If you really want to be inclusive, here’s how to walk the talk

“Employees tell us that we’re not doing a great job when it comes to creating an inclusive workplace. Is this something you can help us with?” (Chief Human Resources Officer)

“What does inclusive mean in this context, and why is it important to people?” (Us)

“I suppose they mean they want us to treat everyone more or less equally.”

“How would you say your organization is doing in that regard?”

“Pretty good. We’re hitting our targets for diversity hires, and some of our Employee Resource Groups seem to be popular. And we just hired a DEI director. So I think l we’re making progress. I’m really not sure what else we can be doing.”

If this narrative sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Joining me in writing this Communique is Sarah Scala, President and Principal Consultant of Sarah Scala Consulting, an organization that provides coaching, speaking, and facilitation services to inclusive US and global clients.

Both of us field requests like these from senior leaders who seek training, coaching or strategic guidance to help them cultivate a more “inclusive” workplace. In some cases, their requests are targeted and their desired outcomes are specific. But more often than not, they ask us to help them to figure out what that might mean for their organization.

Here are tips for organizations seeking a more inclusive workplace, however you might choose to define it:

●      Articulate the problem you’re trying to solve. It really isn’t enough to simply state that inclusion is important to your organization. Dip deeper to answer the why. Ask employees and managers how the lack of inclusion manifests itself throughout your organization. Is it that certain people or groups are passed over when it comes to leadership development programs, plum assignments or career opportunities? Are some voices being ignored in meetings? Do some feel they have to repress their authentic selves for fear of being judged or discriminated against? Discover what the lack of inclusion is costing your organization and who it hurts the most, as a starting point.

●      Define what inclusion means to your organization. Some may feel that a simple definition of inclusion is to feel welcome, valued, or respected. It’s important to have an agreed-upon definition in addition to a shared awareness of why it matters. (The U.S. Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines inclusion as “a set of behaviors that encourages employees to feel valued for their unique qualities and experience a sense of belonging. Inclusive diversity is a set of behaviors that promote collaboration within a diverse group.”)

●      Be clear on the difference between diversity and inclusion, which are joined at the hip. It’s possible to achieve diversity goals in terms of hiring and promoting, while not being inclusive. Without inclusion, diversity programs are bound to fail. Truly inclusive organizations educate, celebrate differences, and have policies, and facilities that include all employees. Author Dolly Chugh puts it this way in her brilliant book, The Person You Mean to be: “Think of diversity as the gateways (to schools, organizations, communities, etc.) and inclusion as the pathways leading up to and after that gateway. Gateways are about who gets let in. Pathways are about who gets listened to.”

●      Discover which employees feel they are being excluded today and make these your priority. Whether you have confidential interviews, conduct surveys, or have informal conversations, find out where the need for inclusion seems greatest. Many organizations tend to look at race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, neurodiversity, physical abilities, educational level and language proficiency. Don’t assume that because “no one has complained” that people feel included.

●      Determine which policies need to be more inclusive and make them your priorities. These may include equal and equitable benefits, measurable leadership competencies, terms used on forms, committee memberships, opportunities for career progression and promotions, eligibility for certain programs, criteria for leadership positions, and stated organizational values. Ask less-represented employees to periodically review your policies to provide suggestions, guidance and feedback on an ongoing basis.

●      Consider ways in which your facilities and technology choices can be more inclusive, including accessibility, location, equipment, team collaboration and meeting tools and spaces, bathroom facilities and hygiene products. Organizations moving from an all-virtual environment to hybrid or in-person should consider the needs of those who depend on closed-captioning in a virtual world to make sure they don’t miss conversations they may otherwise have trouble hearing.

●      Open up educational, mentoring and learning opportunities to more people, rather than limiting them arbitrarily. Think about how and why your organization selects some people for training and apprenticeship programs, job shadowing, leadership development cohorts and mentorship opportunities. Examine your training resources, including articles, books, videos and seminars to ensure they’re representative and relevant to a wide cross-section of employees. Employee resource groups can be an invaluable resource for those seeking connection, support and affirmation.

●      Looking out into your community, consider how you can be more inclusive when it comes to corporate gift-giving and community volunteerism. When choosing which boards to serve on, look for diverse organizations with a stated focus on inclusion, and hold them accountable during your tenure.

●      Hold leaders accountable. Do leaders walk the talk when it comes to creating and maintaining an inclusive work environment, or do they delegate the work to others? Do they see it as a nice-to-have they can brag about on their website, or do they understand the real impact on the bottom line? Be clear on what inclusion means, how it’s measured, how to track progress, and how you’ll course-correct if you’re falling short of goals. Measurements can be both qualitative and quantitative, including gathering feedback from employee interviews and surveys, representation by different groups when it comes to hiring, retention, leadership positions, promotions, salary increases, committee memberships, mentorship programs and other areas. Other assessments may include organizational audits from outside organizations. (See link below)

Organizations that are serious about hiring, advancing, and retaining great talent see inclusion as something much more than a statement on their company website. They know it’s not a luxury, or something relegated to the “folks in HR or DEI to figure out.”

Rather, they see inclusion as a non-negotiable value that’s reflected across their organization and embedded into policies, practices, attitudes and behaviors. As the fight for talent continues, the organizations that walk the talk when it comes to inclusion will be the victors.


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From Sarah Scala Consulting:


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