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Let’s unpack it: What’s an inclusive workplace?


Diversity and inclusion are important topics for business leaders to be not only familiar with but actively incorporating into their organizational culture. In action, this can look like prioritizing the hiring and promotion of diverse groups of people within your company, which can make you a stronger organization.

So, where does inclusion come into the equation?

What is inclusion?

Inclusion is the sometimes-overlooked piece of an organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policy. But intentionally inclusive workplaces can bring together all kinds of talented individuals – those of different races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations – as well as those with various skill levels, life experiences, educational backgrounds, geographic locations and socio-economic statuses – to foster powerful collaboration.

When different voices are heard and valued, not  just present, business performance can reach new heights.

What is an inclusive workplace?

How well does your work environment accept, appreciate and acknowledge all job applicants and employees? Your answer illustrates how far along you are toward creating an inclusive workplace.

In the words of inclusion strategist and author Vernā Meyers, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Inclusive workplaces are those where all employees feel:

  • Truly welcome and safe
  • Heard, appreciated and respected
  • Free to be themselves in the workplace without punitive responses

While workplace diversity focuses on representation or the makeup of your employees, inclusion is the outcome of a company culture that makes all employees feel understood, valued and respected. It’s the result of an environment that’s safe, supportive and enjoyable for all. A culture of inclusion is what positions diversity to thrive in an organization.

Inclusivity challenges

If it were easy to build an inclusive workplace, it wouldn’t require much strategy to get there. In reality, most organizations must address barriers that get in the way of establishing and maintaining an inclusive environment – even when their leaders have already embraced the values of diversity and equity in the workplace.

The obstacles to inclusion sometimes include:

  • Unconscious biases – it takes time and effort for your leaders and wider workforce to build self-awareness and identify their blind spots.
  • Limiting expectations – everyone has their perspective on what makes a traditional professional work environment, and it doesn’t always allow people to be themselves.
  • Lack of diversity in leadership – despite the clear advantages of diversification, the percentage of underrepresented populations in executive roles – and especially C-suites – within companies remains low.
  • Lack of modeling – senior leaders have a lot of competing strategic priorities, which can sometime lead to a lack of modeling and communication around inclusion.
  • Lack of meaningful solutions – The exercise of obtaining employee feedback but not implementing impactful changes can lead to increased turnover and low employee morale

For these reasons, we must be committed to increasing our awareness of inclusion best practices and intentionally encouraging a more inclusive culture to grow in our organizations.

5 ways to create more inclusive work environments

Building an inclusive workplace culture results from prioritizing it as a goal and implementing purposeful strategies to get there. Here are five practical strategies you can use to move your organization in the right direction.

1. Coach your higher-ups

To reach your inclusivity goals, your senior leaders must be committed to inclusion, aligned in their views and inclusivity practices and able to consistently promote inclusive behavior with their words and actions.

It’s good practice to partner with a third-party DEI consultant who can help your leaders recognize their unique opportunities for improvement. Doing so can help you make progress more quickly and invest in the most effective trainings.

At the very least, you can educate your leaders with books and the many online DEI resources available on topics such as:

  • Using inclusive language in the workplace
  • Providing equitable development opportunities
  • Being vulnerable as a leader

With time, an initial willingness to invest time and effort into DEI education can lead to key aha moments that will cascade through your organization. And this effect gets accelerated when your leaders communicate openly about how and what they are learning and ask for their employees to let them know when they miss the mark.

2. Ask employees how you’re doing

To continue growing as an inclusive workplace, leaders should formally ask their employees how they are doing. To ensure you receive thoughtful, constructive feedback, it’s best practice to conduct an annual DEI survey that uses both closed and open-ended questions. This gives your workforce the opportunity to share their perception of how inclusivity shows up or does not show up in your organization along with some suggestions for improvement. Your first DEI survey will also establish a data-driven baseline from which you can continue assessing your progress year-over-year.

3. Act on opportunities for improvement

Your DEI survey results will most likely reveal areas for improvement and even point to needs that could lead to multi-year initiatives. Before you spend time developing, distributing and assessing a DEI survey, make sure you have the bandwidth to act once the responses come in. It can be demoralizing to employees who open up and share their thoughts if company leaders fail to act on issues that are uncovered, which is the opposite of how we want employees to feel in inclusive workplaces.

Depending on your unique responses, follow-up actions could include:

4. Provide safe spaces

Providing safe spaces for employees is an important component of leading an inclusive organization. Those safe spaces can be in the form of the one-on-one meetings with individual employees. They could be opportunities for employees to connect on a personal level, such as team lunches or other informal activities. Being intentional about creating safe spaces and what they look like helps bolster inclusivity.

5. Improve your meetings

Leaders have to be savvy to facilitate inclusive meetings among diverse groups of attendees. The goal should be to ensure engagement from each person who takes part in your meetings.

To achieve this, you may need to:

  • Be an ally and help elevate voices that sometimes get spoken over.
  • Call on those who may be less likely to share because of their cultural norms (after privately discussing your plans to do so beforehand).
  • Schedule meetings more mindfully to accommodate employees in various time zones.
  • Help everyone participate fully no matter their mode of collaboration (in-person or remote).

Summing it all up

As we strive to be more intentional about inclusivity in our organizations, we must realize that there’s not a cookie-cutter approach to improving DEI. The steps each company walks through won’t be the same and won’t be linear because improving DEI outcomes requires a customized plan of action.

Building a culture of inclusivity is only one great way to build your reputation as a top workplace. Get more ideas in this free issue of the Insperity Magazine: The Insperity guide to being a best place to work.