truly inclusive workplace will help attract scarce talents, who value working in a company where different kinds of people can feel at home and thrive.


Ellemers, N., & Barreto, M. (2015).  Modern discrimination: How perpetrators and targets interactively perpetuate social disadvantage. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3, 142-146.  

Ellemers, N., & Rink, F. (2016). Diversity in work groups. Current Opinion in Psychology, 11, 49-53.