What is inclusion at work and how to foster it

All new employees get jitters on their first day at a new job, but Patty was particularly nervous. The first day at her last position had been awkward. As she met co-workers, Patty could tell from their faces that nobody had informed them she used a wheelchair. Most looked at her with pity or fear.

Then at lunch, tight aisles made navigating the cafeteria difficult. She bumped into things several times and had trouble finding a table to which she could pull up. The two people with whom she sat tried to make conversation, but they mainly asked questions about her disability. Didn’t others realize she watches TV, roots for a sports team, and holds opinions about current events just like anyone else?

With these memories in mind, Patty entered the building. The company had already provided her with a handicapped parking space, which gave her some hope. The building had a ramp, and the elevator was large enough to accommodate her chair. And the floor-select buttons were even reachable! As she exited onto her floor, two co-workers greeted her immediately holding a basket of company swag. They chatted with her about the unseasonably warm weather as they led her to a conference room, where Patty easily pulled up alongside others on the team at a long table. The group bantered pleasantly both with her and with one another and made plans for everyone to meet back here for a catered lunch. For the first time in a long time, Patty allowed herself to hope that she had found a work environment in which she had a sense of belonging.

Understanding inclusivity

As Patty’s case shows, just because people work together or belong to the same team does not mean they always feel like they fit in. An inclusive environment aims to overcome anyone thinking he or she is not truly seen, valued, or heard. An inclusive culture aims to get rid of barriers that make people wonder if they truly belong there.

As a more formal definition of inclusion, the international professional services network Deloitte offers a great explanation of what the term inclusion means: “The actions taken to understand, embrace, and leverage the unique strengths and facets of identity for all individuals so that all feel welcomed, valued, and supported.”

MGR Handbook D

While the three terms often appear together in DEI initiatives, note that diversity and equity are not the same as inclusion. It pays to understand the difference.

Think of a diverse workforce as a heterogeneous one. Its individuals possess different backgrounds and identities. The demographics of diverse groups display a range in terms of things such as age, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic status. Everyone does not look or act like each other. This uniqueness enables seeing things from multiple perspectives, which aids in decision-making and innovation.

Diversity also contributes to overall well-being. A person for whom English is a second language, for instance, may draw comfort from working in a culturally diverse environment rather than feeling “different” from the group or only hired as a “token” to improve representation numbers.

Equity involves all employees having fair access, opportunity, resources, and power to thrive. Examples include equal pay for equal work and promotions based on competency rather than belonging to the old-boy network.

Note that being strong in one of these DEI areas does not automatically translate into equal effectiveness in the others. For instance, company metrics may show diversity among the staff as a whole. But, if qualified black employees routinely experience difficulty breaking into the C-suite, the organization lacks equity. Or, what if a company creates an inclusive atmosphere in that everyone who is there feels accepted, but very few minorities are actually on the payroll? The organization would fail in the area of diversity.

Developing an inclusive workplace

Great things can happen when employees feel “part” of your company. They stick around, leading to better retention rates and avoiding the hassle of hiring new workers. They speak up, which brings more ideas to the table and reduces the odds of mistakes or problems being allowed to slip through the cracks. Content workers sing your company’s praises to others, which improves your organization’s reputation and attracts potential workers and customers.

So, how do you go about fostering an inclusive culture? No single answer exists. However, the following inclusive practices are a good start:

Craft inclusive ads

A thoughtful job ad goes a long way toward welcoming diverse talent to apply. Pay attention to the wording of the post. Aim for gender neutrality through terms such as “salesperson” rather than “salesman.” Avoid the pronouns “he” and “she.” Eliminate mention of looking for someone to “fit” with company culture. Candidates may interpret the statement as an organization wanting a new hire who blends in with the majority. Include an EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) statement, but consider going further by describing your company’s inclusion efforts. Publicizing these measures not only helps attract a range of applicants, it deters applicants who do not share the company’s values from applying.

Prioritize psychological safety

Workers need to feel safe being their true selves on the job. They should not need to worry that expressing opinions or respectfully disagreeing with colleagues will result in belittlement or ostracization. Rather, all should adopt the mindset to hear each other out because a great idea can come from anyone at any time. Leaders who actively seek input from all sources and do not tolerate their direct reports “shutting down” teammates send the right message.

Learn about microaggressions and unconscious bias

From CEOs downward, offer training on how subtle or “little things” can make people feel different, excluded, or less. Underlying assumptions and stereotypes are hard to combat, even among adamant supporters of diversity & inclusion initiatives. Awareness of their existence is a solid start.

Be on the lookout for unintentional, but still potentially hurtful, behavior in yourself and others. What one person might think is a joke could be interpreted by another as a dig. Think about language choice. Telling a meticulous worker that she’s “so OCD” might be meant as commentary on thoroughness, but it also jabs at those suffering from the condition. Similarly, a statement such as, “Javier, you sounded great up there. Nobody would ever guess you were born in Mexico” can be interpreted as a backhanded compliment.

Boost emotional intelligence

Another great area in which to offer training is emotional intelligence. By improving empathy, learning to see situations from other people’s perspectives, and better reading of social cues, leaders and workers alike can more readily spot instances where those around them feel left out or hurt. Looking at the world through someone else’s eyes helps in understanding what they are experiencing and then making changes to rectify.

For managers unsure what would make individuals on staff feel more included, there is a simple answer: Ask. Regularly pose the question, “How can I best support you?” Answers will provide direction. And even if the person does not immediately know what to say, he or she will appreciate the concern and be more likely to come to you in the future.

Build an inclusive mentality

From the team level through corporate policies, stress the mindset that we are all in this together and want everyone to feel like they belong. Offer floating holidays so people can decide which religious or cultural events they wish to celebrate. Ask what size each person wants when ordering company t-shirts rather than forcing larger employees to squeeze into what you have or petite workers to settle for dangling material. Think about menus at social activities so that non-drinkers, those with allergies, or those with religious restrictions can still partake comfortably.

Since it can be difficult for individuals to realize what might make co-workers feel included or excluded, utilize the power of diversity when debating ideas. For instance, a social committee with a mixture of genders, ages, cultures, and the like puts itself in a good position to analyze ideas. A parent in the group may bring up the difficulty in holding events after hours due to childcare issues. An older person or one with a disability may alert the group to the physical challenges posed by a proposed amusement park outing.

Form employee resource groups

Many businesses encourage workers to form Employee Resource Groups. ERGs, as they are commonly called, are voluntary, employee-led groups whose members share a common characteristic, such as ethnicity or gender. ERGs often offer such things as support, networking opportunities, career development, and mentorship. A senior leader in the company may act as a group’s sponsor or champion to help it secure financial resources and navigate executive waters.

Keep remote workers in mind

Finally, a discussion of inclusivity in this day and age would not be complete without mentioning the need to remember remote workers. They easily can feel that out of sight is out of mind. Make an effort to include them.

Leadership must keep telecommuters in the communication loop, for failure to receive news or getting it later than others leads to feeling like an outsider. Try to include them in bonding activities, too. Slack channels can mimic watercooler conversation. Zoom lunches or happy hours bring everyone together for pleasant conversation and fun. And, depending on distance, invite them to on-site events. Nearby remote workers may relish the chance to get out for a bit. In any case, the knowledge that someone cared enough to extend the offer assists with feeling valued.