When people talk about diversity, they often use words like tolerance and inclusion as a way of dealing with discrimination. But bias is embedded in the very concepts of tolerance and inclusion.Us

Tolerance means to put up with something you don’t like, or to endure some hardship. In the context of discrimination, the Oxford English Dictionary defines tolerance as: 

“the disposition to be patient with or indulgent to the opinions or practices of others; freedom from bigotry or undue severity in judging the conduct of others; forbearance”

Even that more neutral definition implies some sort of indulgence by some authority, some discretionary act by someone who doesn’t have to put up with something if she doesn’t want to.

Inclusion is the same. One group has the discretion of including another, or not.

Humans are not discretionary. If you exist, you qualify to be here. Period.

In the employment context, civil rights include the right to be free from discrimination and to have equal opportunity at work regardless of the color of your skin, where you came from, who you worship, whether you are married or have children, and whether you have a disability or medical condition.  If you are capable of doing the job, you are entitled to be considered based on your skills, experience, and potential. Once you have the job, you are legally entitled to be free from harassment based on any protected factor.

Seems straight-forward, but these concepts are almost impossible to apply. It’s because humans are messy. We like what is familiar. We’re scared of what’s not.

So just about everybody gets diversity wrong at some point, usually most of the time.


  • Because hiring and performance management necessarily involve making decisions to accept some people and reject others.
  • Because people are misinformed about how to treat each other, often by lawyers who are trying to manage risk instead of humans.
  • Because we are naturally both curious about and scared of people who look, talk, and act differently than we do. Usually the fear wins.

What to Do?

Get Curious Instead of Comfortable 

You don’t know what it’s like to be anybody but you. While you are the foremost, worldwide expert on you, you don’t know much about anybody else. So put down all of the assumptions, most of your opinions, and imagine what it might be like to be a different race or gender, to speak a different language, to have grown up some place else, to have different spiritual traditions or cultural rituals. You get yours. We get ours. Of course you think yours is better, it’s yours. But so does everybody else. And we are all right.

Have Compassion Instead of Consternation 

Compassion means you care, you are as open as possible, and you wait to judge until you have explored and considered the situation. Compassion does not mean you have to accept, or even like, what’s going on. But you do have to try to see it clearly from all the sides, and to act with kindness, even when you have to fire someone, or tell them they didn’t get the job. You have to get over yourself, and your own discomfort, to have compassion.

Have Courage Instead of Cowardice

Most discrimination and bias is based on fear. It’s a huge serving of “us v. them,” with a side of “mine’s bigger, better, and blessed.”  We all want to feel safe and loved and think everything’s alright. But making your world tiny enough to believe you know what is best for other people, to pretend you are in charge, is exhausting and doesn’t work.

Be brave enough to be scared and not know.

And next time someone talks about tolerance or inclusion, ask yourself whether you really belong and why you believe it.

Related Posts:

Diversity: Tampering with Certainty

Diversity: Voices of Discrimination

Diversity: Get Off My Lawn

Diversity: Why Laws Don’t Fix Discrimination