Preparing for Job Interview Questions about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
The millennial generation, which now makes up most of the workforce, and their Gen Z counterparts are the most racially diverse population in history. Only 56% of the 87 million millennials in the country are white as compared to 75% of the 76 million members of the baby boomer generation. Gen Z is still more diverse with 52% of this younger age group identifying as white. LGBTQ identification is also on the upswing, rising from 5.6% in 2020 to 7.1% in 2022, doubling in the ten years following 2012.
As well they should, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) are increasingly important topics in the workplace, and your interview prep will not be complete without determining how you will discuss your experiences and thoughts on these subjects. Below are just a few tips for answering job interview questions about diversity and inclusion.
Before launching into the tips, it makes sense to break down the definition of relevant terms in relation to the workplace:
Diversity: Diversity refers to the range of traits within a population of workers, including gender, race, physical ability, religion, age, and socioeconomic status, among others. A true commitment to diversity within a company will look at not only who is being hired but how the company is working to retain and promote employees from diverse backgrounds.
Equity: Though incorrectly used interchangeably with equality, equity actually attempts to address current and historic structural inequalities that favor some while leaving others with fewer resources and support. One stark example of this is the widely used practice of redlining through much of the mid-Twentieth century that prevented African Americans from buying homes in more affluent neighborhoods with better schools and overall infrastructure.
Inclusion: While a company can tick the boxes for diversity, if individuals from diverse backgrounds do not feel included or deeply considered, progress in diversity and equity will be slow or nonexistent. Inclusion is “the extent to which employees are valued, respected, accepted and encouraged to fully participate in the organization.”
1. Research a Company's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Goals Before an interview, analyze the company's policies and initiatives related to DE&I. You can find this information on the company’s website, follow them on social media, and find articles online. See if you can find data that break down the demographics of employees; annual reports can often be good sources of this data as well as specific DE&I initiatives. External rankings from sources like Inc. Magazine or your local Business Journal can also provide context. This background will give you a better understanding of their priorities and help you tailor your responses to align with their goals. Be prepared to mention specific programs that the company lists to progress in these areas. Reverse Mentoring, for instance, is a policy that some companies use to augment inclusivity by pairing a senior employee with a junior employee with a diverse background to widen the former’s perspective on communication dynamics and other long-entrenched habits that potentially derail feelings of inclusion and acceptance. In turn, the junior employees learn about leadership and build other professional development skills, opening up more potential for connection for people from different generations and experiences.
2. Be Genuine and Give Specific Examples When answering questions about diversity and inclusion, it's important to be honest and authentic in your responses. It's not enough to just say that you value DE&I. Provide specific examples of how you have demonstrated this in the past. For example, if you were part of a team that developed a diversity and inclusion initiative, describe your role and the impact it had. If you haven’t had an opportunity to do so, share observations you have made that have caused you to reflect more deeply about your own unconscious bias. If you witnessed negative work experiences resulting from racism, sexism, or other prejudices, use these as examples of these incidents and expand on your response to these episodes. Reflect on how they may have changed your perspective and be willing to talk about them with a certain degree of vulnerability. My father worked for AT&T for 32 years – back before the federal breakup of the company when we all just called it “the phone company” – and was required to complete gender sensitivity training in the early 1970s that he admits changed his perspective on women’s potential in the workplace. As a man with two daughters, he still expresses gratitude to these training sessions for deepening his understanding of women’s challenges in the workplace. If something like this or another kind of lived experience has changed your perspective, don’t be afraid to share it or that people will judge you for previously held beliefs. I don’t think, Geez, my dad used to be a male chauvinist, when I think of his epiphanies about women. I think proudly, My dad had the depth and humility to change his mind about long-held, deeply ingrained beliefs. That’s more than I can say for many men who are much younger than him. 3. Highlight Your Collaborative Skills Team effort is key to promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Emphasize your ability to work collaboratively with individuals from different backgrounds and your commitment to creating an inclusive work environment. Prepare your answers carefully with these answers and run them by individuals who share the identity of those included in your examples to make sure they ring true and are not likely to cause offense or awkwardness among the listeners. If you or someone else made adjustments to communication or decision-making dynamics to improve feelings of inclusivity, be sure to mention that. Laura Liswood’s book The Loudest Duck offers strategies and ideas to leaders for promoting cultural and social differences so that an entire organization can thrive and individuals can feel that they belong and are truly seen and respected. Try to remember to make the answers less about you and more about other people and their experiences and contributions. If you hear yourself during prep saying “I” too much, that may be a sign that you are focusing too much on what you’ve done and less on the collaboration aspect of diversity. If you highlight the benefits of diversity – improved performance and employee engagement, for instance – your answers will sound less self-serving and inject your answers with more gravitas and sincerity. 4. Be Prepared to Discuss Any Challenges Be prepared to discuss any challenges you have faced in promoting diversity and inclusion and how you overcame them. This will show that you are proactive and willing to address any obstacles that may arise. For instance, a George Washington University study revealed that men are 33 percent more likely to interrupt when speaking with women than they do with men. (I doubt that any woman reading this is surprised.) If you were part of a team composed mostly of men, and the male team members made a point to actively acknowledge and correct this tendency, that would count as a great example. Before a man told this story, however, I would recommend that he run it by a woman or two to ensure that nothing in the telling of the story is offensive or tone deaf. 5. Show Your Passion and Share What You’ve Learned Your interviewers want to see that you are genuinely passionate about DE&I and that it is not just a buzzword for you. Share personal experiences and how they have shaped your views on these subjects. Be willing to do your homework and read the books that are addressing the true nuances and challenges to DE&I. Mary Frances-Winter’s We Can’t Talk About That at Work and Pamela Fuller’s Unconscious Bias are just two examples of books with discussions about the meaty considerations about preconceived notions and implicit bias that plague all of us in our attempts to connect with individuals with experiences and perspectives that differ from our own. Reading will help but only get you so far. Also be available for frank conversations with friends and colleagues who can enlighten your journey but do so with the baseline level of humility and open-mindedness needed to truly learn and grow. They may share feedback that will make you uncomfortable, but these growing pains will all be worth it as you continue to develop your understanding of cultural and social perspectives that widen your horizons and enlarge your worldview.
6. Prepare yourself for several variations of DE&I interview questions
You want to be able to deliver your answers with confidence and clarity without stumbling for the words or appearing to wing it. In order to do this, you will want to prepare for questions besides the standard, “Why does diversity, equity, and inclusion mean to you?” or “Tell us about a time that you advocated for diversity, equity, and inclusion in a work setting?” You might also be asked, “How would you handle a situation in which you witnessed behavior that was racially or culturally insensitive, sexist, ageist, or homophobic?” or “How would you advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion among colleagues?” If you are interviewing for a leadership role, you may (I hope) be asked, “How do you make your direct reports feel a sense of inclusion and belong?” or “What ideas can you share for removing bias when faced with decisions to hire and promote the people on your team?”
If, by the way, you are asked situational questions like, "How would you respond if...." it is perfectly acceptable to ask for clarifying questions about context. These are delicate questions and should be asked with a high degree of responsibility and thoughtfulness. Most diversity experts advise that individuals who witness racist and prejudiced behavior try to prioritize the feelings of safety for the individual being attacked or slighted. Speaking up in the moment to defend the person is the best answer, in my opinion, but often these incidents are subtle comments or microaggressions, sometimes disguised as jokes or teasing. Letting people who fall prey know that you see these acts and sometimes asking if they would like you to help them report it (or say something next time it happens) might be the best course in certain situations if the targeted person is afraid of blowback from an awkward exchange between a coworker and their boss.
When readying yourself for job interview questions about diversity and inclusion, if you are authentic and duly prepared to provide specific examples of your experiences and epiphanies, you should be able to meet the moment. By demonstrating your passion and commitment to promoting DE&I in the workplace, you'll set yourself apart as a strong candidate and grow as a team member in a (hopefully) increasingly diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace.