Building Inclusive Workplaces

Building Inclusive Workplaces

by Felicity Menzies

Best practice diversity management involves a culture that recognises, respects, values, and embraces differences—a culture that encourages the expression of unique identities and shared learning. Diversity academics and practitioners refer to this as an inclusive culture.

Diversity is not the same as inclusion

Today it is increasingly common for diversity initiatives to be called “diversity and inclusion”. But these terms are not interchangeable. Diversity is simply the representation of different social groups. Inclusion refers to the active integration of this diversity into an organisation’s work processes. Inclusion is achieved when all members of the organisation are enabled to fully participate in and contribute to an organisation’s decision-making processes and operations.

Inclusion unlocks the value in diversity

Diversity, per se, does not foster inclusion. Without an inclusive culture, stereotypes and other forms of bias are likely to overshadow the potential benefits of diversity. Diversity may even detract from work performance. Prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, and isolation may prevent employees within underrepresented groups from fully contributing.

But an inclusive environment nurtures and supports pluralistic diversity—a context in which a collection of different voices are heard as well as seen. When this happens, the organisation benefits from increased workplace engagement. Moreover, the successful integration of diverse knowledge and ideas fosters innovation and creativity.

Comparing diversity management strategies

Inclusion is best practice diversity management, but not all diversity programs meet this standard. Diversity researchers present a useful typology of approaches to diversity:

Discrimination and fairness—avoiding legal risks

Organisations that approach diversity from a discrimination and fairness perspective are motivated by compliance and reputational concerns. These firms endeavour to minimise the risks associated with discrimination claims.

The discrimination and fairness strategy regards diversity as problematic. It seeks to solve diversity problems by assimilating employees to the majority culture of the organisation. Assimilation involves moulding a diverse group of employees into standardised policies and practices and encouraging and rewarding conformity to the dominant culture.

Assimilation is evident in a firm that actively recruits female employees but rewards and promotes on the basis of masculine values and/or an overtime culture that does not accommodate for family responsibilities.

Not surprisingly, organisations adopting a discrimination and fairness approach experience high levels of turnover and dissatisfaction among employees outside the dominant cultural group.

Access and legitimacy—increasing access to new markets

Organisations that approach diversity from an access and legitimacy perspective employ diversity to access new consumer segments. The access and legitimacy perspective does not seek to assimilate, but rather encourages differentiation to the extent that it matches customer demographics.

These organisations gain entry into new markets by better aligning their products, services, and marketing efforts with the needs and preferences of diverse customers. But this orientation does not seek to integrate diverse viewpoints or knowledge into core work processes across the organisation, which may lead to employees from underrepresented groups feeling exploited—their contributions are limited and localised.

Learning and effectiveness—integrating diversity into work processes

Organisations that adopt a learning and effectiveness approach seek to integrate diverse perspectives and knowledge into core work processes. These organisations experience enhanced returns from increased creativity, innovation, and higher-quality decision-making and problem-solving.  This approach views diversity as a core asset of the firm that can challenge and change existing processes and assumptions.

Furthermore, an environment that preserves cultural identities is more likely to be attractive to members of minority identity groups. Firms adopting an integration strategy are better able to attract the top talent from a diverse labour market.

While all three approaches to diversity management have benefits, only the learning and effectiveness approach can unlock the full potential of a diverse workforce.

Creating inclusive workplaces

An inclusive workplace does not seek to assimilate its members to a dominant group culture. Inclusion involves the preservation of a diversity of cultural identities.

One way to achieve this is by making accommodation for the distinct needs of different cultural identity groups. For example, flexible scheduling that recognises family demands and mentoring programs to overcome exclusion from informal social networks.

An inclusive culture can also be nurtured by fostering friendships among diverse colleagues. A relational approach enhances inclusion by encouraging the sharing of information and perspectives, which in turn reduces the stereotyping and prejudice. Food-sharing is an effective way to encourage dialogue and shared learning between culturally diverse individuals. This technique and other similar team-building exercises can prompt diverse group members to share information about their unique backgrounds, experiences and skills.

Inclusion can also be encouraged by structuring tasks and rewards to encourage cooperation and collaboration. For example, the use of diverse teams with shared goals, rewarding group performance or using 360-degree feedback. On the other hand, highly independent job design and reward structures can foster competitiveness and defensiveness—they hinder communication and shared learning.

Innovation is a two-step process: (1) unlocking access to diverse perspectives and sources of information (idea generation), and (2) the merging or integration of these ideas in new or novel ways (elaboration and transformation). Contextual factors within an organisation can stifle these processes, particularly with respect to lower-level staff. Employee involvement initiatives aim to encourage junior staff to participate in idea generation and elaboration.

But employee involvement practices may not be similarly effective across cultures. Cultures that value Collectivism, high Power Distance, and Uncertainty Avoidance may resist interventions aimed at encouraging contributions from junior staff. As with all diversity efforts, caution should be exercised when adopting practices that have originated in the United States in other cultural contexts.

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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.