How to build an inclusive workplace

Posted in Business and entrepreneurship.

Inclusivity is a vital aspect of the business workplace environment. It is highly correlated with employee engagement and retention. Therefore, an inclusive environment may lead to higher morale and productivity. Most organisations don’t tolerate discrimination, but inclusivity is not the absence of discrimination. Many organisations that aim for inclusivity end up merely promoting diversity. Having employees from various backgrounds doesn’t equate to inclusivity. Those employees exist, and they make the environment more diverse, but do they feel included? Are they treated as human beings or just a checkbox? Let’s look at the basics drivers of inclusivity.

Leaders need to promote inclusivity

While your employees form the backbone of your business, the leaders act as command centres that influence and oversee multiple aspects of the business. Managers and even team leaders can massively influence the work atmosphere. They generally have the power to organise inclusivity events and educate parts of the workforce.

A manager that knows how to work with a diverse workforce can navigate situations much better, but mishaps can happen. Starbucks once closed down thousands of its shops in response to an act of racism. Roughly 175 000 of its employees underwent mandatory “unconscious biases” training. What is important is that the key players in your business are aware of how to handle diversity issues and their mindset will trickle down to the rest of the business.

Furthermore, ideally input should be obtained from those you wish to include. Mandates from managers who don’t actually know anything about the diverse group they wish to include can come across as checkbox-ticking and disingenuous.

Promote safe places for inclusivity

“Safe places” entails much more than just preventing discrimination in the workplace. To improve employee inclusion and engagement, companies must help employees to feel free to express their diversities without fear of punishment.

In a workplace large enough to justify it, prayer spaces allow easy access to employees of various religious affiliations to practise their religion. Oftentimes, work times or workplace placement makes it hard for some individuals to practise without meticulous shuffling of their schedules. And even for those that aren’t religious, quiet spaces for employees to meditate or get away from an overstimulating environment are important.

Trans and non-binary inclusion may involve gender-neutral restrooms, and accurate use of pronouns. Perhaps name tags can include preferred pronouns. This can even extend to the digital environment, placing preferred pronouns on email signatures.

Make it known that speaking up within reason is acceptable. A safe place is one where individuals can voice their concerns. Try to incorporate people of various backgrounds in meetings, giving them a chance to speak. Inclusivity cannot thrive in an echo chamber.

Help those who can’t speak up

Traditional work environments cater towards extraversion. Those who speak up and take charge in meetings are more likely to climb the company ladder over their quieter counterparts. This is not a bad thing. In fact, such charisma could be important for leaders. However, a few loud employees may skew opinions in the workplace. It is important to get feedback from those less inclined to speak up.

Meetings can act as a rough indicator of whether the environment is as inclusive as you think it is. Ask yourself such questions as:

  • Is it only men speaking up?
  • Are others frequently cut off?
  • Are certain groups of employees hesitant to offer an opinion?

A round-robin approach could ensure everyone has an opportunity to offer an opinion. A round-robin approach is one in which each person takes turns speaking up in sequence. However, perhaps some people are afraid of speaking up with others watching them. Offer opportunities for nonverbal communication or suggestion boxes so that employees can offer opinions when they feel more comfortable.

This thought can extend to the wider workplace. Some may not feel comfortable speaking up. Having representatives for diverse groups can offer a means for suggestions to funnel into a central pool. Here, managers act as the bridge between upper management and employees.

After laying the foundation for an inclusive work environment, how can businesses build on it? While the basics relates to the business’s interactions with its employees, in order to improve from there, we need to look at employees’ interactions with each other.

Promote friendly workplace interactions

No matter how woke we think we are, there are always opportunities to learn more. Oftentimes, struggles in inclusivity are related to ignorance. We may not know, or we may be misinformed. However, when we immerse ourselves in others’ backgrounds, we learn more and begin to accept more. That is the function of promoting workplace interactions.

Almost like school, employees tend to work in silos, separated from other employees. Eventually, separate groups may form, intermittently overlapping with other groups. Ideas begin to circulate within groups, rarely being shared outside. Promotion of cross-group interactions promotes wider circulations of ideas and the ability for different diverse groups to interact with each other.

Furthermore, these interactions should be conducted at the same level. Speaking down to someone based on race, religion, gender etc. can happen even on an unconscious level. The idea of inclusion is that everyone is on the same level.

Offer events for different employees to intermingle. It may be something formal like a town hall meeting or it can be something casual like company-wide lunches. What speaks to inclusivity is authenticity which leads to greater employee engagement.

Something to be noted is that while these kinds of events are helpful in getting employees to interact with each other in a friendly way, not everyone may be accustomed to larger groups of people. You may need to find other ways of working with such individuals, otherwise merely mandating that they meet other people may just backfire.

Celebrate differences

It’s quite common to see Christmas and Easter on company calendars and these days are often celebrated. There may be people who do not celebrate those days and celebrate other days instead. Wouldn’t you feel very excluded if nothing special was done on any special days you celebrate? Even if these days cannot be made into company-wide holidays, at least acknowledge these days.

Encourage employees to practise their culture. As diversity is celebrated, it is accepted. The more acceptance there is, the more inclusive an environment is. Little things do sometimes mean a lot – and for minority groups, these small gestures can go a long way.