Most people know instinctively what inclusion feels like, whether that’s sitting around the dinner table at your family’s home or being surrounded by the people and things that make you feel most relaxed. It's the comfort and safety of knowing people value you for who you are that allows you to be yourself. Perhaps it’s the mere fact that they understand who you are that brings comfort.
Inclusion in the workplace is the process of building an environment of safety, support, and respect so that we can all be our whole selves at work. Unfortunately, inclusion hasn’t been an automatic feature of many environments, in the workplace and outside it. Inclusion in the workplace requires intentional effort, understanding, and active adaptations. With 61% of employees feeling negatively about their company’s inclusion efforts, bold action is required in 2023.
Today’s article covers everything you need to know about inclusion in the workplace this year, beginning with definitions, the difference between diversity and inclusion, and why inclusion at work matters. Then, we explain the three core factors of workplace inclusion, offer examples of inclusion at work done well (as well as common mistakes), and finally break down the three practical steps any company should follow if they want to foster a more inclusive work culture this year.
What is inclusion?
Inclusion is the act of creating an environment where any individual or group of people feels respected, supported, and valued; where they feel able to show up as their authentic selves; and where they are able to participate fully, especially in interactions like group discussions and work-related decision-making.
Every environment in which people interact can benefit from better inclusivity, but it doesn’t typically happen on its own. Successful inclusion requires intentional effort to build spaces where people feel included. When we’re building intentionally inclusive spaces, we ask ourselves questions such as:
- Do people feel safe enough? Will they be welcomed?
- What does inclusion mean from each person’s unique, individual perspective?
- What does it take for us to become more inclusive individuals?
Let’s look at a commonplace example of inclusion and how inclusive efforts manifest in our lives.
An inclusive home. When you’re inviting people over to your house, you want them to feel welcomed and comfortable. We want people to let their hair down and enjoy the mixed company in the room. In order to achieve this, we prepare the environment and seek feedback from our guests. Before even sending out invitations we ask ourselves: Is my house clean? Am I ready to welcome people? Do they have a place to sit? What will we do or eat?
We even reach out to our guests and ask them things like what they want to eat, what day and time works best for them, and if they're allergic to cats.
As a host, we may be aware that certain guests may not see eye-to-eye on topics. The host has to prepare themselves to step in if pro-guns Uncle Mike and anti-guns Aunt Carol have a disagreement in the course of the dinner. A good host will have thought of this scenario and considered how both can feel welcome while focusing on the purpose of the party — social interaction in this case.
Our inclusion efforts in the workplace are similar. Before we create diversity goals and initiatives, we need to take a look around at the environment and ensure the folks we‘re looking to engage will actually feel included and want to belong.
What’s the difference between diversity and inclusion?
“Diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance.” — Verna Myers
Diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace are both important aspects of an environment where people spend 40 hours every week. D&I are also separate and distinct practices.
Diversity is the representation of people of all different characteristics and identities in the professional realm. It refers to an organization’s efforts to employ individuals of all gender identities, sexual orientations, races, religious affiliations, ages, disability statuses, nationalities, military/veteran statuses, and other demographics. Tokenism doesn’t signify that a company has achieved diversity, though. In fact, it can often mean a harmful work environment. A genuine mission based on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) does not stop with a diverse workforce, because diversity is an indicator — not the final solution.
Inclusion makes diversity meaningful. There’s no point in bringing a diverse group of people together if they don’t feel comfortable, don’t know how to talk to each other, can’t relate to each other, or worse yet, are afraid to interact. Diversity and inclusion, together, create a space where people from different identities can interact feeling valued, respected, and comfortable.
DEIB basic training
If you’re an auditory learner or just want to dig a bit deeper into diversity and inclusion, check out this four-part video series on DEIB:
Why is inclusion important?
Everyone benefits from inclusive measures. At a human level, it’s simply the right thing to do. Though we shouldn’t need one, a business case for inclusion may be necessary to motivate leadership and gain their buy-in for future initiatives. The good news is that inclusion is good for any business’ bottom line.
Employee retention and engagement
- 80% said inclusion is important when choosing an employer
- 39% said they would leave their organization for a more inclusive one
- 23% said they have already left a less inclusive workplace
In short, if your company is interested in retaining employees, you need an inclusive workplace.
But retention is only part of the impact. An inclusive workplace culture is also a critical driver of employee well-being and employee engagement.
Organizations leading the way with inclusive cultures are out-performing market averages. The World Economic Forum found that companies with more inclusive cultures are:
- 25%-36% more likely to outperform on profitability
- Have up to a 20% higher rate of innovation and 19% higher innovation revenues
- Have up to a 30% greater ability of spotting and reducing business risks
Meanwhile, the inclusion laggards are penalized. They are 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability than the market mean.
3 core factors of inclusion in the workplace
As you start to think about inclusion and what it means in your workplace, there are three core factors that you should understand: identity, intersectionality, and impact. Any inclusion initiative must take all of these factors into consideration in order to be effective.
Generally, we can define identity as an individual's sense of self, established by their unique characteristics, affiliations, social roles, and experiences. Identity has a degree of continuity throughout our lives, meaning we can feel like ourselves despite changing life circumstances. When it comes to inclusion, each and every part of a person’s identity will have an impact on what inclusion looks like for them.
In the workplace, we should make sure we’re taking an employee’s full identity into consideration. For example, how might a woman’s gender identity and sexuality as a lesbian affect how her employer includes her in work tasks and career advancement? How are we creating a feeling of safety where that employee can show up as themselves? Answering these questions involves learning to have conversations about identity, challenging our biases, and creating safe spaces.
Intersectionality, as coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, is the concept that people can be subject to multiple systems of oppression that intersect and interact with each other. When it comes to inclusion in the workplace, we need to think about how the different parts of people’s identity intersect. For example, if the lesbian employee we considered above is also South Asian, her inclusion has many layers. There may also be things that we can’t see and won’t know about someone — like a disability that is not visible, or a family situation that you’re not aware of.
If that’s the case, how do we create open space to create conversations about peoples’ identity and intersectionality and what inclusion actually means for them?
At work, what one person might need in their work space, sick days, PTO, and scheduling might be very different from one person to the next. Our efforts need to create spaces where we can adapt work to be more inclusive for everyone in the room.
Impact is about accountability. Leadership within an organization needs to take stock of the effectiveness of their inclusion efforts. Are the inclusion initiatives actually helping the people they are meant to help? Or are the initiatives merely ticking a box? Measuring and tracking program impact is a crucial part of holding leaders accountable to their goals.
Impact is also about how our words are received versus how they were intended. No one is perfect, and we all make mistakes. Sometimes our words fall in a way that we do not intend and we offend someone.
We must consider:
- How are we creating space to have these difficult conversations and reconciliations?
- How do we own up to our mistakes?
For example, if a manager uses the wrong pronouns for an employee, how do we hold that manager accountable, repair any damage done, and yet also provide support for that manager to change? These kinds of dialogue frameworks are something we explore in our Courageous Conversations DEIB series.
How to approach inclusion in the workplace
We already know that in the workplace, inclusion gives employees the opportunity to be their true selves at work by making them feel safe, heard, accepted, valued, respected, and supported. Inclusion eliminates tokenism because it intentionally allows for authenticity and uniqueness and is the result of concerted effort on the part of leadership.
To realize the benefits demonstrated by inclusion research, companies need to keep their efforts clear of performative allyship. Hiring pages and websites that look inclusive are great, but what happens when the candidate gets to the interview, the onboarding process, or to a future conversation about raises and promotions?
Where companies get inclusion in the workplace wrong
Companies are making progress towards more diverse workplaces, but their inclusion efforts still need a lot of work. A study by McKinsey found that most employees felt positively about their employers' diversity efforts (52%), while a majority of employees still felt negatively towards their employers' inclusion efforts (61%).
Let’s look at where companies stumble. Companies go wrong when it comes to inclusion because they:
- Focus too much on diversity metrics. They don’t expand their inclusion definition to include the impact and intersectionality that inclusion entails. Without this understanding, companies can rely too much on diversity quotas. Inclusion isn’t instant coffee. You can’t just-add-a-woman-and-stir.
- Don’t have a feedback loop. Companies create initiatives without analyzing how those efforts are affecting target populations. When companies don’t listen to their employees, it can have damaging effects on their inclusion initiatives.
- Don’t center underrepresented talent in decision-making. It’s one thing to want more diversity. But diverse voices also need to be represented at the table when business decisions are being made. That means a diverse and inclusive C-suite.
- Are not taking ownership. When intent and impact aren’t aligned with inclusion efforts, somebody must be accountable. When people say something wrong or have a different impact than their intention, how do we cope with that? How can we build the tools and environment to continuously learn and resolve conflict when it arises?
Inclusion in the workplace examples
To better foster inclusive workplaces, it helps to draw from concrete examples of inclusion at work done right. Let’s take a look at a few scenarios that can help illustrate this.
A manager of a global team has a number of Muslim employees, in and out of the U.S., who observe Ramadan. Although the manager has encouraged schedule flexibility for different reasons in the past, she wants to ensure that no employee is left questioning whether this flexibility applies to Ramadan.
Anticipating that her Muslim direct reports may wish to start and end their day earlier ahead of iftar, she reminds the full team that everyone is welcome to set the working hours that make sense for them. She also bumps up a standing team meeting that is scheduled for the end of the work day to the morning during Ramadan, showing that she truly means to back this up.
Gender & sexuality
An LGBTQIA+ employee resource group has a well-established line of communication with the company’s senior leadership, thanks to the ERG being sponsored, well-funded, and made a part of regular check-ins with People & Benefits leaders. Because of this dialogue, members of the ERG are able to impact things like the company’s employee benefits package, ensuring that it’s inclusive of queer workers. LGBTQIA+ workers feel that their voices are heard and that the company will take action to correct exclusions.
A company has updated its interviewing and hiring processes to be more inclusive of neurodivergent candidates. Already, the company wrote job descriptions with neuroinclusion in mind by paring descriptions back to the actual essentials of what a role entails and removing unnecessary detail, jargon, and unclear language. They then took this a step further by including captioned videos in their job descriptions and training managers on how to check for common biases against neurodiverse candidates in interviews (for example, valuing whether someone’s handshake is strong and if they’re able to maintain eye contact).
Exclusion in the workplace examples
Let’s look at two examples of exclusion in the workplace based on real-life experiences. These instances of poor inclusion in the workplace can be common, subtle, and affect only a small quantity of people. The impact of these exclusions, however, are significant.
A British-based company has EU headquarters in Prague, Czech Republic. To promote the new headquarters with local politicians and business, company leadership wants everything to be Czech — from the employees and language of local communication to the food served at meetings. This becomes a challenge when two Italian programmers are hired in Prague. Despite the British company having DEIB policies, locally implementing these DEIB policies is slow.
For the two Italian employees, the emphasis on Czech communications, company forms, and food can be a source of exclusion. Language learning is a dedicated process that takes years to achieve fluency. How long could we expect these employees to stay while using translation tools? How valued and respected might they feel during that time? What is their likely eventual action if nothing changes?
A digital marketing agency produces content in Spanish and English for audiences in Latin America and the U.S., respectively. At an all-staff meeting, inclusive efforts are made in regards to the food — there is a variety of dishes like sandwiches, tacos, and empanadas. During the lunch break, a senior manager wishing to be considerate and leave food for his colleagues refers to the non-sandwiches as food for “the Mexicans.”
The Spanish content team is composed of a variety of nationalities including Peruvian, Argentinian, and Colombian staffers. The team jokes about how they can’t eat the lunch because it’s only for “Mexicans” but there are no Mexicans on the team. How would they feel in the longterm towards the company, leadership, and inclusion efforts?
3 practical steps to promote inclusion in the workplace in 2023
To promote inclusion in the workplace in 2023, efforts should revolve around three practical directives: understanding identity & intersectionality, creating psychological safety, and centering strategic action.
1. Understand identity & intersectionality.
Understanding who is around you and learning about their identities is a key part of promoting inclusion.
- Data. Create an inclusive demographic data survey to understand what identities are underrepresented in your company. This can help you understand what identities you need to learn about. Be transparent about the use and collection of this data.
- Learning. Host company-wide educational opportunities around various identities and cultures. Be proactive in learning about identities beyond that of leadership, which we know tends to be less diverse. Take great care that you’re doing the work, and not asking underrepresented people to bear the burden of teaching you. Your focus should be learning to have meaningful conversations about identity and using that knowledge to adapt the workplace to a diverse staff.
- Experience. Onboarding surveys are a great way to help your inclusion efforts. Onboarding surveys occur after a recruit is hired. Onboarding surveys are a great opportunity to understand more about how a person works and how they want to provide feedback throughout the candidate experience.
2. Foster psychological safety.
Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up about ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. Employees that can be their authentic selves are free to speak about their own feelings of inclusion without fear of retaliation.
- Prioritize transparent communication. Leaders have a particular responsibility to model this behavior consistently. Responding with “I don’t know the answer, I’ll look into and circle back with you,” can help to create a space where everyone is allowed to be honest and humble. Follow-through is, of course, crucial.
- Reframe mistakes into learning opportunities. People shouldn’t be ridiculed or shamed for mistakes. Instead think “how can we look at that together?” as a team or one-on-one.
- Ensure equal opportunities for all members. The squeaky wheel or loudest person in the room often gets the attention. Fostering psychological security means we need to create a space for equitable opportunities. Establishing group norms, like including comments from each team member, in intentional ways contributes to more equal conversations. Remember that not all people work well under spontaneous pressure or in in-person group conversation. Provide options for feedback that allow for deep thought, such as email.
- Take action. In 2023, employees are well-versed in inclusion standards. Thanks to social media like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, there is a near-constant stream of HR advice related to self-advocating and worker rights. Listening to your employees is good, but their feedback needs to result in changes for it to count.
3. Center strategic action.
Action is important and it requires a strategic plan — one that you're willing to adapt. Without it, you could potentially face a negative impact or no impact at all.
- Elevate. Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and DEIB committees focus on the importance of inclusion to a business’ impact. DEIB should be incorporated into the business plan.
- Analyze. Review internal initiatives through a lens of inclusion and impact for underrepresented talent. Make sure you’re going back and tracking ROI, and that target groups are feeling the impact. Quarterly impact measurements are a good standard.
- Understand. Create a feedback loop to understand where leadership can center inclusion through an intersectional lens. Give employees opportunities to offer anonymous feedback (or otherwise speak with psychological safety). For example, consider including open-answer fields in your quarterly surveys.
Inclusion begins with all of us
As a human practice, inclusion benefits us all. If we’re going to devote the time and energy to an organization, we want to be valued and respected in return. As a business practice, inclusion makes economic sense. Employee recruitment, retention, and engagement have all been shown to benefit from inclusive workplace environments. Increased business performance is also linked to more diverse and inclusive workplaces. Creating an inclusive environment in 2023 requires understanding your team, listening to their needs, and adapting work in unique ways — especially considering today’s post-pandemic norms.