Beyond Picture Perfect Diversity: How to Create a Sense of Inclusion


Dima Ghawi began her session at the 32nd Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference with a question for virtual attendees: “Why do you believe talking about DEI is important?” While she waited for responses to filter through the chat, she shared a story about her friend whose personal and professional life suffered when he felt like he had to hide part of his identity. Afraid to inform his workplace of his sexual orientation because he felt the community would no longer accept him, Ghawi’s friend started drinking heavily as a coping mechanism, which affected the way he performed at work. To summarize her story, Ghawi stated, “It affects all of us when we are being discriminated…emotionally, physically and at a genetic level.” Therein lies the answer to her opening question.

Many organizations recognize diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) as a goal, but commitment to that objective requires an expansive approach. DEI is more than just strategic hiring and starting workplace affinity groups, Ghawi suggested. “We need to be diverse. We cannot create inclusion if we don’t have diversity. But at the same time, it’s allowing people to have a voice and be respected as themselves,” she shared. Ghawi believes DEI initiatives must go beyond monitoring workplace demographics to reach a level where every individual feels safe, feels included and feels a sense of belonging.

Ghawi shared her ranking system for five different groups of varying DEI commitment:

  • First Group: Reacts when an issue arises but wants a quick fix and aren’t willing to make long-term impacts or changes

  • Second Group: Realizes DEI is important but feels it is a low priority or a luxury they cannot afford

  • Third Group: Has started realizing the value of DEI but doesn’t know what to do or how to go about making changes

  • Fourth Group: Ambitious about working toward a meaningful implementation of DEI initiatives

  • Fifth Group: Intentional and dedicated to DEI that it is included in the fabric of their institution and part of their hiring process and communication strategies

So how does an organization move upward in their dedication to DEI? Ghawi likes to use the phrase “curiosity, courage and commitment” to offer a roadmap of going forward. First, an organization needs executive buy-in for DEI initiatives to function well. She explained that it is “a matter of choice” to start working and to keep working on DEI initiatives, especially because it will likely transform a company. Thus, it’s crucial to have upper-level employees who are supportive and enthusiastic about DEI programs.

Next, Ghawi stressed the need for surveys and group conversations in order to “get a pulse” on where the organization currently stands with DEI. This takes courage because the results may not be favorable at first, and because talking about personal challenges can feel very vulnerable. Surveys within an organization can show how employees feel about certain opportunities and particular issues, and they can also highlight how various demographic groups within an organization feel about their own sense of belonging compared to other groups. Focus groups can engage in courageous conversations about examples of both inclusion and exclusion. “Having a dialogue is so important because there is going to be resistance internally and externally, but this is part of the change and the transformation,” she noted. These efforts can be difficult, but they are highly valuable to recognizing where an organization stands in terms of its DEI commitments.

The third tenet of her roadmap is commitment. “It’s a matter of having a vision of what we truly want, which is an inclusive culture and a sense of belonging, and then taking steps toward it while knowing every single step will have resistance and what matters is keeping our eye on the ball,” Ghawi said. She stressed the importance of being intentional and building a foundation that allows for DEI to be a major component of recruitment, advancement, mentorship and community outreach. Creating a space for people to show up for the world without fear of discrimination because of who they are can have a positive ripple effect on everything, but we can’t get there without working toward it every single day.

One obstacle to building a sense of inclusion is our unconscious biases. Throughout our lives, we pick up on perspectives and outlooks from the people around us and start to believe similar notions without even realizing it. Sometimes this can be good, Ghawi explained, like when we know to run if we are being chased by a dog. Other times, our implicit biases lead us to make decisions about people without actually getting to know who they are. Ghawi suggested slowing down those thoughts when we feel them forming so we can think critically about why we feel that way and how we might start feeling differently. “We will never be able to be cured of our biases. It’s not like you can put a pause and say, ‘Today I’m not going to be biased,’” she cautioned. But by recognizing that we have unconscious biases, we can acknowledge our power to do something about them.

Unconscious biases affect who we invite to a first interview, who we mentor and who we hire. Affinity biases encourage us to surround ourselves with people who are similar to ourselves, which can lead to a workplace that lacks diversity. Creating an inclusive environment means listening to people and understanding their stories of discrimination, even if they explain a situation that we’ve never experienced ourselves.

So, what are some effective ways to address biases in daily work? Ghawi offered several suggestions:

  • Create employee networks to bring people together.

  • Increase allyship by lifting up initiatives by people who want to learn and take action.

  • Make inclusive discussion groups so everyone can be part of the conversation about challenges and personal experiences.

  • Support organizations outside of your company that are engaged in meaningful work with populations who often face discrimination.

  • Create excitement within your company about volunteering as a team for various identity-based organizations.

  • Engage in DEI training for employees, but also recognize that training won’t fix the problem on its own, and there needs to be continuous intentional action.

  • Talk about your initiatives on your company’s social media platforms and website so that you can encourage more companies to stand with inclusion.

Ghawi concluded by recognizing that problems of inclusion and equity were created generations and generations before us, and that’s exactly why we need to be intentional about doing something to counteract those histories. “When we focus on DEI, it results in a lot of positive things, but it goes beyond just the bottom line. It is about the human element. It is about all of you, every single person, feeling accepted and being appreciated for who they are so they will be encouraged to be themselves when they show up for work.”

And luckily, that’s exactly what happened when her friend informed his community about his identity, allowing him to present his whole self to the workplace and the world instead of hiding.