The Inclusive Workplace

Five ways to think about workplace inclusion in 2021

The way employees think about inclusion has rapidly changed. Here's how to ensure your efforts are effective.

People gathered around a conference room table
Photo: Hinterhaus Productions via Getty Images

This story is part of "The Inclusive Workplace," a Protocol special report. Read more here.

Your guide to understanding how and why to foster workplace inclusion in 2021.

Avoid performative allyship at all costs

Performative allyship no longer cuts it in today's world. Workers expect action. Whether it's a response to the recent racial reckoning, the COVID-19 crisis or the grief of natural disasters, employees are seeking genuine support. Gone are the days when a company's leaders could slap a mission statement and bulleted list of values on their corporate website and walk away. Many companies are distancing themselves from their late 20th century versions of inclusion. Progress in recent years has looked like increased transparency among Fortune 500 companies, the sharing of diversity numbers and publicly releasing the related reporting.

Workers want company leaders to do more than throw money at a nonprofit to demonstrate that it cares. There is also a new focus on the need to build trust between workers and leadership — this is essential to building genuine inclusion. According to Catalyst, true inclusion is found in creating an atmosphere of universal belonging where everyone feels they can contribute and succeed. It also calls for intentional action. This is the new allyship.

If companies do choose to invest in inclusion by hiring someone to lead DEI, those companies must also set up their leads for success and give them the resources they need to be effective in the organization. Resources can look like providing a team, situating them in the organization among leadership and giving them access to executives to garner support for initiatives. All of this matters and denotes how diversity and inclusion efforts will be perceived by the employees. It signals just how serious a company is about making sure all employees feel welcome.

Listen and then act

Perhaps more important than action is inaction. Effective organizations take the time to listen and gauge where their employees are at when it comes to inclusion. Whether this is a listening tour or a number of one-on-one meetings, leaders steering their company toward greater inclusion have to go on a fact finding mission to understand where they're starting from.

According to Bernard Coleman who leads employee engagement and diversity at Gusto, listening and learning can be more effective than jumping head first into solutions and sharing best practices. Instead, organizations will benefit from a focus on learning and distilling newfound knowledge to create educated takeaways. Only then can companies launch initiatives with the potential for successful adoption among employees. If employees are not ready or do not share the same understanding of the issue, the efforts are likely to be rejected. Just like in business, there needs to be a clear and common understanding of the problem. Leaders can assess where their company is by looking at the makeup of the staff and the demographic breakdown on each team and evaluating whether what they see matches the stated values.

Unconscious bias training does not solve everything

Unconscious bias training is incapable of solving all issues of inclusion. Instead, training is just one tool of many that companies should use to address diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

When a company does release training to employees, HR leaders should be aware of possible challenges or roadblocks among workers. One, namely, is fear. Some people have expressed a fear of being exposed for trying or not understanding diversity issues. This often leads people to do nothing at all. Creating a place where people feel safe to ask questions and learn will bring more people into the conversation.

Fix inclusion and fix the pipeline

If a company can manage to fix problems related to inclusion they might also fix the pipeline problem. Inclusion and retention are often closely linked. People are more likely to leave if they don't feel welcome or included in the workplace.

Mthree found 50% of workers between the ages of 18 and 28 "have left or or wanted to leave a tech job because the company culture made them feel uncomfortable," in its Diversity in Tech: 2021 U.S. Report. In addition, 68% of these young tech workers said they've "felt uncomfortable in their job because of their gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background or neurodevelopmental condition." The organization surveyed 2,030 tech workers and 270 business leaders. In general, the number of unemployed people who quit or voluntarily left their job to seek new employment in August 2021 totaled 822,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

ERGs still have the ability to create belonging in the workplace

Employee resource groups (ERGs) are still critical to creating more inclusive workplaces. Though, it should be noted that the work of starting an ERG and maintaining the groups falls disproportionately on underrepresented employees. ERGs are legitimized by paying the leaders and offering the resources and autonomy for them to thrive. Treating an ERG like a side project can hinder effectiveness.

Company leadership can also use ERGs to their advantage. They can serve as an internal focus group that can gauge the temperature of the organization and gain a better understanding of various internal pain points. Thus, it's important that leaders maintain an active relationship, not to be confused with oversight. ERGs should always serve as a resource, rather than a group that is exploited via initiatives like press or publicity. Utilizing an ERG as proof of a company's investment in diversity can feel performative for involved employees. Last, while corporate ERGs empower and engage underrepresented employees, they are sometimes used to undermine union efforts. The groups serve as a safe space, but in some cases they possess little power when it comes to enacting real change. At the end of the day, workers want action.

More from The Inclusive Workplace