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6 steps for building a more inclusive culture at work

Imagine you’re sitting around a boardroom table or participating in an online workplace meeting. You and your colleagues are Black, Asian, Latinx, white, and mixed-race. Some identify as LGBTQIA. Some use a wheelchair or a cane. Some are visually impaired and use a text-to-speech function. Some are hard of hearing and use live captioning. Employees range in age from baby boomers to Generation Zers. Savvy office managers know this level of diversity in the business world is not only the right thing to do; it inspires innovation, improves services and products, and increases sales.

In the wake of national protests, companies are evaluating their diversity, equity, and inclusion policies to address where they fall short and brainstorming ways to create inclusive workplace cultures. Employers can take numerous steps to increase diversity and ensure people from all backgrounds feel welcome and accepted at work. First, however, it’s helpful to understand the state of diversity in the U.S. workforce and assess your company to create an informed action plan.

Workplace diversity today

The statistics are sobering. At present, Fortune 500 companies include only three Black CEOs. The U.S. population is 12.5 percent Black, but this demographic represents only 3.2 percent of senior leadership positions. Hispanics make up 18.3 percent of the population but make up only 4.3 percent of company executives. Asian Americans represent 5.6 percent of the U.S., but only 4.5 percent fill executive roles. Disabled people number approximately 20 million in the U.S. But only 34 percent of people with disabilities participate in the labor force, compared to 77 percent of people without disabilities.

6 steps for building a more inclusive culture at work

In 2019, the Wall Street Journal’s research analysts ranked corporate sections and individual companies in the S&P 500 index with relation to diversity and inclusion. The 20 most diverse companies included numerous banks and insurers, followed by consumer-staples and communications-services industries. 

However, the technology sector lags. For example, three years ago, 3 percent of Facebook’s employees were Black. That number has grown to just 3.9 percent. Other companies, including Microsoft, Apple, and Twitter, boast low single-digit increases. Google’s 2020 diversity report shows that almost half of its employees are white, and only 6.8 percent are Latinx. According to Microsoft’s 2019 diversity report, 6.2 percent of employees are Hispanic, compared to 52.1 percent of white employees. 

Forty-seven percent of women in the U.S. are employed; however, they make up a much smaller minority of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. For instance, only 32.5 percent of Google’s new hires in 2019 were women. 

This lack of diversity hurts workers and companies. A 2020 Center for Talent Innovation study shows that 32 percent of Black employees, 23 percent of Asian employees, and 15 percent of Latinx employees say they’ve felt out of place at work because of their race or ethnicity. Many employers want to diversify and embrace a wide variety of workers in a safe and supportive space, but they’re unsure where to start. 

How to build an inclusive workplace culture

Here’s a six-step plan to help you transform your office into an inclusive workplace. 

Assess your current team

Along with analyzing workplace trends in recruiting and hiring, take a close look at each individual’s title and pay. Do employees at the same level with similar education and experience earn the same amount? Women and people of color historically earn less than their white male counterparts. 

How long does it take employees to earn a promotion? Does your company provide equal access to additional growth opportunities? Do all workers have access to upper management and a voice in decision-making processes? 

Along with assessing employee demographics, look at whether your workplace fosters an inclusive culture. Does each individual feel appreciated and treated with respect? If not, what are the specific complaints? Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) provide counselors who maintain confidentiality as they listen to staff members’ complaints, and then work with supervisors to address issues.

Empowered with insights, office managers can improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

Educate for success

As you launch new programs aimed at creating a more inclusive culture, get leaders on board. You can make a strong business case for diversity. Studies suggest that diverse teams surpass less inclusive counterparts by 50 percent. Companies with diverse leadership teams demonstrate more innovation and higher revenue. Millennials, which comprise the majority of the U.S. workforce, are more deeply engaged in workplaces when employers demonstrate an inclusive culture. 

6 steps for building a more inclusive culture at work

Unconscious bias—an individual’s beliefs based on stereotypes about particular groups of people—affects a company’s hiring and promotion trends. Office managers can launch an education program to train leaders and employees to recognize bias and mitigate it by identifying and addressing it head-on.

You could ask each individual to complete the free 15-minute Implicit Association Test developed by the non-profit organization Project Implicit. Then offer employees the opportunity to discuss their biases with a diverse group of coworkers in a safe space facilitated by a workplace diversity expert skilled in providing bias literacy training. 

Create an advocacy task force

Once leaders and employees have completed implicit bias training, office managers can form a diversity and inclusion council or task force to advocate for inclusivity. Research suggests these groups have strong positive effects on boosting managerial diversity

Consider the members of your task force carefully. Ideally, they should include:

  • The company president or CEO
  • Middle-level managers
  • A human resources officer
  • An employee who’s expressed dissatisfaction with company practices
  • Staff representatives of various demographics who are passionate about the topic 

This team can be instrumental in helping to set up policies and practices to remove bias during the recruiting process. They can also nurture and advance the careers of diverse personnel. Councils should meet at least every quarter to address particular challenges and inform senior company members of their progress in fostering an inclusive workplace atmosphere.

Form employee resource groups

Along with a diversity and inclusion task force, consider encouraging employees to form Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs, which exist in 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Usually, employees who share a common characteristic such as age, gender, or ethnicity start an ERG. These groups facilitate professional networking, support, and personal and professional development. They also focus on diversity and inclusion while working in alignment with a company’s mission and objectives.

Including ERGs in your workplace offers numerous benefits. ERGs can advocate for improvements in the physical work environment, such as gender-neutral restrooms and live-captioned Zoom meetings. They can also identify and mentor individuals who the company may—because of unconscious bias—overlook for leadership positions. 

Interested in facilitating ERGs in your workplace? Make sure each group includes a senior leader who acts as an executive sponsor and that the management team supports and funds all ERGs. Invite all employees to participate, whether as a member of a particular group or as an ally.

6 steps for building a more inclusive culture at work

Focus on daily diversity

Office managers and diversity-and-inclusion task force managers should focus on improving daily interactions to ensure they reflect an inclusive culture. For instance, a company may adhere to ADA requirements, but lack a disability inclusion mindset. In other words, they may not believe and act as though difference is an asset.

Knowing that employees may worry about being stigmatized, create an environment that encourages them to ask for and expect support. Studies show one in four adults has a disability. Make sure your workplace offers various ways to access meetings. And frequently provide growth opportunities to weigh in on experiences and needs. 

Also, consider the needs of the LGBTQIA workforce. Studies show that half of LGBTQIA employees remain closeted at work, and three-fourths have reported harmful interactions related to their identity on the job over the past year. It’s also important to note that many employees who identify as heterosexual are aware of LGBTQIA inclusion in the workplace and count themselves as passionate advocates and allies. 

Office managers can show respect for gender identity by asking for and using employees’ preferred pronouns. They can encourage team members to identify their preferred pronouns in email signatures as well. (Note that “they” is an accepted non-binary pronoun that’s internationally recognized.) Consider other changes to language too. For example, the word “partner” may be more inclusive than terms such as “husband,” “wife,” “girlfriend,” or “boyfriend.”

Even small things matter. If you provide food and beverages in the workplace, make sure you include people with allergies, sensitivities, medical concerns, or diverse cultural dietary practices. And plan work events and parties that include everyone.

Be the strongest ally in the office

It’s critical that office managers and others in leadership positions take employee complaints seriously and point out examples of discrimination and bias in the workplace, along with any practice that neglects diversity as a priority. Be aware of workplace microaggressions. These are unconscious discriminatory actions that make people feel different or excluded. For example, when white employees can’t remember minority coworkers’ names or continually pronounce them wrong, the workplace can feel like a hostile environment. Teach your staff how to recognize and avoid microaggressions. 

While you’re considering how best to show concern for each employee, look at the dynamics around that table in the boardroom or during online meetings. Are people of color, women, people with disabilities, or those who identify as LGBTQIA consistently interrupted or in any way put down by others? Allies make space for all employees to talk freely and safely, modeling how other coworkers can do the same. 

Showing this level of care for your team benefits employees and companies. For example, it may increase retention. One study suggests that 60 percent of workers who feel cared for by employers intend to stay with their company for at least three years compared to 7 percent who don’t feel cared for at work.

Conclusion

It may be challenging to assess where your company stands when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to take steps to improve your company’s culture. But it’s worth the effort. Everyone benefits from inclusive workplace culture. 

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