How DEI Improves Psychological Safety Culture
Implementing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace
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Today, diversity, equity, and inclusion are part of the fabric of the work environment. Developing a proactive organization that allows employees with different backgrounds, mindsets, and ways of thinking to work together and perform to their highest potential is the future of organizational leadership and management. DEI leads to improvements in productivity, performance, profitability, and prosperity while respecting human rights and the dignity of the workforce. In addition, DEI improves morale, reduces health and safety risk, limits liability, and promotes a greater sense of self-worth and belonging as well as a more powerful, integrated team.
The definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion have evolved over time. The following definitions, from a blog post by Karen Armstrong for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, summarize how these terms are currently understood:
Diversity, Armstrong writes, “includes but is not limited to race, color, ethnicity, nationality, religion, socioeconomic status, veteran status, education, marital status, language, age, gender, gender expression and identity, sexual orientation, mental or physical ability, genetic information, and learning styles.”

Equity, according to Armstrong, is “the guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all while striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups.” She adds that “the principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically under-served and under-represented populations and that fairness regarding these unbalanced working conditions” is necessary. Tackling equity issues requires a clear understanding of the root causes of those disparities within our society and their effects on policy and the economy.
Inclusion “bring[s] . . . traditionally excluded individuals and/or groups into processes, activities, and decision/policy making in a way that shares power and ensures equal access to opportunities and resources” regardless of ability, Armstrong writes. Inclusion is intended to help traditionally marginalized workers feel welcomed within the organization. Inclusive outcomes result when the leadership and workforce are truly inviting to all, and individuals of all backgrounds are able to participate fully in the decision-making processes and development opportunities within an organization or group.
The culture of the organization affects workers as much as the job tasks they perform.
Why is DEI important to occupational and environmental health and safety professionals? Because the culture of the organization affects workers as much as the job tasks they perform. Workers have different backgrounds, abilities, education, and training. As OEHS professionals, we must recognize these differences but understand the endgame is to improve lives and livelihoods.
Associated with DEI is the concept of “psychological safety culture.” As defined in a 1990 study published in the Academy of Management Journal, a psychological safety culture allows individuals to be and work without fear of negative consequences to their self-image, status, or career. In such a culture, people feel included, safe to learn, safe to contribute, and safe to challenge the status quo—all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished. Cultivating a psychological safety culture is a key aspect of managing workplace hazards and risk.
Executive teams should be committed to psychological safety and a corporate safety culture that utilizes DEI to support professional development so that middle managers, team leads, and staff are consistently developing their skills. While many organizations focus on awareness training as a tool to counter unconscious biases, research indicates that awareness has a limited lasting impact—between several hours to several days, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology-General in 2016. Therefore, the principles of DEI should be reinforced regularly during business meetings and other interactions.
DEVELOPING A DEI INITIATIVE A DEI initiative is an ongoing process that responds to changing needs in the workplace. Procedures should be in place for periodic reviews of the initiative’s goals. Many times, an employer may need to collect additional data to refocus its DEI program, especially during turbulent periods following business expansion, organizational changes, or relocations.
DEI programs lift morale and provide a multitude of additional benefits that can be seen at every level of the business. Reinforcing strong DEI programs helps every employee go to work every day without the fear that they cannot be their true selves.
For companies that have never attempted a DEI initiative, developing one may be especially challenging. SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, offers the following recommendations for developing a DEI initiative:
Define DEI and understand how it is applicable internally. Definitions of DEI are easy to find, but applying them to a specific company can be complicated.
Clarify the importance of developing a DEI initiative. Workers and others in the company may ask, why care about diversity? It is important to emphasize that DEI is a matter of doing the right thing and makes a workplace stronger. From a human resources standpoint, DEI must ensure compliance with equal opportunity laws and avoid discrimination claims.
Compile data. Employers need to know the demographics of the workplace, compare them to the labor market, and determine whether inequities or disparities exist. According to SHRM, relevant demographic factors may include age, disability, ethnicity or national origin, family status, gender, gender identity or expression, generation, language, life experiences, organization function and level, personality type, physical characteristics, race, religion, belief and spirituality, sexual orientation, thinking or learning styles, and veteran status. Some employers may have this data already; others may need to obtain it through voluntary surveys of their workforce.
Establish a plan. Organizations should develop an action plan to implement the DEI initiative and set realistic goals and expectations. Messages about the initiative should be designed to inform, educate, engage, or empower the workforce and should consider the employees’ demographics (for example, messages should be communicated in employees’ native language). Communications should incorporate executive presentations as well as social media, newsletters, emails, and other sources.
Evaluate performance. The results of the DEI initiative should be reported to the leadership and workforce. Consider providing the following measurements: increased representation of identified groups, improved employee survey scores, improved employee retention, and public recognition (such as employer awards or social media accolades). The results of the DEI initiatives should demonstrate the return on investment and value added to the organization’s brand, image, and reputation.
Communicate. Communication is essential to ensure that workers understand DEI initiatives and stakeholders in management support them. Communication tools can include infographics, memos to staff, and videos posted to the company’s website for potential stakeholders and shareholders. Continuous communication about DEI initiatives improves understanding and increases employee engagement.
Organizations should be prepared to respect fair and open communication and accept varying viewpoints.
DEI TRENDS Everfi, a provider of digital learning platforms and services, has identified several DEI trends that are likely to influence organizations for the foreseeable future:
1. Continued focus on the multi-generational workforce. Today’s workforce includes members of the silent generation, baby boomers, Generation X, millennials, and Generation Z (those born since 1997). Each generation has different perspectives regarding DEI issues.
For example, Americans under the age of 44 are more likely to belong to minority groups. As characterized by Bonusly, a company that creates tools to improve employee retention and productivity, these young, diverse Americans “are seeking . . . workplaces that reflect the country’s demographics and in which they feel welcome and respected.” Each generation has distinct expectations around topics such as reskilling/upskilling in the age of automation, holistic employee wellness programs (with emphasis on mental wellness), the social impact and purpose of work, flexible work arrangements, social media use within and outside the workplace, what it means to “bring someone’s full self to work,” and myriad other issues that will affect inclusion and diversity training.
2. Attention to the impact of bias. Data from various sources indicate that bias—whether explicit or implicit—remains a problem in many workplaces. Business leaders can expect more information on how personal biases influence workplace decisions and the ways decision-makers can minimize the impact of unconscious bias toward gender, racial, religious, social, cultural, and other differences.
An unpublished survey by Glassdoor reveals that workforce diversity is important to 72 percent of women (versus 62 percent of men), 89 percent of African Americans, 80 percent of Asians, and 70 percent of Latinos. But a significant number of workplaces may not be positioned to appeal to these workers. According to a recent Gallup poll, only a slight majority (55 percent) of American workers indicated that their workplaces have DEI policies, while 45 percent said they experienced discrimination or harassment within the past year.
Similarly, according to Culture Amp, a company that provides software and services related to employee engagement, retention, and performance, most women in the workforce felt excluded from decision-making, did not feel comfortable expressing their opinions, and did not feel they can advance their careers within their organizations. In addition, only 40 percent of women (versus 70 percent of men) felt satisfied with their organization’s decision-making process. These beliefs can lead to psychosocial disorders like anxiety, depression, and stress (mental and physical) and contribute to job dissatisfaction and poor employee retention.
Culture Amp also found a gender discrepancy regarding freedom of expression: only 67 percent of women, versus 80 percent of men, felt they could voice a dissenting opinion without fear of repercussion. Based on these data, Culture Amp concluded that only 60 percent of women felt that people from diverse backgrounds could succeed in their organization.
3. Support for gender identity, expression, and presentation. Awareness has increased in recent years of the challenges faced by employees who do not identify with their sex assigned at birth. DEI training on gender identity and expression is needed to protect the health and safety of these individuals from workplace violence, discrimination, ostracism, and harassment. Training is also needed to improve workers’ psychological safety to speak up about workplace health and safety issues, shortcomings, concerns about the actions or inactions of coworkers, and gaps in policy, programs, and procedures.
4. A shift in emphasis from diversity and inclusion to equity. Both diversity (increasing workplace representation of people from various backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences) and inclusion (making space and amplifying the voices of everyone in the workplace) will remain top priorities for organizations. Diversity in particular is associated with innovation and market growth, according to research discussed in the Harvard Business Review. But Everfi reports that equity is increasingly becoming part of organizations’ overall management strategy. Equity incorporates issues such as pay inequity, talent development, succession planning, and career growth. According to Everfi, the focus on equity will pressure businesses to be more transparent about compensation, board representation, harassment, and career advancement, among other practices. 5. Increasing diversity of political thought. This trend isn’t among the ones identified by Everfi, but we feel it deserves inclusion given the political polarization in the United States. Long considered taboo in the workplace, political opinions are now openly discussed, which can affect the social balance and psychological safety culture within an organization. In some instances, this trend has led to division between groups of workers. This cultural shift has created workplace dynamics that can be counterproductive and in tension with the inclusive concept of “bringing your full, authentic self to work.” Organizations should be prepared to respect fair and open communication and accept varying viewpoints.
PROTECTING PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY DEI has the potential to change the way business is done today and tomorrow. Organizational leadership must set clear boundaries to protect the psychological safety of the workforce. Leadership must be cognizant of changes in corporate policy, society, and the economy, to which workers may react. Employers who support DEI as it pertains to psychological safety and safety culture in the workplace will see a good return on investment with higher rates of productivity, better performance outcomes, and greater profitability and prosperity.

BERNARD L. FONTAINE, JR., CIH, CSP, FAIHA, is managing partner of The Windsor Consulting Group, Inc., in Monroe, N.J., and a member of the AIHA Board of Directors.
TIMOTHY PAZ, CIH, is a senior industrial hygienist at the Architect of the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
LUCINETTE ALVARADO, CIH, is corporate CIH/technical services manager for SKC, Inc., in Eighty Four, Pa., and a member of the AIHA Board of Directors.
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Academy of Management Journal: “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work” (December 1990).
Berrett-Koehler: The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation (2020).
Bonusly: “10 Diversity and Inclusion Statistics That Will Change How You Do Business.”
Culture Amp: “How to Improve the Gender Diversity of Work Teams.”
Everfi: “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Trends for 2021.”
Gallup: “Build a Culture Where Every Employee Can Use Their Voice.”
Harvard Business Review: “The Persistent Myth of Female Office Rivalries, The Harvard Business Review” (December 2019).
Harvard Business Review: “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation” (December 2013).
Journal of Experimental Psychology-General: “Reducing Implicit Racial Preferences: II. Intervention Effectiveness Across Time” (August 2016).
National Association of Colleges and Employers: “What Exactly Is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion?
SHRM: "How to Develop a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiative."