Creating an Inclusive Workplace
Inclusive workplaces are those where everyone feels equally welcome and able to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work. These workplaces enable everyone to thrive at work, and not merely survive. They are therefore an essential part of creating a more diverse workforce—itself essential for better organisational performance and decision-making.
This page discusses what organisations can do to create a more inclusive workplace environment for everyone. It explains the process of creating a culture of inclusivity, the importance of promoting diversity and equity, and how to reduce bias and discrimination.
What is an Inclusive Workplace?
There is no single definition of either inclusion or inclusive workplaces. However, there is general agreement about the broad concept (see box).
Defining inclusion and inclusive workplaces
“Workplace inclusion is when people feel valued and accepted in their team and in the wider organisation, without having to conform. Inclusive organisations support employees, regardless of their background or circumstance, to thrive at work.” - CIPD
“Inclusion can be measured by a sense of belonging, connection and community at work. It’s really about how you feel connected to your workplace and the people around you. An organization that has mastered inclusion is one where people feel encouraged to bring their ‘whole selves’ to work.” - Laura Hamill on Forbes.com
“An inclusive workplace is defined as a work environment that makes every employee feel valued while also acknowledging their differences and how these differences contribute to the organization’s culture and business outcomes.” - Chiradeep BasuMallick on spiceworks.com
We can therefore see that inclusion is about being accepted for what you are and what you bring to the workplace.
It is also about feeling connected to your workplace and your co-workers. In an inclusive workplace, people feel able to ‘be themselves’, without worrying about the consequences.
This does not necessarily mean that everyone is treated equally. Instead, inclusive workplaces recognise that everyone is not equal, but that some may need some help to avail themselves of particular opportunities. They may therefore take proactive steps to open up options to disadvantaged groups and increase diversity.
Inclusivity therefore goes beyond ‘diversity’, into ensuring that your diverse workforce is able to contribute effectively and equally.
Recognising an Inclusive Workplace
It is worth looking at the characteristics of an inclusive workplace in more detail. This gives some ideas for the steps that an organisation might take to improve inclusivity.
These characteristics are:
Employees feel a sense of belonging and connection to the organisation and their colleagues. This generally means that they identify as a member of a group within that organisation.
Employees feel that they have a voice, and that the organisation listens to its employees. This usually manifests in people being able to express concerns without fear of repercussions. They therefore feel more in control of their environment (and you can find out more about why this matters in our pages on Stress and Stress Management).
People feel valued for their contribution to the organisation. This usually means that people are seen as individuals, and the unique nature of their contribution is recognised and encouraged through regular feedback.
People have access to learning and development opportunities in their workplace. This may not be formal courses. However, inclusive workplaces ensure that people are given chances to develop their skills through shadowing, job crafting and enrichment and similar options.
Collaboration is actively encouraged and expected among employees. Teams work best when they have diverse members with particular skills and preferences, who recognise each other’s unique contributions (and there is more about this in our page on Group Roles). Inclusive workplaces encourage effective team-working and collaboration, supporting sharing of ideas.
Everyone has access to the resources that they need to do their jobs and be inclusive. This may be the technology to work from home, or to include those who work remotely, or access to groups and training to encourage cultural competence.
Developing an Inclusive Workplace
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) suggests that there are five areas that need to be considered in developing an inclusive workplace. These are:
- Employee behaviour;
- Line manager capability;
- Senior leadership;
- Policies and wider people management practices; and
- Organisational culture, climate and values.
The characteristics of an inclusive workplace listed above give some ideas of the kind of employee behaviour, and policies and wider practices that should be used. Other important steps and strategies in developing an inclusive workplace include:
1. Starting from the top
There is general agreement that strong leadership is essential in developing an inclusive workplace.
Senior leaders have to set out a clear vision for inclusion, and they also have to lead by example. This might include action to increase diversity in recruitment, and attending awareness training. It may also include a public acknowledgement that language in the organisation needs to change: for example, removing gender- or race-based phrases such as ‘blacklist’. This is vital in setting the culture of the organisation.
Leaders also need to create an environment where everyone feels able to contribute. They must ensure that people can speak up in meetings, and that everyone’s voices are heard and considered. To avoid unconscious bias, this may mean asking for written contributions ahead of meetings, which are then shared or summarised anonymously, to ensure that everyone’s opinions are given equal weight.
Finally, leaders have a clear role in setting out organisational values and policies. There need to be explicit policies that provide for inclusion—and these must be acted upon across the organisation.
2. Recognise and call out discrimination and bias
Raising awareness of these issues is crucial in reducing their incidence (and impact). This may require widespread training among employees. If so, senior leaders will need to be among the first, to emphasise the importance of this. Reducing bias and discrimination also means recognising the difference between equity and equality (see box), and striving for equity.
Equity vs. equality
There is an important difference between equity and equality.
- Equality means that everyone is treated the same way, regardless of background.
- Equity means that everyone is provided with what they need to succeed.
Equality sounds good, therefore—but can actually entrench long-standing societal biases and inequalities. In practice, equity is a much fairer option, and recognises that we all have different needs.
Organisations should be looking to achieve equity, not equality.
3. Actively review recruitment and development policies to ensure that they are fair
Fair does not mean equal. It means that everyone has an equal opportunity to engage.
A very good starting point is to ensure that recruitment processes are blinded or anonymised. Those responsible for sifting applications should not have information about gender, age, disabilities or background of the candidates, only their competences. They should not know which school or university they attended, or what subjects they studied. It is even worth removing names, because there is some evidence that selectors are likely to be harder on people with names that sound like they are from minority groups.
Organisations may also need to change their recruitment policies to ensure that they are merit-based. For example, it is good practice to focus on competences or skills, not experience. It is also worth considering potential, and not just previous performance. This is good practice to enable the organisation to broaden its recruitment policies. This is especially important at more senior levels, where there is often a shortage of people from minority groups.
4. Provide opportunities for employees to provide (anonymous) feedback
It is important to ensure that you have an open policy that enables comments and feedback on behaviour, including of leaders.
Employees should be given plenty of opportunities to provide feedback, both formal and informal. There need to be easy ways to go to HR, or to diversity champions within the workplace, to seek help and support. It is also helpful to have employee networks that provide support for those from minority groups.
It follows that there must also action taken in response to feedback, to ensure that people feel their voices are heard.
5. Provide mentoring and support for employees with potential, especially those from disadvantaged groups
The principles of equity tell us that sometimes some people will need additional support to reach their potential.
One way for organisations to provide that additional support is through mentoring programmes. These may be open to everyone, or they may be targeted at particular groups, such as minority groups, or disadvantaged groups.
If they are open to everyone, it is important to monitor uptake. This will ensure that these programmes are not inadvertently favouring certain groups who already have an advantage, such as white men in North America or Europe.
Checking Back: Monitoring Inclusivity
Finally, you should also take regular steps to monitor the success of your actions in trying to create an inclusive workplace. For example, you could:
Carry out regular employee surveys to collect data on inclusion, including views and perceptions;
Run focus groups among employees to gather more in-depth information about experiences on inclusion; and
Analyse workforce data to ensure that your inclusivity policies are having an effect, and that there are no problems with particular groups.
This will allow you to identify any areas for action—and then act to improve inclusivity. It may even be worth linking managers’ and leaders’ pay and bonuses to the results of these measures, to ensure that everyone appreciates their importance.