Beyond Fair Housing Compliance: From Nondiscrimination to Diversity & Inclusion

Firms that train staff to embrace diversity are more likely to be in tune with the principles of fair housing law.



“[XYZ Company] recognizes the principles of fair housing and diversity as core values.”

How many times have you seen phrases like that in a real estate company’s mission statement? It’s as if “fair housing” and “diversity” are mere synonyms of each other.

Firms that train staff to embrace diversity are more likely to be in tune with the principles of fair housing law.



“[XYZ Company] recognizes the principles of fair housing and diversity as core values.”

How many times have you seen phrases like that in a real estate company’s mission statement? It’s as if “fair housing” and “diversity” are mere synonyms of each other.

Nothing could be further from the truth. While both serve the objective of ensuring equality of housing, there are fundamental differences between complying with fair housing laws and working toward diversity and inclusion. Unlike the former, the latter is not a legal obligation. However, striving toward diversity is a proactive approach to ensure compliance with fair housing and other nondiscrimination laws, as well as to lift company performance, productivity, and profitability.

Accordingly, this month’s lesson is dedicated to diversity and inclusion and its role in fair housing compliance. We’ll explain the differences between diversity and nondiscrimination, the relationship between the two concepts, and how achieving diversity in the workplace can minimize risks of discrimination against rental prospects and tenants. We’ll also outline a strategy for creating a workplace diversity policy (and give you a Model Policy that you can adapt) and for training your employees on the principles of diversity. At the end of the lesson, there’s a quiz you can take to apply the principles.

The Law of Nondiscrimination

Fact 1: People are different.

Fact 2: The things that make people different may cause them to experience unfavorable treatment and unfair outcomes.

These two basic facts are the conceptual basis for both the fair housing laws and principles of diversity. But while proceeding from a common starting point, fair housing and diversity take different approaches.

Fair housing laws don’t address the roots of personal differences, or the way people feel about them. All they require is that landlords and housing providers not allow these personal differences to affect their housing decisions. By mandating toleration of personal differences, the fair housing laws seek to ensure that everybody has the same opportunity to obtain and enjoy housing without regard to their race, religion, and other personal characteristics.  

In addition, fair housing protection against discrimination extends only to groups the law lists as being protected. Thus, the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) applies to seven so-called “protected classes”: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status. Many states and municipalities have adopted their own nondiscrimination laws that include other protected classes, such as sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, source of income, marital status, etc.

The ban on discrimination encompasses four basic kinds of conduct:

1. Differential Treatment: The first and most common form of discrimination is treating individuals unfavorably on the basis of their personal characteristics. Examples include refusing to lease or charging higher rent to persons of particular races or religions.  

2. Harassment: Harassing a person on the basis of a protected characteristic is another common form of discrimination. Harassment means not innocent teasing but severe, inappropriate, and frequent conduct that creates a hostile housing environment, such as racial slurs, ridicule, bullying, and abuse, as well as abuse of power to command sexual favors.  

3. Failure to Make Reasonable Accommodations: Rental applicants and tenants with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations—that is, changes, exceptions or adjustments to a rule, policy, practice, or service that may be necessary for them to have an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. Examples include exemptions from no-pets policies for disabled tenants who need an assistance animal to help with their disability-related needs.

4. Retaliation: It’s illegal to evict, threaten, coerce, intimidate, or interfere with a tenant or rental applicant in retaliation for their having exercised any right the law protects.

The Principles of Diversity & Inclusion

Diversity isn’t a law but a principle, one that not only tolerates but embraces personal differences. While fair housing laws focus on behavior—avoiding discriminatory conduct—diversity is about attitudes toward personal differences. In the diversity ethos, complying with anti-discrimination laws isn’t the ultimate goal but only the first step in a continuum whose far end is full inclusion where all people feel free to be themselves and everybody’s opinions, abilities, and contributions are valued.    

The continuum of diversity goes from:

  • Complying with nondiscrimination laws to
  • Tolerating personal differences to
  • Accepting personal differences to
  • Embracing personal differences to
  • Full inclusion.

Diversity encompasses not only protected classes covered by nondiscrimination laws but also differences in values, culture, experience, education, communications style, personal interests, and everything else that colors how a person perceives the world, behaves, communicates, and reacts to events.

Advantages of Striving Toward Diversity & Inclusion. To achieve meaningful diversity, companies must go beyond what the law requires and take proactive measures to change their organization’s culture and employees’ attitudes. Why would any company go to such trouble, especially when it’s not legally required to do so?

The answer is that in a diverse housing market and broader business world building a company whose client base and workforce reflects those personal differences is a source of enormous strength. Numerous studies document that striving for diversity gives companies a strategic edge in:

  • Recruiting and retaining top people;
  • Maximizing the productivity of their current staff;
  • Delivering superior service to customers;
  • Serving their community; and
  • Building and maintaining a positive reputation. 

In the compliance context, companies that pursue and teach their personnel to embrace diversity are more likely to be in tune with the principles of fair housing law. Result: They’re better positioned to spot and avoid miscommunications and mistakes that can expose a company to fair housing liability.

Diversity must be developed from the inside-out, and not the other way around. In other words, the starting point is to build a diverse organization; once the diversity and inclusion principles take root within the workplace, you can apply them to your leasing policies and practices to achieve diverse communities. There are two key steps to take to build a diverse workplace.


An Illustration of the Importance of Diversity Skills

Diversity skills—or lack thereof—may also lead to costly mistakes, particularly when dealing with entities and individuals from foreign countries.

Example: ABC Assocs., a company that leases apartments to foreign executives who are temporarily relocating to the U.S., is on the verge of concluding a profitable deal with XYZ Ltd., a Japanese firm preparing to open a new subsidiary in Seattle. At the end of the meeting, Sue, the ABC negotiator, summarizes what she believes to be the agreed-to resolution of each open item with Yoshi, her XYZ counterpart. After each point, Yoshi nods his head up and down and utters “hai,” the Japanese word for “yes.”

Sue takes this to mean that Yoshi agrees with each point, not recognizing that in Japanese culture, it’s considered very unnatural for a person to talk without getting any response from listeners and that nodding and saying “hai” is a common way to convey the message “I’m listening.”

Sue’s failure to appreciate these inter-cultural differences in conversation styles will prove costly. After the meeting, she calls her bosses and tells them the deal is done. The next morning, ABC issues a press release. XYZ is livid that a prospective business partner would announce a deal before an agreement is signed. Result: ABC not only loses the XYZ deal but gains a reputation for untrustworthiness that prevents it from finding another client in Japan.


Phase 1: Create a Workplace Diversity Policy

The first thing you need is a workplace diversity and inclusion policy like our Model Policy, which includes the six essential elements that any workforce diversity policy should incorporate:   

1. Statement of Policy. Start by stating your organization’s commitment to workplace diversity and inclusion. Explain what that commitment means and how those objectives go beyond merely obeying fair housing and nondiscrimination laws [Policy, Sec. 1].

2. Statement of Purpose. Explain the purpose of the policy, namely, to outline a general strategy for translating the principles of diversity and inclusion goals into concrete action and ensuring that they infuse all aspects of your organization’s operations, including but not limited to its housing policies and practices [Policy, Sec. 2].

3. Senior Management Commitment to Diversity. Express senior management’s commitment to play a leading role in achieving the organization’s diversity and inclusion goals and list the actions it has or will take to further that commitment, which may include:

  • Setting and regularly monitoring progress toward achieving measurable diversity objectives for all aspects of the employment cycle, including recruiting, hiring, retention, and advancement;
  •  Establishing a diversity committee or group comprised of management/executive-level employees to oversee diversity efforts; and
  • Providing the budget, staffing, and other resources necessary to meet diversity and inclusion goals [Policy, Sec. 3].

4. Diversity in Recruitment. Describe the efforts your organization will make to achieve diversity in recruiting. Areas to address:

  • Job ads, company career websites, and other promotional materials [Policy, Sec. 4.1];
  • Job interviews [Policy, Sec. 4.2]; and
  • Outreach and collaboration, such as working with local schools and community organizations to bolster efforts to recruit members of disadvantaged or historically excluded groups [Policy, Sec. 4.3].

5. Diversity in Retention. Outline the measures you’ll take or have taken to ensure fair, equitable, and unbiased treatment of all current employees. Possible steps to consider:  

  • Regular performance monitoring on the basis of objective and clearly communicated performance-based criteria [Policy, Sec. 5.1];
  •  Mentoring [Policy, Sec. 5.2];
  • Surveying employees on effectiveness of organizational diversity efforts [Policy, Sec. 5.3] and
  • Making reasonable accommodations to the point of undue hardship, as required by federal and state equal employment opportunity and nondiscrimination laws [Policy, Sec. 5.4].

6. Diversity in Promotion & Advancement. Many of the measures designed to promote diversity in retention will apply equally to decisions about advancement and promotion, such as performance review, mentoring, and surveying [Policy, Sec. 6].


The 3 Ways Diversity Personally Benefits Employees

To gain buy-in, point out to employees the three personal benefits they get from committing to diversity:   

1. Respectful Work Environment: Being harassed, bullied, or abused on the job makes going to work a nightmare. But these things don’t happen in workplaces where diversity is embraced. In diverse workplaces, all individuals are treated with empathy, professionalism, courtesy, and respect. Accordingly, studies show that employees of companies that promote diversity have higher than normal job satisfaction and retention rates. 

2. Marketable Personal Skills: In developing a diversity mind-set, employees will develop personal skills that make them better at their job and more attractive to other employers, including skills in:

  • Communication
  • Problem solving
  • Self-management
  • Planning
  • Teamwork 

3. Company Success: Diversity in the workplace improves a company’s business performance. This isn’t just a theory. There are numerous studies demonstrating that diversity gives companies an edge in sales, customer satisfaction, recruitment and retention, productivity, and profitability. 

Phase 2: Help Your Employees Develop Diversity Skills

Although having a written policy is crucial, true diversity in the workplace can’t be legislated. It’s a mentality that all individuals must not only understand but also try to cultivate. Simply having an open mind and being willing to follow company policy isn’t enough. What you need from your employees is a personal commitment to diversity.

Diversity is a mindset that requires individuals to look deep inside themselves and examine the way they look at the world, process information, make decisions and behave. That’s not something you can do in a single training course. But what a training course can do is mark out a path of the six things employees can do to work toward diversity.

1. Recognize that They Have Biases. Personal bias is the enemy of diversity because it leads to stereotyping—that is, forming distorted judgments about individuals on the basis of assumptions about the group they belong to. Examples:

  • “Asians are good at math”;
  • “Women are more emotional than men”;
  • “Mexicans are lazy”;
  • “Computer experts are geeks”; and
  • “Men who wear pink are gay.”

It’s important to convey that having personal biases doesn’t make somebody a “bad person.” We all have biases. They’re part of our personality and individuality. But while personal biases aren’t necessarily “bad,” they can lead to “bad” consequences by promoting stereotyping and closing our minds to the people who are different from us. And they have the exact same effect on the others that employees work with. To operate at peak efficiency in a diverse work environment, employees must learn to recognize and filter out their own personal biases.

2. Identify Their Own Biases. To overcome hidden biases, you first need to identify them. Exercise: Ask employees to look at themselves in the mirror and:

  • Describe themselves in terms of protected classes, e.g., race, sex, religion, etc.;
  • Write down all of the characteristics they can think of to describe each one of those protected classes; and
  • Compare themselves to those characteristics.

3. Challenge Their Biases. Once we learn to recognize them, we can actively challenge our biases and treat people as individuals. This requires us to look not just at people’s traits but the way they behave. The danger of stereotyping people from their behavior is especially great when dealing with people from other cultures. Exercise: Ask employees to write down the conclusions they’d draw from a person who engages in the following behaviors:

  • Shakes hand limply;
  • Constantly avoids eye contact;
  • Burps loudly after a meal; and
  • Is constantly late for appointments.

4. Develop Intercultural Awareness. In the U.S., direct eye contact is a sign of confidence and respect. But in China, respect is shown via lack of eye contact. In Africa, it’s customary for people to look up when they speak and look down when they listen. These are the kinds of things you need to know when dealing with people from different cultures. Unfortunately, this knowledge, referred to as intercultural awareness, isn’t something we’re born with; it must be learned. Although you can do it by reading books, taking seminars, and even watching movies, the best way to develop intercultural awareness is by directly interacting with people from other countries and cultures such as by:

  • Visiting other countries;
  • Socializing and talking to people from other cultures;
  • Going to cultural events or festivals; and
  • When in doubt, directly asking the person.

5. Develop Active Listening Skills. The next stage in the diversity skills-building process is to develop communication skills, starting with the ears. The skill of learning how to hear what people are really saying without imposing prejudgments and jumping to respond before they’re done is called active listening, and it involves:

  • Paying very close attention to the speaker;
  • Letting the person talk without interruption;
  • Concentrating and suspending judgment (this is where employees need to use the four skills discussed above);
  • Paraphrasing what the person said to confirm they understood it correctly; and
  • Asking questions to clear up any remaining doubts.

Exercise: The best way to cultivate active listening skills is to practice. One good exercise is to sit down with a friend or family member and let the person talk. After they finish, explain what you thought you heard them say. Get feedback. Try it again but this time turn on loud music or create some other distraction that forces you to focus on what the speaker is saying.

6. Use Inclusive Language. The other element of effective communication in a diverse workplace is speaking in a way that gives people who are different from you the best chance to comprehend what you’re saying. The key is to use what’s called inclusive language. Explanation: Some of the words and phrases we use every day and think nothing of might actually be offensive to some people. Examples:

  • Gender-specific language like “chairman” and even “he;”
  • Words to describe groups that you think are neutral but which are actually politically or socially charged like “orientals” or “crippled”; and
  • Derisive nicknames like calling a woman “honey.”

Employees also need to beware of words and phrases that may sound routine, but which baffle a listener with a different background, nationality, or life experience. Example:

  • Sports terms like “grand slam” (the listener may not know anything about baseball);
  • Idioms like “cross the t’s and dot the i’s” that somebody who speaks English as a second language may not have heard before; and
  • Slang terms like “selfie” or “dis.”

Employees should learn to avoid these words and phrases and use inclusive language instead.

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February 2024 Coach's Quiz