The results of the survey indicate that "a lot of companies have hopped on the merry-go-round" of racial and gender equality "but not all the seats are filled," says Amanda Fernandez, the firm's director of consulting services.

"We've gone from diversity basically being seen as a compliance mechanism to companies really trying to embed diversity in the way they do business and creating a culture where people of any background can succeed," Fernandez said. "However, that does not take away from the fact that it's not the case for all companies. There's still work to be done."

That assertion is borne out in the results of the survey, which was based on a national poll of 1,878 U.S. workers. While 20 percent of all workers surveyed said they've observed racial discrimination in the workplace -- defined in the survey as a worker being denied a job, increased pay or a promotion because of his or her ethnicity -- 31 percent of African-American workers said discrimination exists in the workplace.

Twenty-three percent of all poll respondents said they've observed some form of gender discrimination in the workplace. That number was slightly higher among women respondents (27 percent) and 11 percent higher among African-American respondents (34 percent).

More than 60 percent of all respondents said they believe their employer actively promotes diversity, but there was a sharp contrast between the entire group and African-American respondents. Only 46 percent of African-Americans said they believe their employer is actively promoting diversity.

Fernandez, who noted that the survey cut across many industries, demographics and levels of organizations, says discrimination isn't just morally wrong -- it also can lead to a loss in productivity and to companies failing to attract high-quality employees.

If word gets out that an employer is allowing discrimination to take place, "I may not be interested in working for them as a woman or a person of color," Fernandez said. "They're losing out on talent."

For those companies who may fall in that 20 percent category of respondents who say discrimination still exists, Fernandez recommended three overall strategies:

  1. Establish leadership commitment. Just as top brass need to be on board in order for a safety program to succeed, Fernandez says that company leaders "need to stand up and say, 'This is important to our company' and be the standard-bearers of its personnel practices. They accomplish this by acting as positive role models and by crafting policies that mandate fair and equal treatment of workers based on ethnicity and gender.
  2. Effective communication. Often, managers and supervisors are the ones on the front lines when it comes to implementing new policies and procedures. But Fernandez has observed some companies in which managers were penalized for not meeting workplace equality goals even though those managers say they never were informed -- or at least weren't listening when upper management communicated equality goals to them. "On the positive side, we worked with a pharmaceutical client to put together a comprehensive communication strategy. We identified key messages, we identified vehicles that could be used and we identified the audiences that would receive the communications of diversity." And it was consistent with strategy No. 1: "It flowed from the CEO to HR to line management to the rest of the organization. It was very calculated to make sure the right message was sent to the right people."
  3. Incorporate diversity into the fabric of company policy. "We often see diversity as a standalone. There might be an office of diversity -- in most cases there is -- so the perception is that diversity is sort of out there and someone else is doing it." Instead, diversity needs to be woven into hiring and promotion policies and practices, creating a meritocracy -- a system in which workers are hired and promoted based on their merit and performance, not their skin color or gender.