Inclusive cultures in the workplace: how to create one

Diverse group working together

Lisa Jobson is a specialist in talent management and management consulting and has extensive experience in supporting businesses to determine focus and the strategic importance of diversity.

Progressive businesses are increasingly embracing diversity and inclusion (D&I) to forge more equitable and productive ways of working. A big part of this work is making sure that the workplace has an inclusive culture that benefits all employees, but what does that mean in practice?

In this guide, we briefly examine why you should invest in cultural inclusiveness in the workplace, before sharing effective ways you can create an inclusive culture within your company.

Why choose an inclusive workplace culture?

The UK population is diverse:

  • 5% of the population are not White British (ONS, 2011)
  • 51% are female (ONS, 2011)
  • 6% of the population are disabled (ONS, 2012)
  • 8% of over-16s don’t identify as heterosexual (ONS, 2017)

As a result, it makes simple sense to accommodate these diverse groups and ensure they are not unfairly discriminated against – as staff in the workplace, or as customers.

Beyond the clear moral argument, there are real financial benefits for those that focus on cultural inclusiveness. Businesses with a healthy balance of women and men are 21% more likely to outperform their competitors, according 2018 McKinsey research, rising to 33% for companies with employees from a mix of ethnic backgrounds.

Being inclusive is no longer a good-to-have either; the workforce – the best new talent – demands it. The results of a 2020 survey by Deloitte found that job loyalty was tied to company efforts in addressing diversity and inclusion. And a 2015 PwC survey of 10,000 millennials showed that over 80% said an employer’s policy on diversity and inclusion was an important factor when deciding to work for them.

Inclusive policies and leadership are under the limelight too. 2017 PwC research found that 45% of men and 54% of women candidates were seen to completely or somewhat research D&I policies before accepting a position, rising to 48% of men and 61% of women who undertook similar research into the diversity of the prospective employer’s leadership team.

How to create an inclusive culture

It’s often assumed that diversity and inclusion are the same thing, but that’s simply not the case; identifying the need for greater diverse representation is only the first step, and studies have shown that diversity alone does not drive inclusion.

Inclusion is the crucial connector that attracts diverse talent and fosters business growth. Without inclusion there is a lack of meaningful participation, which can lead to diverse staff becoming unhappy and leaving the organisation, and innovation, leading to a company’s understanding of diverse groups being dulled and losing its competitive advantage.

Building an inclusive culture needs to be more than letting the numbers drive your diversity and inclusion strategy; it’s about lasting behaviour change, which can be achieved using the following approaches.

Understand how inclusive your culture is

Before you embark on efforts to alter your culture, it’s crucial you understand its nature, so your efforts are laser-focused and able to provide the greatest effect.

  • Consult with a diverse range of employees. Talk to people across all levels of the business so you can gain a complete understanding of staff feelings and experiences regarding your business’ cultural inclusivity. This could involve anonymised questionnaires, interviews hosted by an unbiased external organisation, or facilitated workshops. Whatever you choose, ensure that all comments and concerns are actively listened to and logged.
  • Analyse the results. This will allow you to identify key themes amongst the comments and stories within the data (such as high churn rates amongst certain groups and poor representation of groups at senior levels) which in turn will show you areas of your culture that will benefit.

Create and land an inclusive culture strategy

By now, you should understand the areas of your workplace culture that are hindering inclusion. From here, you need to design actions that will have the greatest benefit. There are a lot of different tactics available to include in your overarching strategy, but whatever steps are called for, you need to ensure the strategies and policies developed solve these problems and lead to real action.

This means:

  • Gaining the buy in of senior leaders so employees at all levels feel they can and should act
  • Sticking to a clear roadmap of action
  • Clearly articulating to all staff what steps are being taken and what their effects should be
  • Creating champions, networks, and working groups to keep up the pace
  • Open up avenues of communication between staff and decision makers so the effects of the strategy can be understood, and the plan can be flexed if needed

Your strategy should be directed at areas of your business that are hindering inclusion. That means different tactics are needed.

Develop more inclusive processes

If your company processes are designed exclusive, it will be very difficult to improve representation and inclusion throughout the business. Go through your processes and analyse them from an inclusion standpoint. Ask yourself which parts of the process might allow bias and privilege to creep in and affect decision making, and how you can design the processes to stop this from happening.

For example, for recruitment processes this might involve removing identifying information from CVs (making them ‘blind’) and ensuring that the hiring decision is made by a diverse group of people who can bring a range of perspectives (learn more about inclusive recruitment practices in our guide).

Improve understanding amongst leaders, managers, and staff

All areas of your business need to understand why inclusivity matters, its benefits, and what concrete things people can do to recognise and understand their biases and privileges, then put this understanding into action.

In many ways, educating leaders and managers is the most critical aspect of this, as they’re the people that will be putting your plans into action. Inclusive leadership training is a good way to ensure this happens, and key leaders may also find they benefit from executive coaching too.

Diversity and inclusion training should also be considered as a means of improving understanding amongst the wider staff. This will help people examine their thought patterns and actions and make them more likely to sit back and consider both when making decisions that can affect inclusivity. Supporting menopause at work or combating unconscious gender bias, as examples, build your managers’ and leaders’ awareness of specific inclusion challenges facing certain colleagues. Similarly, taking inclusive steps to adapt communication for cultural differences can make international teams feel more welcomed and respected.

Frame things differently

Inclusivity can only happen if staff feel connected, understood, and valued. If a company’s culture doesn’t allow these things – if management are harsh and decisions promote fear, for example – then change is much less likely. What’s more, research shows that positive cultures are more productive.

This means you may need to reframe your internal communications and adapt your management styles. Embrace positivity and talking about work through the lens of opportunity as opposed to challenge. Emphasise camaraderie and shared goals. And ensure that this sort of behaviour is rewarded and celebrated.

See our strategies for how to can communicate diversity in the workplace.

Promote inclusive behaviour at the micro-level

When it comes to micro-behaviours, you may be familiar with the term micro-aggressions. Coined by psychologist Dr Mary Rowe in the early 1970s, it refers to the ways individuals may be singled out, overlooked or ignored based on unchangeable characteristics, like their race or gender.

In the workplace, these often-unconscious micro-behaviours might be as simple as:

  • A quick glance at the clock during an interview
  • Forgetting a junior staff member’s name
  • Giving an employee a nickname they might not feel comfortable with

Even in a short one-to-one meeting, we can exchange up to 50 micro-messages with the other person. Each one sends a signal that may affirm or undermine the person on the receiving end.

Our own work in addressing unconscious bias tells us we are more inclined to send affirmative micro-messages if the person we’re interacting with is like us. If they are different to us, we are much more likely to start dishing out micro-aggressions, whether we mean to or not (this is a key issue unconscious bias training is designed to solve).

Below, we’ve listed the micro-behaviours of three inclusive leaders. You’ll see how simple and effective inclusive leadership is.

Leader 1: Think through who gets the high visibility opportunities

“My sales director recently asked a really junior member of staff to present to the board. It had never happened before, but she had led the whole project. We all knew the boss was saying she [the junior member of staff] was the most competent to present to the board.”

Leader 2: Be even-handed with your time, give everyone in the team a platform, and manage your own limitations

“Our director spends five to ten minutes per week with everyone in the department, then writes a weekly blog about them. He’s a strong introvert and so this is his way of connecting with everyone without exception and highlighting people’s successes.”

Leader 3: Demonstrate the benefits of everyone contributing

“I was in a collaborative session recently where everyone shared a new idea. The leader in the room was obviously excited about the learning and thanked them for sharing. They showed they were listening by asking questions to help their understanding on how it might add to their current thinking.”

There are many small acts we can undertake every day to positively impact cultivating an inclusive culture in your workplace, but it starts at the micro-level – check out our guide on micro-behaviours and their impact to learn more.

Take the Inclusive Culture Pledge

Our Inclusive Culture Pledge is a public commitment to building a more inclusive workplace culture. The Pledge began life at our 25th anniversary in 2018. It was so successful that we have designed new Pledges every year since.

Through it, we created a network of forward-thinking organisations. We provide support for them on four key topics throughout the year, helping them on their journey to creating an inclusive workplace.

No matter where you are on your journey, there are always small acts we can all do that will make a big difference in creating an inclusive culture. A public pledge to inclusion shows your employees, customers, and external stakeholders the importance you place on promoting inclusion.

Cultural inclusiveness in the workplace is the bedrock of an effect diversity and inclusion strategy. At EW Group, we can support building an inclusive culture in your organisation through our bespoke inclusive cultures training and workshops. Get in touch to find out more.

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