Diversity and inclusivity are often tied together in corporate initiatives and discussions, but they’re two distinct, if related, aspects of workplace culture. Diversity is critically important for many reasons, but inclusion is often overlooked in the emphasis on diversity.
Building a more inclusive workplace culture has a knock-on effect across the whole of your organization and can improve business outcomes in ways you might not even expect. Primarily, it:
- Leads to happier employees. Happier employees have higher morale, better loyalty, better teamwork, and more productivity all across the board. Think of it like a modifier to the success of your staff.
- Helps promote thought diversity. One key element of an inclusive culture is accepting ideas that may be new to you or outside of your comfort zone. When employees can feel welcomed despite differences in opinion, perspective, and approach, that can be leveraged into more unique, outside-the-box solutions to problems large and small.
- Builds a better external reputation. Despite (or perhaps because of) ongoing “culture wars” on the internet and in the media, millions of people are currently more than willing to make purchasing decisions based on a company’s treatment of employees, especially those who match their demographics. A more inclusive workplace fosters more employee diversity and helps build a positive reputation amongst the audiences who care most about it.
With these and other benefits in play, fostering an inclusive workplace is an easy decision. Unfortunately, it’s much easier said than done. Often, the people most suppressive of inclusivity are the most vocal critics and will make it challenging to push your workplace culture in the direction you want it to go.
Inclusivity needs buy-in from the top. It needs enforcement across the board. You need to be unafraid to make hard decisions, particularly regarding resistant but enfranchised employees and managers. Luckily, you can take many easy steps to foster a more inclusive work culture. Here are eight such options.
1: Perform a Language Review
One of the simplest ways to encourage inclusivity is to audit and review the language used within your organization. That includes language used in documentation, website copy, internal policies, official and unofficial communications, and even casual speech.
For text, perform an audit and change any non-inclusive language to be more inclusive. For communications, send guidelines to your employees and enforce them as you can. If you make a mistake, apologize and do better. If someone else makes a mistake, point it out. Be wary of punishments; being too harsh can be detrimental. On the other hand, repeat offenders who coincidentally never seem to learn may need further observance; repeated “accidental” breaks of inclusive language can be a form of discrimination.
- Referring to minority groups by their preferred terms rather than yours.
- Shift towards gender-neutral as a base. For example, “spouse” or “partner” rather than the assumption of a husband or wife.
- Allow (but do not necessarily require) specification of pronouns. Be aware that requiring pronouns to be specified may be suppressive to people who may be unsure but would feel pressured to “come out” in the workplace.
There are many such examples, and no one will be perfect right away. Moreover, the discussion is constantly evolving, and preferences change. Do your best with good intentions, and you’ll be 90% of the way there.
2: Build a Continuous Feedback Culture
A culture of continuous feedback is excellent for both inclusivity and productivity in a modern workplace.
One of the worst things a company can do is make its employees feel like anonymous cogs in a machine, with no influence or say over how the company is run, the direction it takes, or even how their department is run or their tasks are directed.
Remember: your employees are intelligent, independent, educated, and motivated. They want the company to succeed, they want to be invested in its success, and they very likely have ideas on how to improve, streamline, or otherwise benefit their role, their team, their department, and the company as a whole.
Establish lines of communication throughout your organization. Allow for feedback at any and every level. Encourage employees to raise concerns, present suggestions, and offer alternatives to processes. If their ideas are off-target or would not work, it’s not because the employee is unintelligent; they probably don’t know the full context. Education and feedback go both ways, and when you provide your employees with the full context, they can come up with better suggestions and ideas.
3: Develop Safe Spaces
Though some aspects of the media have corrupted the concept of a “safe space,” the truth is that there are already safe spaces all around you. Adding a few more for more inclusivity among various demographics will never be bad.
For example: do you genuinely need gendered restrooms? Thousands of companies and places of business across the country have gender-neutral restrooms already, and they’re never an issue. The chances are, you’ve used them plenty of times and never thought about it.
Other examples may include:
- Prayer spaces for those whose religious observances take place during the workday and who might need a place they can go to practice their religion without interruption, either of themselves or their peers.
- Lactation rooms, where new mothers can breastfeed or pump in peace, again without disrupting those around them or making a “big deal” out of it.
- Quiet spaces for those who may need a 15-minute nap on their break, who may need to get away from the overstimulation of an open floor plan, or who may need a place to meditate and get their thoughts in order for a project.
Even something as simple as reducing the reliance on icebreakers and other popular extrovert-focused cultural signifiers in meetings can be a step towards inclusivity of your more introverted employees.
4: Add Holiday Flexibility
People from various cultures and religious traditions will have dramatically different holidays they prefer to celebrate. Despite their prevalence in America, Christmas, Easter, and other holidays may not be significant to many employees. They may not want or need the day off, while they would prefer a different day, such as Yom Kippur, Ramadan, or Diwali instead. Other non-religious holidays, like Juneteenth, are also worth acknowledging.
It may be impossible to offer company-wide days off for every holiday between all of the various cultures you may have represented in your organization. Instead, implement a flexible holiday policy. Allow individuals of any background and faith to select their holidays to take days off (without tapping into PTO or sick days) and include flexibility. You can even keep the office open on Christmas or Easter as well, for those who don’t celebrate and who would be perfectly happy working those days.
At the same time, implement company-wide recognition and acknowledgment for these holidays. You don’t need full-blown holiday parties for every holiday, but neither should certain holidays get significantly more treatment than others.
There’s no single one-size-fits-all solution for every company here. You’ll need to communicate with your employees, determine which holidays are represented, and develop an equally inclusive plan for all of them. If you hire someone who celebrates holidays you don’t already cover, add them to the list.
5: Ensure Top-Level Buy-In
Inclusivity and diversity are powerful, but they require buy-in at all levels of an organization. That means team leads, middle managers, upper managers, directors, board members, and the C-suite all need to be aware, involved, and supportive of inclusivity initiatives.
Buy-in means more than just saying they support it in a company-wide email. It means actively putting inclusivity initiatives into practice. Your leaders must lead by example. And if they make mistakes – and they will – they must lead by example in how to correct them as well. It’s tough, especially for companies run by “old-fashioned” individuals, but change throughout the organization isn’t possible without change at the top.
How, exactly, you ensure top-level inclusivity will vary. Amex and Merck, for example, provide mandatory inclusivity and unconscious bias training for all managers or executives.
It may also be helpful to build up inclusivity from base principles. Some people may do best with a list of behaviors to modify, but others prefer to know the underlying reasons; otherwise, the checklist – to them – seems nonsensical. Handling inclusivity on a personalized basis is the best option but requires careful attention and ongoing education.
6: Build an Inclusion Task Force
Your company can say it is devoted to inclusivity, but without an enforcement mechanism, the words are meaningless. Moreover, an inclusivity task force or enforcement team needs to be present at all levels in an organization, from bottom to top.
Start with a C-level, someone like A Chief Diversity Officer. Build the team by pulling diverse members from various levels and departments of your organization. The team itself should be diverse and highly educated on inclusion practices in the workplace. They may not all agree on everything – indeed, if they do, they likely aren’t diverse enough – but they should be united in purpose. The goal: improving the organization’s diversity and inclusivity.
Building this team is not enough on its own. The team must also be empowered to audit, deliver recommendations, and potentially even mete out punishment as necessary for offenses. This applies both to employees and managers, as well as to executives. Not even the CEO is exempt from awareness of inclusivity in their organization.
7: Don’t Limit Inclusivity to Just Who You Have
We mention that you don’t necessarily need to celebrate holidays that aren’t relevant to your staff in our recommendation about holidays. That’s not entirely true.
Inclusivity affects more than just your employees. While you don’t need an all-hands vacation day for a holiday no one celebrates, including it in your coverage of culture and traditions can be important for awareness, including awareness of that segment of your customer base.
Another example is language. Your entire organization may speak English, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be accessible in other languages. Multilingual signage throughout your office, multilingual documentation and content on your website, and other forms of support for other languages can be a great way to encourage inclusivity passively. Despite not “needing” it, having it is an implicit statement.
Moreover, it tells anyone who sees it that you aren’t being dragged into inclusivity only when it becomes relevant to someone in your organization.
8: Always Be Learning
The conversation surrounding inclusivity is constantly evolving, in no small part due to systemic and cultural resistance to it in many areas of life. A common complaint, in fact, is that the standards keep changing, so even people who (begrudgingly) accepted one change are now being told that that new change is now wrong.
There will never be perfect inclusivity because inclusivity is an evolving process that reacts to the cultural environment in which it happens (or doesn’t happen). A crucial part of implementing greater levels of inclusivity in your organization is a willingness to learn and absorb new information, change behaviors and policies, and adapt to changes as they develop across culture.
It won’t be easy. Inclusivity requires change, self-reflection, and adjustment on a personal and individual level. Moreover, on a company level, it requires making decisions, implementing policies, and even spending money in ways that don’t directly show returns. It can often be difficult to tell what benefit you’re getting from it.
Focusing on greater inclusivity and greater diversity in the workplace has many intangible and secondary benefits to your organization and your employees. Critically, it strives to minimize harm; those who claim it harms them are either pointing out a flawed policy or are being confronted in their inherent bigotry. React accordingly, and always strive to do better.
Feel free to reach out to us to discuss how we can help you build a more diverse team.
Page updated on October 9, 2023.