Blog Post

Organizational Culture versus Diversity & Inclusion

Published: Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Why organizational culture can destroy diversity and inclusion

The current race protests resurface the grief stages I went through.  I know from my experience that organizational culture can have an inverse influence on diversity and inclusion. I learned that if you are in an organization where there is a culture of discrimination and intimidation, diversity and inclusion will not work. This kind of culture ensures that employees can never truly be themselves, that coming forward and speaking up is to do so at a high cost, and the fear is real and palpable and it was for me. However, I did dare. I dared to ask a question related to my salary review and asked for the data behind the result. This asking resulted in the proverbial “hammer” coming down on my head. Working in an organization where as a black woman immigrant, who needs the visa provided by the organization to live in the United States and a justice system which is within the organization, helps ensure that what happens within those walls stays within those walls. The fear is real because one is at the mercy of the organization.  As an employee with no valid employment contract I must leave the United States within 60 days after the termination of my contract. Think packing a home, pulling children from school, moving and resettling in another country in 60 days! When those who look like me and other women congratulated me on my courage it was sad to realize that to stand in one’s truth can be so costly; my health and mental wellbeing included.

“What people see as fearlessness is really persistence.”― Wangari Maathai, Unbowed. 

Organizational culture is not written anywhere so it is a situation of buyer beware. How can one be sure that the organization one is joining is truly a good fit? I would advise looking beyond websites and talking to people who look like you who work in the organization doing the same level of work, plus going on social media and places like Glassdoor to find out what others say about working in the organization. Even when organizations have people who look like you at the top there is the “missing middle”, meaning that there is a lack of diverse people between the top and the average employee.  The top level does not know what happens in the day to day lives of the average employee (think micro-cuts and microaggressions over the life of one's career). When someone in an organization is emboldened enough to write the following phrases to make me seem “less than” it is clear there is an issue with the organizational culture.

 1.  - excerpt. Cancer analogy in my case - …… finds that the [Organization’s] cancer analogy is unwarranted as “no control over a staff member getting cancer. However, the organization does have control over a staff member’s compensation.” (Emphasis in the original.) – comment a good example of cognitive dissonance.

 2. - excerpt. "There is no Caucasian male performing Applicant’s function with similar education and experience and grade with a performance history as poor as Applicant. – comment proven to be untrue.

3.  - excerpt. Dismissing my case as greed with comments like "a mere desire for more money. –  comment the double bind of black women, the intersectionality about pay -  racism and sexism. 

Pay inequity for women is not a secret, it exists and challenging a salary review should not merit the kind of comments above American Association of University Women (AAUW) & World Economic Forum.  

In Dr. Pamela Newkirk’s book, Diversity Inc. The Failed Promise of a Billion-dollar Business, she relays to readers that Diversity & Inclusion is not working despite organizations spending more than 8 billion a year on diversity initiatives. Addressing organizational culture first then focusing on Diversity and inclusion PRACTICE is the true answer. PRACTICE would also include addressing, as Dr. Newkirk points out, the human toll of discrimination. She highlights the experience of two women: Linda Ingram and Bari-Ellen Roberts.

“Linda Ingram an analyst at Coca-Cola was ostracized by co-workers after she complained about racially insensitive remarks from a supervisor. She grew depressed and took long-term disability leave and eventually had to sell her house to help pay her bills. Bari-Ellen Roberts, a lead plaintiff in the Texaco lawsuit, was saddled with unrealistic assignments and poor performance reviews after she talked to the oil company’s human resources department about improving diversity, and how it felt to be treated as inferior or unqualified. As a cancer survivor this took a toll on her health”. – (Newkirk, Pamela). My experience and those of Linda and Bari-Ellen are not the only ones that warrant the push for PRACTICE. When organizations treat people in these ways, it is, as per Dr. Newkirk: “willful negation of our shared humanity.”


The journey to healing is a long one and the human toll of discrimination is a trauma that affects both physical and mental health. My healing journey came through support from incredible doctors, my family, my spiritual space and also an invitation to join the American Association for University Women, AAUW which is one of the organizations that supported Lily Ledbetter in a long legal battle for pay equity, resulting in the Lily Ledbetter Act . Through AAUW I have also become a certified salary negotiation facilitator and I now have the skills to empower women entering the workforce and those already working to negotiate for equal pay. In my advocacy work in this space, I signed the petition to support the passing of the Pay History Law for the State of Maryland. (You can check your state here). Pay history law basically means a potential employer cannot base your salary on what you previously earned. Your pay should be pegged to what your peer group is earning within the organization.

To move to PRACTICE organizations need to:

1. Define what exactly diversity & inclusion means in the organization. Is this a global or regional organization? Is diversity & inclusion based on a class or caste system? Religious or ethnic groups? Does diversity & inclusion include age, job level, gender, thinking styles, culture, language, physical abilities, sexual orientation, skills? The default thinking that diversity & inclusion is only about skin color is wrong.

2. Move from assimilation & differentiation to integration. Assimilation is when one is hired and expected to blend in leaving what makes the person diverse and unique outside the organization. Differentiation is taking the diverse person and having them work in an area similar to what is perceived as their origin. For example, a Spanish speaking person from Argentina is automatically sent to Mexico without allowing for cultural training. This is an unconscious bias that language similarity ensures a good fit. Integration is the most effective, bringing the authentic person to work and being able to voice differences (we all know diverse voices improve the bottom line, Huffington Post

3. Make salary corrections instead of hiding the fact that a certain group is underpaid. Salary transparency with correction is doing the right thing, Nike  & Citibank

4. Partner with organizations like American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) to focus on hiring diverse candidates when it comes to age. Ageism is real.

5. Identify future sources of diverse talent. For example, in both STEM and film industries, start with sponsorship and mentorship programs in middle and high schools to intentionally target a more diverse demographic. 

6. Learn from organizations;  Prada, Volkswagen, others

7. Hire people for D & I PRACTICE who are truly empowered. Dr. Shelton Goode has a great checklist on this.

8. Audit processes, systems and programs,  leadership & team development, talent review & succession management, performance management & employee engagement. Forming yet another task force or committee does not yield results.

9. Partner with organizations, such as Human Rights Campaign, for guidance etc. on implementing PRACTICE driven D & I.

10. Be aware of cognitive dissonance. Actively and respectfully listen to those in the “out” group. “Humility is the New Smart” is a book that does a great job emphasizing how leaders can enable the highest levels of human development and performance in all employees. 

By following some, or all, of these suggestions hopefully organizations move to PRACTICE and truly see a Return On Investment  (ROI) for the 8 billion dollars! 

Wangari Kamau, Global OD & Talent Management Professional, Public Speaker & Inclusion Specialist.

About the Author

I engage in strategic business planning around global talent development, leading and aligning my work with best practices and industry standards. I apply organizational development & change management using performance improvement models to identify and recommend implementation of actions to improve organizational performance. I collaborate with teams to implement programs for corporate, business, or function-wide solutions that impact globally dispersed employees.

Expertise: Program design & management; embedding workforce diversity with pay parity & multicultural intelligence in workforce & succession planning, leadership development & coaching, mentoring, knowledge management, on-boarding, induction & technical learning.

I have a Masters’ Degree in Business & Management, certified Global Professional Human Resources (GPHR), certificate in Advanced e-learning design, certification in Knowledge Management and Innovation. I am certified in advanced communication and leadership by Toastmasters International. Languages include English, Swahili and French. 

Attended ATD 2019 where I was a speaker on a panel, the topic "Working globally what it takes to succeed today."


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