The Illusion of Inclusion

By Ray English and Kourtney James
March 2023 (from PDQ)


  • 7 min read
  • Diversity and inclusion are often used interchangeably when they are not the same.
  • How to identify DEI traps, including high turnover and lack of diverse leadership.
  • Tips for embracing uniqueness, recognizing implicit bias, listening, and building trust.


The words “diversity” and “inclusion” are often used in the same sentence as if they are one and the same. In fact, they are two distinct aspects of the workplace environment. Human Facets Founder and CEO Dr. Helen Turnbull, an international thought leader on unconscious bias, global inclusion, and diversity, provides an often-cited cake analogy to distinguish the two terms. She describes “diversity” as being the mix of ingredients needed to make a cake — e.g., eggs, sugar, flour — and “inclusion” as being the effort that it takes to make the mix work, e.g., the energy needed to mix all ingredients together, the heat to make it rise, etc. (see Resources: Inclusion). Consequently, having a diverse workforce does not guarantee inclusion, nor achieving the benefits of it.

The “illusion of inclusion” is a very common diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) trap in the legal community. It occurs when an organization embraces the idea of creating an inclusive environment but does not make the systemic changes or the effort to ensure that inclusion really happens. These organizations may only be checking off boxes, and their people know it. As Shakespeare put it, the story of our inclusion effort is simply “a tale … full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (See Resources: Shakespeare.)

While many legal organizations have certainly elevated their DEIB awareness, they continue to unknowingly create the illusion that they are solving for inclusion with their diversity and equity efforts. Some examples of this include attending diversity recruiting fairs to hire the best diverse talent on the market, creating internal affinity groups to advertise to internal and external clients of their inclusive environment, and making sure their marketing campaigns align with the latest LGBTQ+ inclusiveness efforts and denounce racial discrimination. While these efforts may result in a diverse environment, they rarely lead to an inclusive one. (See Resources: Dangers.)


How Can You Identify Inclusion?

If organizations cannot measure inclusiveness by their diversity and equity efforts, then how do they know if they truly have an inclusive environment or just an “illusion” of inclusiveness? Here are three telltale signs:


High Turnover

High turnover can be a key indicator that your work environment is not nearly as inclusive as you may think. Are your entry-level diversity numbers impressive, but two to three years into practice, those numbers start to dwindle significantly? You may have an inclusiveness problem. When employees do not feel seen, heard, and appreciated for who they are and what they bring to the organization, they will eventually leave. While diversity is about letting people in, inclusion is about letting people be.


Lack of Diverse Leadership

If your leadership does not reflect the diverse and inclusive environment you promote, your organization may have an inclusiveness problem. Diverse employees need to be exceling and moving up the ranks of leadership. If they are not, this may be a signal that your work environment is more assimilationist than individualistic. Assimilationist environments force employees to conform to your organization’s brand identity irrespective of what their individual identity may offer the organization. This type of work environment is not inclusive and often excludes diverse employees from leadership roles.


              Quantity vs. Quality

Your organization may have an inclusiveness issue if they focus on quantity (diverse statistics and metrics) vs. quality (valuing relationships of diverse employees). There is no point in having great diversity numbers if employees do not feel valued or appreciated. Organizations should continually survey their employee base about their feelings of belonging to make sure the quality of their relationships with diverse employees does not succumb to the chase for greater diversity numbers.


How Can You Combat the Inclusion Illusion?

It is important to note that the inclusion illusion is not necessarily discriminatory. It occurs at all levels of leadership within an organization. The biggest challenge with inclusion is that it is deeply personal. Leaders must really dig into their approaches and assumptions. In addition, they must have organizational support to talk about the issues surrounding inclusion, because they exist, whether they are talked about or not. However, without a strategy, change is merely substitution instead of evolution, and evolution — the kind of transformation that truly moves individuals and organizations forward — is impossible until leaders evolve to meet new realities of the workforce.

There are many resources outlining ways to create an inclusive workplace. (See Resources: Strategies.) Below are a few suggestions.


Embrace Uniqueness

First, it is important to embrace, celebrate, and respect the uniqueness that each employee brings into their workplace. There are many ways to accomplish this. Encourage conversations and create opportunities for people to share and celebrate their backgrounds. Acknowledge cultural and heritage months, as well as holidays. This enables people to learn about and appreciate the differences of others. These efforts also help employees feel recognized and valued.


Recognize Implicit Bias

Second, recognize that implicit biases are real. It is simply human to unconsciously harbor unsupported favorable or unfavorable judgments about a person, or groups of people. When making assignments or promotion decisions, ensure the process is fair. You can do this by being transparent about the assignment and promotion process. Take steps within your organization to offset the potential of implicit bias when making important decisions.


Strive for Inclusive Leadership

Third, strive to be an inclusive leader. Inclusive leaders are keenly aware of and understand the strengths of their team. This knowledge allows leaders to advocate effectively and create an environment where individuals feel empowered to be their authentic selves. Advocate for cultural sensitivity and conflict resolution training, encouraging your team to develop the skills necessary to respectfully interact with one another in the workplace.


Hold Discussions

Fourth, hold inclusive meetings and discussions. Define inclusivity and what it means to your organization. Moreover, describe what it looks like. Provide equal time for everyone to share, watch out for those who will try to dominate the meeting, and limit interruptions. Give credit when it is due by acknowledging good points and great ideas.


Build Trust and Connections

Fifth, work to build trust and connections. An inclusive environment is one where individuals feel safe offering their input and ideas. Bonding exercises can be useful in building bonds and deeper relationships. For example, colleagues can take turns complimenting each other using one word to complete the sentence, “The greatness I see in you is … boldness.” These types of exercises will help build positive and trusting relationships within your organization.


Listen to Your Team

Finally, listen to your employees. Take the time to learn more about them. Get a better understanding of their work experience. Conduct surveys and focus groups to drill down on engagement and inclusion issues. Listening to your employees will provide a wealth of opportunities to create an inclusive environment.


The inclusion illusion is a real. Organizations have responded to the demand to create more inclusive environments by focusing primarily on diversity. They have the mistaken belief that if my workforce is diverse, inclusion will follow. In fact, studies have shown that if you increase diversity without creating an inclusive environment, the situation gets worse. (See Resources: Inclusive Environment.) Inclusion is a distinct part of the working environment, and it is impossible to create a truly inclusive environment without addressing inclusion directly. Otherwise, you end up with the illusion of inclusion.



Inclusion: Turnbull, Helen, “The Illusion of Inclusion – Part I,” Profiles in Diversity Journal, Feb. 10, 2014.

Shakespeare: Shakespeare, William. Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5, lines 16–27.

Dangers: Brownlee, Dana, “The Dangers of Mistaking Diversity for Inclusion in the Workplace,” Forbes, Sept. 15, 2019.

Strategies: Bloomfield, Madison, “Strategies for Creating an Inclusive Workplace Environment,” Proviso Partners blog, 2022.

Inclusive Environment: See Deloitte, Human Capital Trends, 2012, and O’Reilly et al, “The Promise and Problems of Organizational Culture: CEO Personality, Culture, and Firm Performance,” 2014.


This article was submitted on behalf of the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Section.


Ray English is Senior Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Snell & Wilmer.

 Kourtney James is Diversity Recruiting Manager at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP.

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