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How to grow (and measure) inclusion in the workplace

Learning and development leaders can play a key role in fostering inclusion in the workplace, improving creativity and innovation in the process.
inclusion in the workplace
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach; Image Sources: Adobe Stock, Lena Lowis, P. Turpin

More and more business leaders are beginning to recognize the importance of fostering inclusion in the workplace. 

A recent survey showed that an organization’s commitment to inclusion and diversity is important to 83% of Gen Z job seekers. And organizations that focus on creating the sort of environment where all employees belong aren’t just attracting better talent. 

They’re taking a major step toward building a healthier business overall — from stronger innovation to better employee retention. Learning and development teams can help organizations reap these benefits by identifying what inclusion really means, understanding what it looks like in practice, and supporting it at all levels of the organization.

Fostering inclusion in the workplace

We know an organization’s culture directly impacts its peoples’ engagement and motivation. A recent SHRM report shows that there is “a strong correlation between workplace culture, satisfied and engaged employees, and business productivity and profits.” 

An inclusive culture takes this a step further. Inclusion in the workplace means embracing employees of all backgrounds and allowing them to work freely at all levels within an organization, where their unique values are recognized and supported. 

Companies with inclusive cultures report a 59% increase in creativity, innovation, and openness.

Diversity initiatives play a part in this, for example, hiring individuals of varying backgrounds such as gender and race. But true inclusivity means these individuals aren’t just accepted into the organization; they’re appreciated for what their uniqueness brings to the table.

The benefits of such a culture are seen far and wide. Research completed by Catalyst, a global nonprofit that works to advance women into corporate leadership positions, found that:

  • Companies with inclusive cultures report a 59% increase in creativity, innovation, and openness.
  • 35% of an employee’s emotional investment to their work and 20% of their desire to stay at their organization is linked to feelings of inclusion.
  • Companies with HR policies and practices that focus on gender diversity are linked to lower levels of employee turnover.

So how does an organization foster inclusion, and what role does L&D play? 

Training recruiters and hiring managers

Organizations can begin to make their commitment to inclusion clear starting at the recruiting process. An inclusive recruiting environment is one that considers not only the diverse background of applicants, but is focused on how different values can come together to support the organization’s goals. 

L&D teams can encourage inclusive practices at the hiring stage by training recruiters on how to identify and manage their own implicit biases. Valerie Purdie Greenaway, PhD and associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, defines some of the most prominent biases infiltrating recruitment today as:

  • Familiarity heuristic. People have a tendency to hire individuals who share the same interests, alma mater, alumni connections, hometown, etc. Unfortunately, this can lead to a workforce with a very homogenous set of values. 
  • Elitism. Many recruiters tend to favor candidates who hail from top institutions. Meanwhile, equally qualified candidates are disregarded simply because they didn’t attend an elite university, which may have been due to economic factors. 
  • Career archetypes. Everyone has an idea of what a professional in their field “should” look like, whether on-paper or in-person. Hiring managers tend to be less forgiving when interviewing a candidate outside of that preconceived idea.

Additionally, training recruiters on best practices for inclusive hiring can help mitigate tokenism — a common misstep on the path to promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Tokenism is the practice of making a perfunctory effort to be inclusive in order to give the appearance of equality within a workforce.

One of the most detrimental effects of tokenism is when highlighting the differences of a new hire creates feelings of exclusion. “Any time we’re seeing the silhouette of the person, not the soul of the person, and pointing out the ways in which someone doesn’t belong to the whole, we’re actually negating their ability to add value,” Nilofer Merchant, author of The Power of Onlyness, points out. 

Instead, Merchant encourages managers to focus on a new hire’s professional strengths and make it easy for them to share their ideas openly. And once new hires have joined, training them on the organization’s inclusive values should be a key part of the onboarding process. 

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Equipping inclusive leaders

Fostering inclusivity starts at hiring and extends all the way to the top of the organizational chart.  Leadership must cultivate and promote inclusive workplace practices. One way to do this is by practicing the six Cs of inclusive leadership:

  • Commitment. Inclusive leaders believe in the power of DEI and make it a priority throughout the organization. Their personal dedication tells employees at all levels that DEI really matters.
  • Courage. Leaders will need boldness to challenge existing norms and improve the status quo at three levels: with others, within the system, and within themselves.
  • Cognizance of bias. Self-awareness, humility, and open mindedness help inclusive leaders regulate their own biases. They also look for organizational blind spots on an ongoing basis and effect change.
  • Curiosity. Curious leaders try to understand the world from others’ perspectives. Furthermore, they embrace the gray area of not fully understanding an idea, but still accepting it.
  • Cultural intelligence. Leaders should embrace cross-cultural interactions. They’re authentic to their own backgrounds, but understand how those experiences can shape the way they perceive others.
  • Collaborative. Teamwork makes the dream work. Inclusive leaders create a truly collaborative space where individuals feel empowered to bring their unique backgrounds and ways of thinking to the table. 

To develop these six characteristics in leaders at your organization, consider offering training around topics such as emotional intelligence, embracing intellectual diversity, and the art of collaborating skillfully. Big Think+ offers microlearning videos on each of these topics and more from top experts on inclusion in the workplace, including Michael C. Bush and Orlan Boston. 

Facilitating open conversations

Inclusion training programs should offer learners the opportunity to share their authentic perspectives. Learning leaders can create space for employees to come together and feel safe and supported. 

Inviting learners to discuss meaningful topics, such as what it means to be an ally to the LGBTQ community, can help break barriers to inclusion and spark open conversations.

As Geena Rocero, transgender advocate and founder of Gender Proud, discusses in a Big Think+ lesson on asking about personal pronouns, “People will make mistakes. The key thing is you have to ask.” 

An article from the Association for Talent Development states: “Creating an environment that doesn’t encourage open conversations can inadvertently silo people who may have unpopular opinions.” 

To set the tone for respectful discussion forums in your workplace, consider offering interventions that help employees recognize and mitigate their personal unconscious biases.  

Measuring inclusion in the workplace

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for learning leaders is to measure the effectiveness of their efforts to promote inclusion in the workplace. As with any organization-wide initiative, leaders will want to see a return on their investment. 

Direct employee feedback can be a very effective way to measure ROI. Survey your people initially to define their needs, and then ask follow-up questions on the same topics to determine how effective the training was. If you’re unsure of which questions to ask or which metrics to measure, try using the seven key dimensions of inclusion.

Promoting inclusion in the workplace isn’t a “one and done” process. 

Gartner, a multinational research and consulting company, interviewed more than 30 DEI executives and reviewed extensive academic literature to create the dimensions. They then created 45 statements related to the dimensions and surveyed nearly 10,000 employees worldwide, rating the employees’ level of agreement with each statement. 

Finally, they distilled all of the data into one key statement for each dimension. According to Gartner, the more employees agree with the seven statements below, the more inclusive an organization is.

1. Fair treatment: Employees at my organization who help the organization achieve its strategic objectives are rewarded and recognized fairly.

2. Integrating differences: Employees at my organization respect and value each other’s opinions.

3. Decision making: Members of my team fairly consider ideas and suggestions offered by other team members.

4. Psychological safety: I feel welcome to express my true feelings at work.

5. Trust: Communication we receive from the organization is honest and open.

6. Belonging: People in my organization care about me.

7. Diversity: Managers at my organization are as diverse as the broader workforce.

Promoting inclusion in the workplace isn’t a “one and done” process. Post-training, learning leaders can keep the momentum going by surveying employees, using statements like these, on a regular basis to see which metrics improved and which still need attention. 

Final note

Inclusivity is no longer an optional way for businesses to operate, but an essential one. Beyond better business performance and employee retention, professor at NYU School of Law Kenji Yoshino suggests that workplace inclusivity promotes human flourishing.

In his research, Yoshino found that 61% of individuals report “covering,” when a person modulates their identity to be accepted by the mainstream. Of those individuals, more than half say that covering is “somewhat to extremely” detrimental to their sense of self.

“Organizations, if they’re going to ask so much of the whole person and ask for so much of that person’s time, need to be thinking about the entire human being, their human flourishing, and their happiness,” Yoshino says. In other words, organizations need to allow employees to be their authentic selves at work. 

L&D can help embed inclusion into the DNA of an organization, but it will take time. And that’s OK. The key is to start fostering inclusion in the workplace today, because incremental progress is better than no progress at all. 

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