The answer may surprise you. When it comes to inclusion in the workplace, it’s not just the latest initiative from HR… not just the tone set at the top… not just the policies and lip service… Everyone, including YOU, is responsible for full inclusion in the workplace.
What It Is and Why It Matters
Trainers on diversity, equity and inclusion define inclusion in the workplace as the practice of providing everyone with equal access to opportunities and resources. Inclusion efforts aim to give all people (regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, country of origin, disability, age, or socioeconomic background) an equal measure of respect, feeling of being welcome and valued, and access.
Employment laws related to workplace inclusion overlap with those related to affirmatively remove barriers to equal opportunity and cultivate a workforce that draws from all segments of society. The Executive Order on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility in the Federal Workforce (June 25, 2021) goes on to specify that “equal treatment under the law” and pay equity are essential. It also defines inclusion as “the recognition, appreciation, and use of the talents and skills of employees of all backgrounds.”
Those definitions may not be sufficient, though, for addressing how people FEEL in their day-to-day experiences on-the-job. One of the most important aspects of employee engagement is feeling a sense of belonging. Having friends in the workplace also boosts engagement, retention, and productivity. Inclusion goes hand-in-hand with belonging and forming friendships.
In other words, there’s a legal (bare minimum) standard. And then there’s a broader standard that truly takes people and how they feel into account. We’ll call that “full inclusion” because partial doesn’t really cut it for employers who are looking for the competitive advantages that are possible by putting PEOPLE first.
Full inclusion matters because it’s:
- only right to treat every person with dignity and respect,
- a matter of decency, law, and principle,
- smart business to draw from diverse perspectives and peoples,
- a critical factor in boosting employee engagement, retention, and productivity,
- enriching for every member of the team to learn from every other member of the team,
- linked to improved business results, job satisfaction, brand loyalty, and corporate reputation,
- liberating for all employees to know their opinions are valued, their efforts are noticed, and their opportunities are not limited by things outside their own control.
Every Manager Has Responsibility for Inclusion in the Workplace, But…
As with employee engagement, frontline managers bear the primary responsibility for making choices every day that increase or decrease an employee’s sense of belonging.
When it comes to inclusion, there are considerations and implications in all people practices – where and how candidates are sourced, what’s included in job descriptions, hiring and selection practices, the onboarding and training experience, how expectations are set, how performance is measured, how feedback is delivered, how and when managers interact with employees, workplace culture, how disciplinary actions are taken, and more.
Of course, managers participate in many of these people practices. But they’re not alone. Senior managers, executives, and HR team members are also involved and set the examples. Management training is (or is not) provided. Inclusion may (or may not) be a part of expectations and metrics for managers. Company policies may (or may not) be clearly and consistently communicated to frontline managers.
Company-wide, some best practices for full inclusion include:
- Ensuring accessibility to all meetings, all presentations, and all group gatherings. Considering the needs of all those attending is essential.
- Being sensitive to gender-based, size-based, and culture-based comfort levels with certain types of clothing if you have a dress code or uniform requirements.
- Providing floating holidays so all employees can observe the days that are special to them. Not all cultures and religions observe the days that are considered to be federal holidays.
- Honoring names, pronouns, and preferences related to identity.
- Setting and communicating clear policies related to inclusion throughout the organization.
- Documenting and appropriately addressing incidences of behaviors that violate policies and interfere with creating full inclusion.
- Conducting pulse checks to proactively check in with employees about how included they feel. Waiting for complaints to surface is waiting too long.
Frontline managers contribute to full inclusion by:
- Choosing daily behaviors that drive employee engagement for every employee.
- Creating a climate that eradicates cliques and has an “all in” camaraderie.
- Conducting meetings and 1:1 conversations that invite all voices and perspectives in.
- Seeking diversity of thought and valuing input that challenges status quo norms.
- Getting to know each individual personally.
- Acknowledging their own unconscious biases and getting outside their own echo chambers.
- Setting expectations and holding others accountable for behaviors that promote inclusivity.
BUT… the company and its managers can’t do it all. Full inclusion is up to every individual in the organization.
What Every Individual Can Also Do to Improve Inclusivity
No matter what your role is, you can contribute to a workplace culture that fosters inclusivity.
Similarly, no matter what your role is, you may inadvertently be contributing to a workplace that is not inclusive.
Before we list specific ways to foster inclusivity throughout the workplace, let’s call out examples of behaviors that can cause others to feel marginalized, overlooked, or not included. NOTE: most of the time, these behaviors are not intended to leave others out. Nonetheless, they can have that impact.
Prioritizing norms, traditions, and rituals over sensitivity to others’ preferences
Is everyone participating and enjoying these events? Or are some opting out, on the sidelines, or half-heartedly going along? Noticing and being willing to make changes is one way to be more inclusive. For example:
- It’s an annual tradition for the sales team to get together and go golfing the weekend after the kickoff meeting… What’s that like for the single mom who’s never golfed before and is eager to get home to her children?
- The accounting team always gets together at a local brewpub once the books are closed each month… But what about the team member who struggles with her sobriety?
- The Halloween costume contest is a popular and fun event… Except for the employees whose religious beliefs discourage celebrating holidays and/or wearing costumers.
- The weekly DevOps meeting includes a “lightning round” for rapid-fire ideation and problem solving… For some team members who have English as a second language, it’s not easy to keep up. And for some introverted team members, the lack of time for preparing and thinking through contributions is unsatisfying.
- The QA team has been working together for years and enjoys their easy banter, inside jokes, and storytelling about “the good old days.” What’s it like for a new team member to join this group and be “out of the loop” on so much history and such strong bonds?
Your reaction to any of these examples might be “well, they can opt out if they want to” or “one person’s issue shouldn’t ruin it for everyone else!” These natural responses are the barriers to inclusion.
Or maybe you’re thinking “we welcome everyone and aren’t trying to exclude anybody.” That may be true, but trying to avoid deliberate exclusion isn’t the same as proactively working to promote broader inclusion.
To proactively improve inclusivity in your workplace, the first and most important step is recognizing that the majority’s views and ways are not automatically the only or best views and ways.
Think of inclusion as enrichment for all. Each and every person benefits from full inclusion. Each and every person can impact the sense of belonging that others experience. These behaviors and choices will make your workplace more inclusive in ways that benefit everyone (including YOU!).
1. Develop your cultural competence.
Become more aware and interested in cultural differences. Geert Hofstede’s research is fascinating and will help you bridge gaps in understanding six dimensions of culture. This website includes an easy-to-use tool for mapping differences between two cultures so you can be more aware and understanding.
2. Go beyond the golden rule.
The golden rule is “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” But that implies that your way is best for everyone. It’s not. Stretch to the platinum rule: “treat others they way they want to be treated.”
3. Avoid right/wrong thinking and be interested in what’s different.
As long as you’re judging right vs. wrong, good vs. bad, familiar vs. unfamiliar, you’re missing out on a lot. Replacing those judgments with a simple observation that there are differences will spark your curiosity and open you up to many new possibilities.
4. Be genuinely interested in what others have to offer.
If you’re not interested because someone sees things differently or isn’t easy to understand or has different values… then you’re going to come across as narrow-minded and dismissive. There’s no harm in being interested. It’s okay to have your own beliefs AND respect that others have differing beliefs. Understanding their contributions and ideas will more likely give you an opportunity to have yours be understood in kind. Finding the overlap and collaborating there is a win/win for everyone involved.
5. Be considerate and empathetic.
When you notice that someone is not participating in group discussions, decision-making, or activities, check in with them. Reach out to invite them in and make it easier. Avoid racing ahead with any plans that exclude others.
6. Help bridge gaps between people.
You’re doing your part, but others may not be as savvy as you are when it comes to full inclusion. Look for ways to bring people together. Notice when two people have something in common and help them form connections around that common ground. Be an example to others of creating a sense of belonging for every member of the team.
7. Don’t accept practices and routines that work against inclusion.
Challenge yourself and others to make adjustments that will include all members of the team. Look for ways to enrich group gatherings, meetings, and collaborations by being sure all are able to fully participate.
When everyone assumes responsibility for inclusion, everyone will feel more included. Waiting around for someone else to fix it seldom satisfies the needs that people have in the day-to-day. No matter what your role, you have take these easy steps to reach out and support inclusivity for your colleagues.
For more on speaking up, check out Speak Up! Use Your Voice to Assertively Communicate Your Needs on BrightTalk!