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Workplace Culture

Ruminating on Diversity of Thought

Open conversations about differing opinions are realistically more comfortable among old friends than coworkers. But there has to be room somewhere in the workplace for people to respectfully disagree.

I’ve recently been assigned a couple articles about diversity initiatives in the workplace.

One of these is about diversity of thought/opinion, and what companies can do if two types of diversity clash. I’ve found this to be an incredibly interesting piece to work on.

Diversity of thought is one if those inherently mind-boggling topics for me, both from an ethical and a practical level. From an ethical level, it’s stuff like that James Damore memo, which basically used difference in male-female biology to explain why women aren’t as good at science as men. And when he was fired, people defended him with that diversity of thought argument.

My question was, if someone with even the smallest amount of power (or with potential to gain power over other people’s careers) really believes that X group of people is inferior to Y group in whatever subject, shouldn’t that be considered problematic? If a guy believes that it’s OK for women to be paid less than men because “men pay for dates,” is it OK for that person to be in a position that determines people’s salary in the slightest?

Every thought can’t be neutral, especially in certain contexts. There are dangerous thoughts and opinions, so where do “diversity of thought” advocates draw the line?

From a practical level, of course, I wondered how it is that a company can actually measure or define diversity of thought. At first glance, it seemed like an overly broad concept more than anything else. It seems like the equivalent of saying, well everyone has different thoughts/opinions; therefore, everyone is diverse; therefore, I can hire 100 people who look exactly like me and nothing about that is sketchy.

So, this story led me to some great conversations with experts and some fascinating research.

Some of the first research I did was an article about Christian colleges and LGBT policies. Even though this story is about colleges, I found value in it for any organization living with that balance of maintaining its values but also complying with discrimination laws.

Here’s an excerpt:

Staff and faculty at these Christian schools have to balance a need to attend to their students’ personal and spiritual needs with a commitment to their schools’ faith statements or official positions on sexuality.

“You’ve got those two values,” says Mary Hulst, senior chaplain at Calvin. “We love our LGBT people. We love our church of Jesus Christ. We love Scripture. So those of us who do this work are right in the middle of that space. We are living in the tension.”

As a Catholic-school attendee who now doesn’t identify with any religion, I find this tension so fascinating. At one end, institutions like this are being pulled in the direction of doing the right thing for groups of people they historically discriminated against. That’s a good thing!

I’m a strong believer that virtually every institution has room for growth and should be more assertive in correcting historical wrongs that have harmed people or discriminated against people. But, considering how it really is valuable to have people think differently, how much change is enough? How much is too much? That’s the other side of this tension. At which point does this institution lose its core identity?

And as a HR publication editor, it’s obvious that some companies are going through a similar tension.

One source for my story, Mark Fowler, deputy chief executive officer at Tanenbaum, spoke about how people have more than one aspect to their identity and how valuable it is to have conversations with people keeping that whole identity in mind, not just one part. His example was talking to religious people in the LGBT community.

With this in mind, I had a discussion with one of my friends about the Christian college story. She’s a Catholic who attended a Lutheran college and double-majored in religious studies and gender studies, so I was especially excited to get her thoughts.

Her reaction was related to the interpretation of religious texts. “Looking at Scripture through different interpretations can literally change so much,” she said, and she pointed out some commonly cited Bible verses that individuals use to support their own prejudices, but in the context of the actual book they aren’t making that point at all. This also led to a broader, longer conversation about religion, which I’m glad we didn’t shy away from just because it can be a sensitive topic.

I found this to be a great exercise in diversity of thought. We didn’t agree on everything, but we were willing to talk about this potentially sticky topic, and it gave me a greater understanding of where she comes from when she assesses situations.

Conversations like this are realistically more comfortable among old friends than co-workers. But there has to be room somewhere in the workplace for people to respectfully disagree.

Andie Burjek is a Workforce associate editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.