How to Ensure Diverse Spaces Are Equitable and Inclusive

How to Ensure Diverse Spaces Are Equitable and Inclusive

From the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to the executive branch of the U.S. government, institutions and organizations all across the country have made concerted efforts to diversify their membership and workforces. While diversity is important, simply bringing a more diverse group of people into an organization does not guarantee an equitable and inclusive environment. To be truly effective, organizations should factor equity and inclusion into their culture and practices, says Renee Smith-Maddox, clinical professor and diversity liaison at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. 

What Is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

Diversity, equity and inclusion benefit organizations and workplaces because they ensure people feel valued. 

“These three terms provide the foundation for how people come to interact in organizations and communities, and how they relate to each other, and how they come to understand each other,” Smith-Maddox said. 

What Is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? Three terms that work together to ensure people feel value

Diversity, equity and inclusion work together like a three-part ecosystem, each of which must be present for a just environment whether it be in a workplace, community, family or organization. Together, each element should contribute to a framework or system that helps everyone understand and act upon injustices across all domains.

When all three elements are prioritized, individuals can find a sense of belonging. 

“When senior leadership at any organization is equity-centered, they are not only modeling a personal commitment to systemic change but they are also guiding all employees/constituents to explicitly support and contribute to an organizational culture that promotes equity, diversity and inclusion,” Smith-Maddox said.

To maintain this inclusive environment, organizations implement systematic processes that are transparent in the ways they ensure equity and equal access to opportunities. 

Why Do Organizations Need Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

“Inclusion is so much of what makes an organization effective, it contributes to overall performance when individuals are part of an ongoing process to build diversity, equity and inclusion competencies,” Smith-Maddox said. 

For example, promoting DEI in workplaces and institutions can help with employee and member retention by “developing the capacity to address cultural differences and creating a healthy organizational culture that enhances individual and organizational well-being.” 

But Smith-Maddox points out that implementing and improving DEI in organizations requires continuous work that integrates changes to the structure, policies and processes. 

“DEI work has to be intentionally designed. It has to be inclusive. It has to be monitored. It has to be managed. It has to be transparent. And people have to be held accountable,” she explained. 

Smith-Maddox highlighted the following factors that organizations should consider when assessing their own diversity, equity and inclusion needs:

Organizational Factors That Influence Workplace Environments

Culture. Does the organization recognize holidays observed by only certain religions and not others? Are employees allowed to take days off to observe their religious holidays? 

Compensation. How transparent is the organization about pay at all levels? Is there pay equity at all levels of the organization? How are bonuses awarded?

Recruitment. Where does the organization recruit job candidates? What efforts are made to recruit people representing different aspects of diversity?

Leadership. How diverse is the organization’s leadership team? How does leadership obtain feedback from other members of the organization?

Accountability. Who is responsible for addressing DEI concerns? How often does the organization distribute updates about its progress around DEI initiatives?

Organizations can benefit by making diversity, equity and inclusion the norm and having leaders and employees assess themselves and each other on their capacity to grow and learn.

“People know what they want, and people know how to make places and situations better if you let them become part of the equity, diversity and inclusion design process,” Smith-Maddox said.

How Can Organizations Address Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

Persistence and perseverance are important when it comes to implementing DEI efforts. 

“Hiring one person at a time to help diversify your organization will not work,” Smith-Maddox said. She explained that actions have to be thoughtful and prescriptive and offered some suggestions. 

Strategies for Addressing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion:

Proceed with intention. Use surveys and listening circles to identify what needs to be addressed and determine strategic priorities with established standards and metrics that can hold people accountable.

Actively listen to everyone. Provide opportunities to have conversations about what is working and what is not working so that everyone can collaborate on improvements.

Identify DEI obstacles. Use bias training and other professional learning programs to address DEI-related issues.

Be comprehensive.  Determine ways to effectively engage in dialogue about social identities, racial emotions, microaggressions and oppression issues.  

Establish and maintain pipeline programs. Continue to develop strategies to address the shortage of underrepresented minorities in the environment.

The work has to be ongoing in any organization; quick solutions usually aren’t effective. Organizations should also regularly solicit feedback. 

“Be willing to open up spaces to listen,” Smith-Maddox said. “You’re going to make errors, but you have to notice when something is not working for some people. You have to be willing to let people talk about what’s not working and what’s working.” 

How to Know if an Organization Prioritizes Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

The importance of DEI is becoming more apparent to people and organizations. As people decide where they want to work and who they want to do that work with, they may evaluate DEI practices at all levels. How intentional an organization is in promoting diversity, equity and inclusion may factor into people’s decisions to join. 

If an individual is considering whether to join an organization but is unsure about the group’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, Smith-Maddox suggests that they should ask specific questions early in the interview stage about the organization’s DEI practices and challenges.

She offered these suggestions to start the conversation with recruiters, hiring managers and others within an organization:

What to Ask to Learn More About Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at an Organization

  • What are some examples of DEI at work in this organization?
  • What DEI initiatives do you have in place?
  • How are members benefiting from DEI initiatives?
  • How are new members engaged in the organization?
  • Are there affinity groups or employee resource groups? How are those groups supported? 
  • What is leadership’s role in advancing equity in the environment? 
  • What are some challenges around racial equity in the organization? 
  • Are transgender individuals welcome? 
  • How does this organization accommodate people with disabilities (in-person or online)? 
  • How welcoming is this organization to people who look like me? 

“Diversity, equity and inclusion matter,” Smith-Maddox said. “They help create a just and equitable environment where people can thrive, where they can participate, where they can contribute and feel like they’re being treated fairly with dignity and respect.”

DEI Resources for Organizations and Employers

Web Pages 

6 Steps for Building an Inclusive Workplace, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM): strategies for developing better workplace diversity and inclusion.

The ABCs of DEI, Industry Week: strategies for manufacturers seeking to expand their DEI efforts and practices. 

Content About DEI/EDI, Center for Creative Leadership: articles, research reports, webinars and more from a global nonprofit leadership development organization. 

DEI Resources, PledgeLA: videos, best practices guidelines and strategies for startups collected by a coalition of tech companies and venture capital firms working to measurably increase diversity, equity and community engagement in Los Angeles.

​​DEI Resources — Diversity I Equity I Inclusion, The Communications Network: articles, style guides, podcasts and more curated by a community of foundation and nonprofit communications professionals.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, Nonprofit Learning Lab: webinars and slides focused on anti-racism and equity from an organization that supports those seeking to lead in the nonprofit sector.  

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Background/Best Practices, USC Libraries Research Guides: hub and best practices to implement diversity, equity and inclusion across a university campus.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Resources, Educause: directory of book lists, essays and guides compiled by a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education through the use of information technology.

Diversity and Inclusion Resources, Association for Talent Development (ATD): articles, videos, podcasts and more including a tool explaining how to support diversity with pronoun use.

Eliminating Barriers, SHRM: strategies for employers seeking to employ people living with disabilities.

Why Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Matter for Nonprofits, National Council of Nonprofits: articles, guides and questions to consider when creating a DEI action plan. 

Diversity Toolkit: A Guide to Discussing Identity, Power and Privilege, MSW@USC: training activities designed to provide historical context about the politics of identity and the dynamics of power and privilege to help build greater self-awareness. 


Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald:  discussion of ways to adapt beliefs and behavior to foil the hidden biases that prevent us from treating others fairly.

How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive, Jennifer Brown: steps of self-examination for leaders to understand their roles in creating a better workplace. 

The Leader’s Guide to Unconscious Bias: How to Reframe Bias, Cultivate Connection, and Create High-Performing Teams, Pamela Fuller, Anne Chow and Mark Murphy: discussions about mental shortcuts’ effects, overcoming bias and more using worksheets and strategies to guide leaders through change. 

Citation for this content: The MSW@USC, the online Master of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.