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What Is Inclusion in the Workplace?

And how do I get it right in my organization?

Brightly colored ribbons
Image courtesy of Jason Leung

What is inclusion?

Inclusion is the practice of creating a workplace where all people, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, nation or country of origin, disability, age, and socioeconomic background are welcome, respected, and have access to equal opportunities.

Inclusion consultant Kryss Shane explains it this way: “Inclusion is the intentional existence of space for those who are unlike you, with the awareness that the differences are beneficial to the experience.” 

Misconceptions about inclusion

Inclusion is not the act of bringing marginalized groups into already oppressive systems. Real, successful inclusion changes the whole system for the better. 

Those who are opposed or resistant to inclusion—often people who are traditionally in positions of power—may feel that these changes come at their detriment, that their power is threatened when others are given the same opportunities they’ve always been given. 

“Many think inclusion of others means that I am getting left out or losing access,” Shane says. “In reality, inclusion is not meant to undermine the majority, it is meant to enrich the lives of the majority by introducing other perspectives and experiences into the lives of all.”

Successful inclusion means employees feel safe, accepted, and respected in their workplaces. Think of it as expanding that safety to all rather than restricting it to some. And when everyone feels secure in this way, the whole workforce can thrive. 

Why is inclusion important?

Let’s talk about a concept called psychological safety

Harvard Business School leadership and management professor Amy C. Edmonson describes a psychologically safe workplace this way: “Individuals feel they can speak up, express their concerns, and be heard. This is not to say that people are ‘nice.’ A psychologically safe workplace is one where people are not full of fear, and not trying to cover their tracks to avoid being embarrassed or punished.”

Why is it important to establish psychological safety in the workplace? 

Everyone has the right to feel safe and respected in the workplace, and psychological safety is the foundation of inclusion. 

A psychologically safe workplace is good for business too. Google’s HR arm (called “people operations”) conducted a two-year study across more than 180 teams within the organization to answer one question: What makes a Google team effective? 

The strongest predictor of a successful Google team? Psychological safety. Of their findings, Google HR analyst Julia Rozovsky writes, “Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”

Did you catch that? Psychological safety is possible for your team now. It’s not about the who, it’s about the how. 

She continues:

Turns out, we’re all reluctant to engage in behaviors that could negatively influence how others perceive our competence, awareness, and positivity. Although this kind of self-protection is a natural strategy in the workplace, it is detrimental to effective teamwork. On the flip side, the safer team members feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit mistakes, to partner, and to take on new roles. And it affects pretty much every important dimension we look at for employees. Individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.

In short, psychological safety fosters teamwork, risk-taking, and professional growth; it lowers turnover rate and increases revenue. 

What are examples of inclusion in the workplace?

Inclusion cannot be a single-pronged approach. This list of examples is not exhaustive, nor is it a list of pick-ones. Inclusion in the workplace requires company policies, resource allocation, ongoing education, and individual behavior working in concert.

Training your managers well, training your managers often

While researching for her book, Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination, diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant Lily Zheng found that managers play a particularly important role in ensuring transgender individuals have a safe and inclusive experience in the workplace. A good manager—or a bad manager, for that matter—can make all the difference.

Make inclusion a standard job expectation of people in management roles. Write it into job descriptions. Evaluate the success of managers’ inclusion practices like you would any other job responsibility. Invest time and resources to ensure those in management positions are equipped for the job of inclusion, and provide them with resources and support to continue this practice. 

Creating employee resource groups

Employee resource groups, or ERGs, are groups that build community within your organization.  The goal of an ERG is to provide a safe and open forum where people with a common identity or experience can find support and community. Your organization might have an ERG for employees with disabilities, women of color, or parents, for example.

ERGs can be used to facilitate mentorship or sponsorship programs as well, which can improve diversity across all levels of your organization by aiding retention and advancement. For example, for women of color especially, lack of sponsorship can be a significant barrier to advancement.

ERGs are popular in inclusion programs, but it is absolutely important to understand that the presence of ERGs does not a successful inclusion practice make. It is not the job of an ERG to solve problems in your organization. It is a resource and support system for marginalized groups. When not executed appropriately, ERGs can lead to further segmentation of your workforce. For example, a white person in leadership may see that an ERG for Indigenous women exists and consider the work of including Indigenous women done, excusing herself from that work. If you choose to implement ERGs, do not operate them in silos.

Creating company policies that support all kinds of team members 

Company policies go a long way to foster inclusion. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it may give you some ideas for improvement.

  • Provide floating holidays so employees can observe days of cultural and religious importance.

  • Offer flexible work hours, remote work, and adequate paid time off so employees can care for family members as they need to. 

  • Make meetings and presentations accessible to all. Especially as many offices work remotely, it’s important that those with hearing and vision impairments or those who are not fluent in the language spoken in the meeting can easily participate.

  • Offer transportation stipends or reimbursement programs for employees who cannot operate a car or don’t have access to one.

  • Retire gender- and size-based or racially discriminatory dress codes.

  • Don’t assume someone’s pronouns when speaking to or about them, and honor the chosen pronouns of all. 

  • Document and regularly communicate channels for reporting misconduct, harassment, abuse, and inappropriate behavior of all kinds. 

Measuring your inclusion initiatives 

Don’t expect employees to come to you with suggestions and feedback. You have to go ask for it, listen, and act on a regular basis. Just like inclusion programs are not one-and-done affairs, neither is the measurement of their success.

Always start with a baseline. So if possible, collect data before you make changes or implement new policies and inclusion plans. You’ll measure the success of new programs or changes against this baseline.

Identifying areas for improvement

Don’t assume that because your workforce is diverse that your employees feel included. Don’t assume that you know where you need to make improvements. Your employees often see these gaps better than you do. 

Gathering that baseline data will show you where you need to focus your attention and help you prioritize areas for improvement. 

Data quality

How you ask is just as important as the fact that you ask. 

Anonymity is key. Unless employees know they can provide feedback without fear of retaliation, their feedback will be neither honest nor complete. 

A June 2020 survey by InHerSight found 49 percent of women say they are able to be completely honest in an employer review if the employer is the one collecting it, while 81 percent they can be completely honest if a third-party is collecting that review. 

Using anonymous, third-party data collectors is ideal for measuring the success of your inclusion initiatives.

The effectiveness of a specific policy or change can be measured by collecting ratings and reviews three to six months after a company policy has been implemented, and overall success of inclusion programs can be measured by asking employees to rate their sense of belonging at regular intervals—every six or twelve months, for example. 

Another absolutely key aspect of data quality is the depth of your data. Inclusion is about making sure all people are included, and you can’t do this effectively unless you collect demographic data as well. Your data should be rich enough to parse by gender, race/ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation, parental status—and, we even recommend, by career level—so you can better understand the experiences of all members of your workforce. 

Qualitative evaluation of inclusion programs

But you don’t have to wait to get feedback in the form of data, nor should you limit yourself to quantitative measures. 

Qualitative readings are important too. “Inclusion initiatives can be measured by conversation in 1:1 settings,” Women Who Code Raleigh/Durham chapter director Lisa Smith says. “Participation in and enthusiasm for diversity training and events is another solid measure.”

Qualitative evaluations provide context and color for the quantitative findings and can show you ways to expand the data you gather. 

Making it public

As you gather data, make that and the goals you set available to everyone in your company (ensuring that no personally identifiable information is attached) so that your teams can follow the progress of your programs. This is a great way to keep leadership—and everyone in the organization—accountable. 

Can I get inclusion wrong?

Yes, you can. Here are a few mistakes to avoid. 

Making it a one-time event

One way you can go wrong is with one-and-done thinking. “There is no checkbox for inclusion,” Smith says. “Instead of having one unconscious bias training, incorporate unconscious bias training in performance appraisal training and interview training—places where bias frequently occurs.”

Treating the symptoms and not the problem

For example, providing transgender employees with mentorship programs and mental health resources to help them cope with the microaggressions they face in the office, instead of training people to not commit these microaggressions and penalizing those who do.

Placing the burden of work on marginalized groups

For example, don’t expect women of color to build and implement an inclusion program for your organization. While the involvement and input of people representing marginalized groups are key to developing inclusion strategies, pushing the work off on an already excluded group creates yet another silo. Inclusion is the job of all members of the organization.

Assuming a diverse workforce is an inclusive workforce

“I think the most common misconception about inclusion is that it just ‘happens,’” Smith says. “Inclusion work needs to come before diversity, and it's not fast or easy. Inclusion is the embracing of the concepts around diversity and as such, has a much longer path to adoption.”

About our sources

Kryss Shane, MS, MSW, LSW, LMSW (she/her) is an expert in inclusion, working as a consultant and as an author to examine business practices, to create and reexamine inclusion plans in companies large and small, and to offer trainings and onboarding for all. Her work is known for being approachable and minimally invasive while making the maximum difference.

Lisa Smith is an engineering manager at Zapier. She founded the Raleigh/Durham chapter of the global organization Women Who Code. Smith has been working online since before there was a Google, holding a variety of positions in both front- and back-end development in whatever language or framework was needed for the job. She is an instructor, a speaker, and passionate about diversity and inclusion in technology, specifically retention and advancement of underrepresented groups.

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