The Inclusive Workplace

Tolerance is not inclusion. Here’s how to get inclusion right.

Diversity efforts at tech companies should start with inclusion.

An illustration of three jars filled with liquid, labelled "Diversity," "Equity" and "Inclusion."

There's a variety of steps companies can take to try to foster and measure inclusion.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

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

Tech companies have been releasing diversity reports since 2014, but the recent experiences of whistleblowers like Dr. Timnit Gebru and Ifeoma Ozoma serve as another wake-up call to those in the tech industry who don't know what it feels like to experience racism and discrimination. If these well-detailed experiences of racism, sexism and discrimination in tech have taught us anything, it's that inclusion is perhaps the most important element of diversity and inclusion work.

While most companies start at diversity and representation efforts, "inclusion is where people should start," Rachel Williams, head of equity, inclusion and diversity at X: the moonshot factory, told Protocol. "If you're not managing your inclusive practices or auditing how you're not being inclusive, you run the risk of harming the diverse talent you seek to bring in."

Unconscious bias training was once hailed as the go-to solution for fostering inclusion in a workplace. But what's become clear over the years is that it's one of many tools a company can use. It's also by no means the best tool.

"Is anything really effective in just a few hours?" Williams asked and then immediately answered, "I don't think so. I think the challenge for L&D teams is how do you give people consistent, ongoing reminders of the new behaviors that these people were taught over a long period of time. If I had my druthers and would start a company, that would probably be the company I started. Like, some kind of Apple Watch app that buzzed every time you said something a little problematic."

But since the industry isn't there yet, DEI practitioners have come up with concrete strategies to build inclusion in the workplace, as well as measure inclusivity at individual companies.

Tolerance is not inclusion

The first step in fostering inclusion is understanding what it means. Inclusion, for all workers, is about feeling safe, welcome and that they belong, Melinda Epler, CEO of the diversity consulting business Change Catalyst, told Protocol.

Change Catalyst has developed a "five stages of inclusion" model. For employees, they can tell if they feel included at a company if, for example, they feel welcome and safe there. Feeling safe might mean that the employee feels that their colleagues trust them, respect them and don't inflict harm on them, Epler said. The other three stages of inclusion touch on engagement, commitment and belonging.

"That also means that you don't have to worry about experiencing microaggressions and tokenism and biases and unfair systemic barriers," she said. That also means you don't have to spend that extra emotional energy with what Catalyst calls, "emotional tax for code-switching," or covering a piece of your identity in order to feel safe and included."

Code-switching may look like adjusting one's style of speech, appearance or behavior in order to receive better treatment in homogeneous environments. Code-switching, while it can be beneficial for career advancement, can come at a psychological cost, according to the Harvard Business Review. For example, research has shown the effort to avoid stereotypes can negatively affect someone's performance and impact their cognitive resources.

For Aubrey Blanche, director of equitable design of product and people at human resources company Culture Amp, inclusion means seeing and valuing people for what they bring to the table, she told Protocol. It also means that folks "enjoy the same rights and opportunities within that space," she said.

Inclusion also comes down to power, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, founder and CEO of the DEI consulting firm ReadySet, told Protocol.

"People think they can hire some Black people, some Latinx folks, some Asian folks and older workers, and be nice to them and that is inclusion," she said. "That's not full inclusion. That's tolerance."

Inclusion looks like bringing those people in and creating pathways for them to lead and have the power to control organizational outcomes, she said.

"True inclusion is where everybody has the potential to access power and have control," Hutchinson said. "I think anything short of that is just tolerance. What's really at the heart of this is the idea of equitable access to power, equitable access to control and equitable potential for success in a given company without assimilating to some sort of dominant cultural way of being."

Another challenge with fostering inclusion is addressing those small, everyday negative moments that can add up over time, Williams said.

"People think about inclusion as these big strategies but it's really about what happens between co-workers in a meeting, after the meeting, and who's on the email that talks about some important project or an update, or who's not on the email," she said. "It's really in those small, little everyday actions that speak to whether you're building on inclusivity or you're building on exclusivity. "

She added, "Whenever you get someone who wants to leave an organization, it is a combination of all those moments."

Measuring inclusion

Measuring inclusion isn't quite as simple as counting how many people of color there are in a workplace, but with the right tools, inclusion can still be easy to track.

Attrition data can be very useful in gauging how inclusive a workplace feels to employees, Hutchinson said. A company failing at inclusion may struggle with retention and inadvertently create what's known as a leaky pipeline. That company may have the best diverse recruiting practices in the industry, but struggle to retain employees of color, women, genderqueer, transgender and disabled employees.

Surveys are another tool. At Culture Amp, the company uses five basic questions in a survey that look at respect, authenticity, belonging, perceptions of equity and valuing diversity, Blanche said.

The questions are, "I can be my authentic self at work," "I feel respected at [company name]," "I feel like I belong at [company name]," "I feel valued for the unique contribution I can make to [company name]" and "I feel safe to take risks at [company name]."

Culture Amp, which works with companies like Airbnb, Etsy and Slack, designs its surveys to measure sentiment throughout every level of a workplace. From there, Culture Amp has tools to cut the responses based on demographics and roles in the company.

"So you can not only identify differences in experience, but what you often see is that senior leaders overestimate the degree of inclusion that exists, especially for marginalized BIPOC disabled folks, or especially folks who are at those intersections," Blanche said.

The goal of the survey isn't to necessarily find out if a company is doing well or poorly overall. Instead, the survey is designed to highlight the areas where companies can make improvements. One insight could be, Blanche said, about whether Asian employees are having better or worse experiences than other people of color at the company, as well as in comparison to their white colleagues.

"So it's not necessarily going to say this is bad or this is good, but it's going to be able to call out where you have those gaps and where you have the most negative responses," she said.

The best types of questions explore the individual experiences of employees, Blanche said. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, some Culture Amp customers asked if they should survey their employees about how much the company should support the Black Lives Matter movement.

"That is not a good question," Blanche said. "You shouldn't be putting issues of equity and justice up to a popular vote in your likely mostly white company. You should not put out a survey asking how much you should care about Black people. It's not a good thing to do."

The best questions, Blanche said, are the ones that speak to specific actions and experiences. From there, companies need to take those learnings and apply them to the workplace.

"There's this unwritten social contract between employees and companies that when they survey, they need to take action on it," she said. "If you fail to do that one, two times, you can break down that trust and willingness to provide honest and authentic feedback that ultimately helps you audit your organization for equity and inclusion."

Building equitable processes

Inclusion is a big pie, and equity is one piece of it, Epler said. She insists that a company can't achieve full inclusion without equity. That equity piece touches on company practices such as compensation, performance reviews and even ensuring administrative tasks that don't have a specific owner, like taking notes, don't always go to women.

Change Catalyst, for example, previously worked with a company that conducted a compensation audit and found they were doing well, Epler said. The company later looked at promotions and realized it took three years longer for women to be promoted compared to men.

"So technically, they were being paid equitably given the level they were but they should have been a different level," she said.

At Culture Amp, the company recently needed to determine if its promotion process was equitable, Blanche said. That meant ensuring Black, Indigenous and other people of color at the company received a percentage of promotions equal to their overall representation at the company, Blanche said.

"Because if not, that means there's likely something inequitable happening," she said.

The issue, however, is that the knowledge alone doesn't necessarily provide a solution or "tell me what's broken," she said.

That's why companies, Culture Amp included, need to also analyze inclusion and, in this case, determine whether BIPOC employees feel like the company is a good place to develop professionally, she said.

"In order to create any kind of useful change," Blanche said, "you need to be collecting all of that data and analyzing it in order to come up with solutions that aren't just pulled from a best practices list, but rather sort of custom fit to what's working and what's not within an organization."

Forcing a cultural shift

Allyship is another piece of the inclusion pie, according to Epler. In fact, she believes "we won't fundamentally change inclusion very much until we have a critical mass of allies in our workplaces."

For the last several years, much of the diversity, equity and inclusion work has fallen to DEI practitioners, i.e., heads of diversity at companies, employee resource groups or other marginalized individuals in the workplace.

"But we're all creating harm unintentionally and need to stop doing that," she said. "We all have the ability to really be there for our colleagues, and support our colleagues and advocate for our colleagues, and advocate for equity and inclusion. And it really does take all of us doing that work for it to really succeed. I don't think we can have inclusive workplaces without people being active allies and advocates."

Epler recommends that companies encourage allyship among its workforce. But that means companies also need to equip employees with the skills, the tools, the language and the understanding to do it effectively, she said.

"Because most people get overwhelmed," she said. "They have some fear around it. You have to kind of move through that fear with learning. When companies offer training around it, it also says to people that the company cares about allyship. In addition to the training itself, and giving people the knowledge and the skills and the push to be better for each other, it also helps normalize that this is important across the company. And it gives people a common language to use."

While many people have heard the word "microaggressions," there are still those who don't know what it means or what a microaggression looks like, Epler said.

A microaggression is commonly understood as subtle comments or insults that serve to put down people of color, women or folks from other marginalized communities. Calling a Black person "articulate" is one type of microaggression, as it implies Black people are unintelligible and that it's surprising when a Black person speaks coherently.

Once employees in a workplace are on the same page about microaggressions, for example, they can practice being allies and calling out microaggressions or other unbecoming behavior if they see it, Epler said.

"That's when you start to have a real culture shift," she said.

Choosing the right leader

But leading this type of work is perhaps best left to diversity experts, Hutchinson said. That means companies should have a head of diversity that reports directly to the CEO, she said.

"You can't have a head of DEI buried under HR," Hutchinson said. "That position is less useful. You want someone who has a budget, who has autonomy and who actually has real power in the organization to make difficult decisions."

When it comes time for training sessions or surveys, Hutchinson recommends that the head of DEI bring in a third party to collect data about sentiment. In her experience, Hutchinson has found employees are more likely to be transparent about the issues they're facing if there's some separation between them and their bosses.

"I think to the extent that you can have a third party come in and be able to do so with integrity and distance, I think it can be really beneficial," she said. "I think you also have to get real about the organization that you bring in and what they do and what you want them to do."

Companies, for example, have reached out to ReadySet to conduct training to fix structural problems. ReadySet, however, is not the right provider for that.

"Don't bring in a training organization if you really need them to reform your hiring process," she said. "Don't bring in an organization that's all about branding and comms if you have a problem with your reporting and conflict resolution processes. Really thinking about which third party you bring in, how that aligns with what your needs are and where your gaps are, and who is best positioned to set you up for success is crucial."

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