5 power(ful) tools to foster workplace diversity, equity, & inclusion

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Creating a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) brings out the very best in people – and organizations. And many organizations are on the path to transformation to “walk the talk,” but many human resources leaders are unsure where to begin this difficult, yet fulfilling, journey.

Whether just starting or still continuing your DEI journey, this toolkit offers a few ideas to stimulate ongoing dialogue and helps teams rise to the challenges of systemic racism and bias with open hearts and open minds. 

Defining DEI

As the conversation takes shape, let’s take a moment to shed some light on establishing a collective understanding of the terms diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Diversity is the presence of differing elements within a population. The elements span race and ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, language, culture, national origin, religious commitments, age, (dis)ability status, and political perspective.


Equity demonstrates a commitment to providing the support and benefits that each person needs to enable everyone to have the opportunity to arrive at the same finish line.


Inclusion is the deliberate effort to help ensure a culture welcomes differences, listens to perspectives, and provides individuals with a sense of belonging. By creating a vibrant climate of inclusiveness, we can more effectively leverage the benefits of diversity to advance our collective capabilities.

(Source: Language adapted from University of Michigan’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.)

Tool #1: Racial equity and DEI Glossary

By no means is this an exhaustive glossary of DEI and racial equity terminologies. Think of it as a working document — add to it, share it widely, and update it often! For more DEI terms and definitions, check out the sources that factored into the creation of this starter DEI glossary:

Ableism: Prejudiced thoughts or discriminatory actions against people living with disabilities.

Accountability: The ways in which individuals and communities hold themselves to their goals and actions, and acknowledge the values and groups to which they are responsible.

Anti-Racism: The work of actively opposing racism by advocating for changes in political, economic, and social life.

Bias: Prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another, usually unfairly or negatively.

Black Lives Matter: A human rights movement, originating in the African-American community, that campaigns against violence and systemic racism toward black people.

Cisgender: From the Latin cis-, meaning “on this side.” A person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.

Cultural appropriation: Generally entails adopting aspects of a minority culture by someone outside the culture, without sufficient understanding of its context or respect for the meaning and value of the original.

Gaslighting: A form of psychological abuse by shaming, casting self-doubt, and/or altering the perception of truth.

Intersectionality: The overlapping of various systems of oppression.

Microaggression: A comment or action that unconsciously or unintentionally expresses or reveals a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group, such as a racial minority.

Multicultural competency: A process of learning about and becoming allies with people from other cultures.

Oppression: The systematic subjugation of one social group by a more powerful social group for the social, economic, and political benefit of the more powerful social group.

Preferred gender pronouns: The pronouns that people ask others to use in reference to themselves. They may be plural gender neutral pronouns such as they, them, their(s). Or, they may be ze (rather than she or he) or hir (rather than her(s) and him/his).

Prejudice: A pre-judgment or unjustifiable, and usually negative, attitude of one type of individual or groups toward another group and its members.

Privilege: Unearned social power accorded by the formal and informal institutions of society to ALL members of a dominant group.

Restorative justice: A theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by crime and conflict.

Systemic racism: Policies and practices that exist throughout a whole society or organization, and that result in and support a continued unfair advantage to some people and unfair or harmful treatment of others based on race.

Xenophobia: Extreme dislike or fear of foreigners, their customs, their religions, etc.

“Without laying a foundation by communicating information that isn’t widely known — or is assumed to be widely known —  we won’t be able to get to understanding one another.”

— Tara Turk-Haynes, vice president of DEI and talent management at Leaf Group

Download this DEI glossary of terms to share with your teams.

Tool #2: Create a safe space for courageous conversation

During our “Creating a Culture of Inclusion When Working Remotely” webinar, Reggie Willis, chief diversity officer at Ally, noted that “First you need to work on inclusion, then you can work on representation.”

We recently followed up with him for additional insight on building a more inclusive culture. Here’s what he had to say: “To accomplish your DEI goals, you need to listen to your teammates and train your leaders on what it means to build an inclusive environment. It’s not just inviting a diverse group; it’s about asking for input and facilitating engagement.”

Before diving into any DEI conversation, be sure to establish ground rules and guidelines for facilitating a constructive and meaningful dialogue in a safe environment. Here are a few suggestions to get you started on the right foot:

  • Listen
  • Relax and be yourself
  • Approach material with an open mind
  • Learn
  • Have fun
  • Agree to disagree
  • Share experiences
  • Value each person and their comments
  • Ask questions
  • Don’t interrupt
  • Allow everyone to share
  • Treat others as you’d like others to treat you
  • Suspend judgment
  • Maintain confidentiality
  • Honor the time commitment
  • Be compassionate
  • Seek to understand
  • Be willing to be uncomfortable
  • Accept responsibility
  • Avoid blame and speculation
  • Assume positive intent

Creating a Culture of Inclusion When Working Remotely

Watch now

Download these guidelines for courageous conversations to share with your teams.

Tool #3: DEI conversation starters & thought exercises

Starting the conversation is the first — and for some — the hardest step. Here are a few conversation starters to get things rolling. And if folks are reluctant to speak up, turn these conversation starters into thought exercises and have your team take a few minutes to jot down any free-association answers.

  1. What’s the meaning of your first or last name?
  2. If you could start a nonprofit, what would it be?
  3. Talk about a time when someone made you feel welcomed and accepted?
  4. When was the last time you were in a situation that made you uncomfortable? (And why were you uncomfortable?)
  5. What languages are spoken in your family?
  6. Name a moment in history that changed your worldview.
  7. Why is diversity and inclusion important to you?
  8. What would your workplace look like if it were more inclusive?
  9. What’s the current state of your organization?
  10. What would the ideal inclusive, diverse, and equitable organization look like?
  11. Would your ideal organizational make-up change if you were of a different race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion than you are?
  12. A company can be diverse without being inclusive. It can also be diverse without being equitable. What does this mean for you?

“Many of our conversations have been deliberately focused on equity and how we address issues of systemic racism and social justice. We are also focused on making an impact not only with our employees, but also communities, customers, and suppliers.”

— Reggie Willis, Chief Diversity Officer at Ally

Tool #4: Use employee resource groups to advance the conversation

Actions speak louder than words and a focus on inclusiveness continues with employee resource groups (ERGs). Empower employees by encouraging them to form a DEI ERG or other groups focused on advancing growth and understanding. When employees work together to lead a focused group with clear goals and objectives, it can only strengthen your organization and improve DEI practices. And invite employees to join as many ERGs that interest them, regardless if the ERG aligns with their diverse attributes.

PRNEWS reports that “Cultivating a safe environment for employees to launch ERGs can not only create a better work experience for them, but demonstrate the commitment of the organization to its employees, resulting in a workplace of openness and trust. To launch a successful ERG program, leaders must work across departments and clear communication of the process and support of the groups must take priority from the start.”

Tool #5: Create a DEI portal

High-quality online resources for DEI strategic planning aren’t hard to find. However, to show your company’s commitment to fostering a DEI-centric workplace, consider creating a company-branded portal with helpful links, tips, resources, recognitions, and stories.

“We are working on creating a learning portal for employees to engage in self-directed learning to understand the impacts of specific DEI topics like systemic racism, LGBTQ, and ableism,” said Willis.

Other resources to include in your portal could include

In closing, we’d like to express our gratitude for the wisdom and input we received from DEI visionaries Reggie Willis and Tara Turk-Haynes. Reggie is the Chief Diversity Officer at Ally and Tara is the Vice President of DEI and Talent Management at Leaf Group.  We’d love to hear from you! We’re always ready to listen and learn. Please share your DEI success stories with us or take a look at our. Vaco promotes the continuous development of an inclusive, diverse, and equitable environment. Looking for diverse talent to add to your inclusive team? Contact Vaco, we’d be honored to join your journey.


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