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The Ultimate Guide to Inclusion: What It Is, Why It’s Important and How It Affects the Workplace

July 18, 2021

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Inclusion in the Workplace

“Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Verna Myers

Most of the world’s population spends around one-third of their waking adult life at work. While this time is often dedicated to earning the income and material necessities we need to support ourselves and our families, social connections and belonging are still basic human needs for this time too. Whether you’re a CEO, a HR professional, or a software engineer, we all have within us the power to fulfill that need for those around us, through inclusion in the workplace.

Developing inclusion in the workplace is a much wider issue than just writing and publishing a series of policies and corporate commitment statements. In this article we will walk you through not only the definition and description of inclusion at work, but also the barriers and the benefits to ensuring everyone ‘gets to dance’ as Verna Myer might say.

What is inclusion in the workplace?

An inclusive workplace is a collaborative, supportive, and respectful environment that fosters the participation and contribution of all employees. While we may be more ‘connected’ than ever in terms of ways to participate in the workplace (think Zoom meetings, social media platforms, email, and communication platforms like Slack or Teams), it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone has access to the same opportunities and support to contribute their perspectives and talents to improve their organization.

To be clear, inclusion does not mean all employees need to conform to the cultural/social norms of the majority of your workforce. As George Dei, an influential scholar in anti-racist research, says,

“Inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists; it is making a new space, a better space for everyone.”

Truly inclusive organizations remove all barriers, discrimination, and intolerance.

The basic premise of inclusion in the workplace is to ensure no one’s age, disability, social background, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or parental status makes them feel alienated, excluded or ostracised from the functions of the workplace. The ultimate goal is to allow everyone to be their whole and most authentic selves at work.

Diversity vs inclusion

Like ‘macaroni and cheese’ or ‘shoes and socks’ it seems ‘diversity and inclusion’ are paired together more often than they’re seen apart. But they are far from interchangeable terms.

Both diversity and inclusion increase the richness of ideas and the creative power or problem-solving ability of teams. But where diversity simply means variety (for instance a variety of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, lived experiences and neurological make-up), inclusion refers to the acceptance and value surrounding diversity. An inclusive workplace doesn’t just tolerate diversity, but welcomes and celebrates these differences.

Often, creating an inclusive workplace will increase diversity within an organization. When candidates and employees see organizations actively seek out and value input from everyone, this is when you will find the diversity of your candidate pools increasing, and the performance metrics of your business climbing.

Equity vs inclusion

If diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance, then equity is ensuring everyone at the party has the right dancing shoes. The trick here is the distinction between everyone being given the same pair of dancing shoes, as compared with being given the right dancing shoes they need to dance. The shoes that fit their foot shape, with their tailored orthopedic inserts and that suit the type of dancing they’re most comfortable doing. This is the distinction between ‘equity’ and ‘equality’.

The key difference between inclusion and equity is the difference between a process and an outcome. Equity refers to the process a company consistently engages to ensure all members of a diverse population of employees have equal opportunities and support to succeed and grow. While inclusion is the outcome. It’s the resulting culture of belonging and feeling like your contribution is valued.


Check out our WORK180 Diversity Dictionary for more definitions of common DEI terms.


Why is inclusion important in the workplace?

Inclusion has surpassed being an industry buzzword or corporate trend, and is now recognized as a business imperative for all organizations. While government legislations set minimum standards for diversity, without inclusion in the workplace, these diversity efforts can not succeed.

Effective strategies go beyond legal compliance and regard inclusion and diversity as a source of competitive advantage not only in terms of profitability and revenue, but also as an advantage for recruitment and retention of high-quality talent.

Benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Awareness of the business case for inclusion and diversity is on the rise, and there’s growing bodies of research listing the benefits of inclusion. Importantly it’s become clear that these benefits affect more than just the people from target or underrepresented groups – inclusive workplaces make things better for everyone.

Business benefits of inclusion:

Employee benefits of inclusion:

What does an inclusive workplace look like?

How inclusion comes to life within the workplace varies widely from one business to the next. The key to an inclusive work environment is making sure each employee feels included, and remembering that different people will experience inclusion differently – being respected at work may look and feel different for a young Indigenous engineering graduate compared to a woman with children in a senior leader role.

Here are some examples of how employees describe what it means to feel included:

  • They have a voice that is sought after, respected and valued.
  • They feel like they belong – a sense of connection, security and support.
  • That the company cares about their unique strengths and experiences.
  • The company cares about their aspirations for growth and development.
  • They have access to support from managers, employee resource groups (ERG), and wellbeing resources.

It is tempting to believe that just by setting quotas or starting an ERG you can garner universal approval that your organization is adequately inclusive. But the truth is, being inclusive goes far beyond merely a mandate from the C-suite. It takes true commitment from everyone, every day and throughout the entire organization, from onboarding to an employee’s last day on the job.

How to promote inclusion in the workplace

The seven practices listed below are all important to creating an inclusive organization.

Inclusive policies

Having inclusive policies and practices is a great start to creating an inclusive climate in an organization. Identify measurable behaviors and clear expectations to help hold people accountable for those behaviors. It can be easy to disproportionately focus initiatives on employee acquisition, however, to nurture and retain talent, you want to instate policies that are relevant to the whole employee lifecycle.

Create HR policies that offer flexible work arrangements to accommodate diverse needs and life-stages of employees. One way to do this is to include popular holidays and celebrations of multiple religions and cultures in your festive calendar. And remember, a company’s policies and practices should be available to all workers at all times.

Diverse and inclusive leadership

To promote inclusivity and diversity at work, you need to have leaders who embody the same values. At times, this will require leaders to learn new collaboration and empathy skills and recognize their own unconscious biases. For real change to happen, every individual leader needs to understand the value of inclusion and belonging — both intellectually and emotionally. Only when a company secures complete buy-in from C-suite and senior managers will a company’s inclusion practices thrive.

The diversity of the executive team also speaks volumes about a company’s culture. Having senior leaders from underrepresented groups, who are actively involved across the business allows employees and customers to feel as though their differences are equally represented.

Support Employee Resource Groups

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are employee-led initiatives designed to connect employees who share the concerns of a common gender, race, ethnicity, disability background, experience or sexual orientation. ERGs foster connectedness within the workplace, promote DEI education, provide development opportunities and help to support business goals. It’s vital to create an environment where employees feel free to express themselves based on their unique perspectives. Having a connection to a group that makes you feel you can be yourself results in greater engagement and creativity in the workplace.

Although ERGs are employee-led programs, it is critical for leadership teams to regularly check-in with each group, provide ongoing support and ensure their goals align with the company’s overarching mission.

Invest in learning and development

Create mentoring programs to empower employees from diverse backgrounds, and to provide growth opportunities and increase visibility. Providing access to leadership and training opportunities will boost efforts to craft a more diverse and inclusive senior leadership team by ensuring diverse candidates are qualified for promotions. Mentorship programs also have the added benefit of offering employees a safe place to discuss sensitive issues.

When it comes time for a potential promotion, many organizations still use the 9-box model to assess an employee’s performance and potential. This is a very subjective measure, that leaves the door open for potential unconscious bias. To reduce this and promote a more inclusive culture, look at more objective data about the skills employees have acquired.

Inclusive hiring practices

Inclusion needs to be baked into your hiring practices. But if your recruiters aren’t paying close attention, they may naturally gravitate towards candidates that look and think just like the employees already in the office. Start by setting up diverse panels of interviewers who will select candidates based on skills and experience. Train your hiring managers on unconscious bias and make a point to engage with diverse talent on an ongoing basis long before the need arises to hire.

An inclusive hiring process will be pointless if the company culture isn’t also inclusive. New hires who don’t fit a homogenous mold will only be unhappy and quit, leaving you back at square one.

Effective communication strategies

Inclusion is when all employees are able to use their voice and participate in decision making processes. An inclusive company culture needs to invite diversity of discussion and strive to make everyone feel welcome. For example, in meetings: Who’s invited? Who gets to speak and how often? Is anyone being left out? Surveys and continuous feedback platforms also give an opportunity to hear information directly from employees, and let them know their input is valued.

Language has the power to form barriers and obstacles that can also greatly hinder a person’s sense of belonging. Inclusive language focuses on avoiding biased terms or expressions that discriminate against a particular group or persons based on their individual qualities. By encouraging the use of inclusive language and implementing it into workplace policies, you can resonate with each employee and prevent feelings of exclusion.

This also includes the language used in job descriptions. Ensure the language is gender-neutral, doesn’t limit different backgrounds and experiences, and the language used in job specifications does not reflect bias.

Workplace diversity and inclusion training

Training continues to be an important component in helping organizations become more inclusive. Unconscious bias or sensitivity training workshops increase diversity awareness and skill building to help employees understand the need for, and meaning of, inclusion. In particular look for seminars and presentations given by a more diverse range of speakers.

Though training can change attitudes and foster a diverse and inclusive workplace, like any form of behavior change, inclusion requires ongoing commitment. Ensure training is not a cursory, one-off event, and is well integrated with other diversity and inclusion practices.

Examples of inclusion in the workplace

Studies have shown that members of underrepresented groups are more likely to feel excluded, and like they have to hide or change who they are at work to fit in. A positive inclusive environment embraces its employees to be their full authentic self at work.

The good news is that there are plenty of companies out there doing inclusion right, these ones really stood out for their truly effective initiatives.

Gender inclusion in the workplace

Building a gender-inclusive workplace doesn’t just mean hiring more women and promising pay equity. While this is certainly a good first step, in order for people of all genders (be they women, nonbinary, or transgender) to be successful in the workplace, a supportive culture of inclusion and equity is necessary. The following graph shows that while S&P 500 companies have almost 50-50 balance in male and female employees, the female representation at the more senior levels is significantly lower. When that’s the case, can we really talk about an equal workforce?

image 0

According to the Women in the Workplace study, women leaders make the most powerful allies; they are more likely than senior-level men to adopt inclusive policies and programs, take a public stand for equity at work, and mentor and sponsor other women. This means the actions taken by companies to attract and retain women today will significantly impact the careers of all women and the gender equity goals for decades to come.


Meet the organizations actively removing the barriers preventing women from being hired, promoted, or thriving in management positions.


Transgender inclusion in the workplace

The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, the largest survey of transgender people ever conducted, involving almost 28,000 individuals from the United States, reported that, “in the year prior to completing the survey, 30% of respondents who had a job reported being fired, denied a promotion, or experiencing some other form of mistreatment in the workplace due to their gender identity or expression.

Transgender discrimination can take many forms, and can be intentional or unintentional, ranging from verbal, physical or sexual assault to the refusing to provide necessary accommodation, like considerations to strict dress code policies.

But there are companies out there that have created an environment where transgender employees feel safe being open about their transitions, and foster environments where authenticity is encouraged. Take this story about how after years of highs and lows in fulfilling her self-identity, Charlie found a job she loves, a happy family life and now lives as her authentic self.

LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace

According to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, 46% of LGBTQI+ individuals are closeted at work, 53% report hearing jokes about lesbian or gay people at least once in a while, and 31% say they have felt unhappy or depressed at work.

And the top reason these LGBTQI+ workers don’t report negative comments they hear to a supervisor or HR? They don’t think anything would be done about it!

WORK180 are proud of our Endorsed Employers leading the way with inclusive LGBTQI+ policies, creating workplaces where employees can be themselves. We spoke to 23 employees about a time they felt truly supported and included in their workplace. Their stories are inspiring and heart-warming.

Disability inclusion in the workplace

Misconceptions about the ability of people with disabilities to perform jobs are an important reason both for their continued unemployment and – if employed – for their exclusion from opportunities for promotion in their careers. Around 15% of the world’s population, an estimated 1 billion people, live with disabilities. According to WHO, they are the world’s largest minority and these figures are increasing through population growth, medical advances and the ageing process.

Disability inclusion at work isn’t just about hiring more people with disabilities. An inclusive workplace offers employees with disabilities — whether visible or invisible — an equal opportunity to succeed, to learn, to be compensated fairly, and to advance. For advice on how organizations can create more inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities, read Kathryn’s employee story with Laing O’Rourke.

Indigenous inclusion in the workplace

We are all enriched when the history, knowledge and ability of our First Nations Peoples are respected and included. However, it is well known that for all social indicators Aboriginal Australians, as a group, are more disadvantaged than other Australians, and this includes lower rates of employment.

There has been a promising increase in Indigenous employment over the period 1994 to 2008, especially in the private sector. It is important to have policies that both increase the demand for Indigenous workers and increase the number of Indigenous people who have the necessary skills to fill available vacancies. Having a Reconciliation Action Plan is critical in attracting and sustaining Aboriginal talent and making the team cohesive. Another tip is to invite an Aboriginal elder to have a ‘yarn’ with the workforce to help breakdown barriers and share experiences.

Andrea Kean is a proud whadjuk noongar woman who has been taking leaps and bounds in her career since she joined BHP. While she believes there is work to be done in the Indigenous space, read her story about how BHP are getting it right with Indigenous inclusion in the workplace.

Racial inclusion in the workplace

Too many people are uncomfortable talking about race. This has to change. In order to have a truly inclusive environment where everybody can bring their whole self to work, changes must be made. Despite widely circulated statistics that companies with high racial and ethnic diversity among their employees outperform their counterpart companies by 35%, only 1% of Fortune 500 companies have an African American or Black CEO.

Inclusive language can also be highly pertinent here. We recommend avoiding generalizations like ‘BAME’ when possible. These acronyms encompass a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and traditions each with many different barriers to career progression. But by amalgamating them into a single acronym, it implies their experiences are similar enough to not require distinction. It may seem politically correct but can make people feel like their identities have been erased.

Religious inclusion in the workplace

Whether someone is a person of faith or not, there is ample evidence to support that religious diversity in the workplace is a value-adding condition. Given the growing popularity of bringing one’s whole self to work, the trend towards practices such as yoga and mindfulness, and the fact that more than 80% of the world claims some sort of religious affiliation, it’s important to have a clear business case for handling expressions of faith in the workplace.

According to the Diversity Council of Australia, employees are happier at work when their organization is supportive of their religious and spiritual expression. They also:

  • Perform worse when they feel they must hide and/or fake their faith identity to fit in.
  • While employees who don’t feel like they have to fake their faith identity show improved retention rates, higher perceived wellbeing, and less stress.
  • Cultivating a diversity-differentiated organizational culture can translate to improved employer branding and positive media attention.

In truly inclusive workplaces, no single religion would be treated as more important than others. This could be as simple as making sure that there is a quiet space where people can go to pray, or meditate, and including a diverse range of cultural holidays on the social calendar. But did you also know that the standard workweek is based around the Judeo-Christian norm? With weekends being the Jewish and Christian sabbaths. While this isn’t likely to change anytime soon, to promote religious inclusion, flexible working may open opportunities for some to leave work early on Friday to make Jummah prayer, or to take Eid as a holiday instead of Christmas.

Barriers to workplace inclusion

What are some of the things that can stop businesses from being inclusive?

  • Lack of diversity in senior leadership roles.

    Seeing those of the same race, gender or background succeed is reassuring and empowering to everyone in your organization. Having diverse role models will positively shape the experience for younger, less experienced diverse employees, and provide allies in management who will support them.

     

  • Physical Barriers.

    Physical barriers can keep disabled employees from performing their best work or feeling completely included in the workplace. Removing these physical barriers can’t always be straightforward because you can’t know what unique accommodations any given employee will need before they tell you. These barriers also extend to remote workforces who are by definition, physically separated from other employees.

     

  • Language and cultural barriers.

    Diverse workers often speak other languages and have different cultural traditions. This can clash with current workers who do not understand. It can create an uncomfortable situation when there is an inability to communicate with one another.

     

  • Unconscious bias and microaggressions.

    Microaggressions are small derogatory comments or questions that prevent employees from feeling comfortable sharing their ideas with other employees for fear of judgment or contempt. Similar to unconscious bias, these comments aren’t always intentionally demeaning or discriminatory, but still equally impact the performance and wellbeing of diverse employees.

     

  • Attitudinal Barriers.

    It’s important to be conscious of the fact that employers and managers create intentional attitudinal barriers, too. If diversity hires are seen only as tokenism, and there’s no internal faith or motivation toward reaching the organizations’ commitment to inclusion, any policies or practices implemented will be doomed to fail.

How to measure inclusion in the workplace

There’s no doubt that in 2021 and beyond, companies will continue to devote more attention and resources to advance their inclusion efforts. But one challenge in understanding and measuring the inclusivity of an organization is that whereas diversity is relatively easy to measure, inclusion is typically described in qualitative, often subjective terms. As Paolo Gaudiano says:

I believe that at the root of these problems lies the fact that inclusion is invisible to those who enjoy it, because inclusion reflects the absence of negative incidents that make one feel excluded.

Tracking your growth year-to-year and reporting your diversity progress publicly can be positive signals to candidates or employees from underrepresented groups. But a diverse team isn’t necessarily an inclusive one. Setting arbitrary goals and hiring candidates to simply improve the numbers reflected in diversity reports isn’t going to serve those individuals or the organization.

So how do we measure inclusion in the workplace?

According to a Forbes Insight report, the most popular metrics are:

  • Employee productivity (said 77% of companies surveyed)
  • Employee morale (said 67% of companies surveyed)
  • Employee turnover (said 58% of companies surveyed)

And these make sense, since they track the reported benefits of an inclusive workplace, especially if these metrics show equivalent growth with tracked diversity data.

Employee surveys are also a promising way to measure inclusion. This concept measures inclusion in your organization by tracking the number of reported “incidents of exclusion”, asking your employees to indicate whether and how often they experience a list of certain types of exclusion. Developing an inclusion questionnaire and collecting responses requires some careful planning, both in terms of the kinds of questions you include, and in terms of who will be asked to provide responses.

How WORK180 promotes diversity and inclusion in the workplace

WORK180 helps employers build a diverse workforce, by delivering high-quality candidates across different backgrounds. By endorsing employers we ensure they are recognized globally as an organization that’s diverse, inclusive and supports women in the workplace.

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About the Author
Jacynta Clayton’s career started in recruitment advertising and employer branding, working with global clients to create and deploy strategic and creative content. Now she combines her industry experience with the knowledge from her psychology and professional writing degrees to write unique and resounding stories. As a WORK180 storyteller she relishes the opportunity to elevate the voices and experiences of so many amazing people, while also empowering and educating audiences on how to choose a workplace where they can thrive.

Looking for a new opportunity?

Our transparent job board only has vacancies from employers we endorse and lets you see what benefits, policies and perks come with the job.