A diverse group of people stands shoulder-to-shoulder, smiling.
Diversity is a quality that already exists all around us. Inclusion, on the other hand, requires us to take action. — Getty Images/Alessandro Biascioli

Many small business owners are making diversity and inclusion a priority for hiring in 2021. But confusion still remains over the best way to do so. A good place to start? Learning the lingo. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are more than just buzzwords. Understanding what these terms mean and how they differ from one another can provide the first building block toward more inclusive hiring practices. Here are some DEI terms every business owner should know.

[Read more: Embracing Diversity and Inclusion Boosts Business and Community Connection]


Diversity is a term that refers to the inherent differences that exist amongst a group of people. In a recent CO— Roadmap Roundtable: Building a Diverse and Inclusive Team, Natasha Porizkova, DEI Manager at Nika White Consulting, explained that diversity is actually a passive term. “Diversity is happening all around us without us even lifting a finger,” said Porizkova. “There are so many different types of diversity. There’s diversity in terms of optics—age, race, gender—and there are hidden levels of diversity. Diversity of thought is something that is often not leveraged enough.”

Hidden diversity also refers to things like socioeconomic status, religious beliefs and education. At a basic level, diversity is really just the point at which things differ. We are diverse just by existing.


Where diversity is passive, inclusion is about taking intentional action. Porizkova refers to something that Vernā Myers, Vice President of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix often says: “Diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance.”

“If diversity is passive, inclusion is about taking action. Inclusion is about bringing together and leveraging differences. It’s making sure that everyone feels included,” said Porizkova. “We all have an innate need to feel included and feel part of a greater good.”

Inclusion is the act of creating a supportive, welcoming and respectful environment at work for people of all backgrounds to participate.

[Read more: Writing a Diversity and Inclusion Statement: How to Get It Right]

Equality and equity

These terms are often used interchangeably, but they mean very different things. Equality means giving everyone the same thing. Equity is about giving someone what they need. Or, as Porizkova put it: “Equality is giving everyone a shoe. Equity is giving everyone a shoe that fits.”

The key difference is that equity recognizes that each individual comes from a different starting point. Because we all have had different life experiences, perspectives and levels of privilege, we all need different things in order to succeed.

Culture add (vs. culture fit)

Historically, one of the criteria used to assess candidates during the hiring process was “culture fit.” Culture fit is often shorthand for “How similar are you to us?” It leads to companies hiring new employees who have similar education, thoughts and professional backgrounds, or who are within the same professional or social circles. Often, this leads to a homogeneous workforce.

Culture add refers to bringing in candidates who add value because of their diversity of experience. “This concept lets me assess a candidate’s ability to thrive in the organization as it is today, and to help the organization grow into what it wants to be,” wrote DeLisa Alexander, former Chief People Officer at Red Hat in Fast Company.

Diversity is happening all around us without us even lifting a finger.

Natasha Porizkova, DEI Manager at Nika White Consulting

Psychological safety

This term was coined in 1999 by Amy Edmondson, a professor at Harvard Business School. She defines psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."

Ultimately, the goal of psychological safety is to provide an environment where you can have positive conflict—you can disagree or say something that goes against the grain without feeling like you’re putting yourself at risk.

Culture of inclusion

A culture of inclusion is a company culture or work environment that makes every employee feel like they are a part of a greater good. Statistics show that when employees feel part of a culture of inclusion, they are more engaged and more likely to stay on with a company for longer.


Allyship is defined by Nicole Asong Nfonoyim-Hara, the Director of the Diversity Programs at Mayo Clinic, as "when a person of privilege works in solidarity and partnership with a marginalized group of people to help take down the systems that challenge that group's basic rights, equal access, and ability to thrive in our society."

Accordingly, an ally is someone who acknowledges the disadvantages faced by groups other than their own and is able to take supportive action to advocate or challenge the status quo on that group’s behalf.

Unconscious bias

Unconscious bias is defined as a learned stereotype that is automatic, unintentional and deeply ingrained within our beliefs. As the University of California, San Francisco explains, “Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.”

An implicit bias is the same thing as an unconscious bias. Studies have shown that implicit biases affect our actions and ideas without us even being aware they exist.


“Neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal, natural variation in the human genome,” John Elder Robison, co-chair of the Neurodiversity Working Group at the College of William & Mary, wrote in Psychology Today. “Indeed, many individuals who embrace the concept of neurodiversity believe that people with differences do not need to be cured; they need help and accommodation instead.”

Neurodiversity is a growing focus for companies like SAP, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Microsoft, Ford, Deloitte, IBM, JPMorgan Chase and many others who are working to make accommodations for neurodiverse talent.

Employee resource group (ERG)

Great Place to Work defines an employee resource group as “voluntary, employee-led groups whose aim is to foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with the organizations they serve.” These groups provide a safe space for employees from a specific interest group, as well as support and career development opportunities. Some also welcome allies to join.

Underrepresented groups

Underrepresented groups are “less represented in one subset (e.g., employees in a particular sector, such as IT) than in the general population. This can refer to gender, race/ethnicity, physical or mental ability, LGBTQ+ status, and many more.”

For more resources, check out our guide with 7 Tips for Hiring a More Diverse Workforce.

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