Millennials Have A Different Definition Of Diversity And Inclusion

Diversity and inclusion are more than just buzzwords or boxes to check. Millennials believe they are essential to business success.

Millennials Have A Different Definition Of Diversity And Inclusion
[Photo: Ammentorp Photography via Shutterstock]

When it comes to defining diversity and inclusion at work, the generation gap between boomers, gen-Xers, and millennials is more like a growing trench, according to a new study from Deloitte and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative (BJKLI).


The report shows that overall, millennials see the two concepts through a completely different lens. It analyzed the responses of 3,726 individuals from a variety of backgrounds, with representation across gender, race/ethnicity, generation, sexual orientation, national status, veteran status, disabilities, level within an organization, and tenure with an organization. They were asked 62 questions about diversity and inclusion that offered up a snapshot of shifting generational mindsets.

The Millennial Definition Of Diversity & Inclusion

Millennials view diversity as the blending of different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives within a team, which is known as cognitive diversity.

They also use the word to describe the combination of these unique traits to overcome challenges and achieve business goals. Millennials view cognitive diversity as a necessary element for innovation, and are 71% more likely to focus on teamwork.

Photo: Flickr user 55Laney69

For millennials, inclusion is the support for a collaborative environment that values open participation from individuals with different ideas and perspectives that has a positive impact on business. Leadership at such an organization is transparent, communicative, and engaging.

The Boomer And Gen-Xer Viewpoint

These generations view diversity as a representation of fairness and protection to all, regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.


Inclusion for boomers and gen-Xers is the business environment that integrates individuals of all of the above demographics into one workplace. It’s a moral and legal imperative, in other words: the right thing to do to achieve compliance and equality, regardless of whether it benefits the business.

Why is this important? Not only because in just 10 years, millennials will comprise nearly 75% of the workforce and don’t stay in one position for long.

The study authors write: “The disconnect between the traditional definitions of diversity and inclusion, and the millennial definitions, is already causing business hardship.” That hardship comes in the form of clashes with managers and upper-level executives who don’t allow millennials to express themselves freely.

“Millennials yearn for acceptance of their thoughts and opinions, but compared to older generations, they feel it’s unnecessary to downplay their differences in order to get ahead,” the survey authors write. “Millennials are refusing to check their identities at the doors of organizations today, and they strongly believe these characteristics bring value to the business outcomes and impact.”

As an example, the survey cites that 71% of millennials don’t always follow their organization’s social media policies.


But the rumblings of recourse extend beyond an unauthorized tweet or two. The study authors say that organizations that ignore the millennial viewpoint do so at their own peril. The impact of a lack of cognitive diversity and inclusion hits hard on engagement and empowerment, as well as the ability of employees to remain true to themselves.

So far, other studies show that the millennial ideals of diversity and inclusion aren’t fully realized in their workplaces. The Deloitte survey bore this out, revealing that while 86% of millennials feel that differences of opinion allow teams to excel, only 59% believe their leaders share this point of view.

The impact on employee engagement is significant:

  • Millennials are 33% more likely to disagree with the statement that their “work has an impact on the organization.” They are also 13% less likely to say they feel excited to go to work and that they are attached to their organization.
  • Eighty-three percent of millennials are actively engaged when they believe their organization fosters an inclusive culture, compared to only 60% of millennials who are actively engaged when their organization does not foster an inclusive culture.

This, in turn, can be a plus or minus on the company’s balance sheet. An often-cited Gallup study has pegged the cost of disengaged employees at up to $350 billion per year in lost productivity.

“In order to be fully engaged, millennials require supportive leadership and a supportive culture. For millennials, leaders and culture are supportive when they promote a collaborative environment in which employees can see the impact of their work, understand the value they bring to the organization, and are recognized for their efforts. Leaders believe in openness and transparency and demonstrate that a cognitively diverse team is better for business.”

Photo: Flickr user Alex

The survey data suggest that a company with an inclusive culture has a positive effect on innovation, which also affects the bottom line. The report references research by IBM and Morgan Stanley that demonstrates companies with high levels of innovation achieve the fastest growth of profits, while radical innovation trumps incremental change by generating 10 times more shareholder value.

The report’s authors acknowledge it’s taken decades of research and programming to assimilate diverse groups of individuals in the workplace. “The baby boomers and generation-Xers should be given credit for getting us from Point A to Point B in the inclusion discussion. Millennials, however, are ready for Point C,” they write.

To get there, the authors advise leaders to remember that what brought diversity into their company isn’t the same as what it will take to support that talent.

“If you want to build a truly inclusive culture–one that leverages every individual’s passion, commitment, and innovation, and elevates employee engagement, empowerment, and authenticity–you should be willing to break down the narrow walls that surround diversity and inclusion, and limit their reach. If you don’t know where to start, ask your millennials. Every one of them wants to be heard.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.