Inclusion fundamentals: How to foster work settings where employees feel respected

Inclusion fundamentals: How to foster work settings where employees feel respected

by Felicity Menzies
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel, Maya Angelou.

Today, it is increasingly common for diversity management initiatives to be called ‘diversity and inclusion’, but these terms are not interchangeable. Diversity is the representation of different social or cultural groups and other individual differences in a workforce, whereas inclusion refers to the active integration of diversity into an organisation’s work processes.

Inclusion is critical for leveraging diversity’s benefits

While diversity has potential benefits for talent optimisation, stakeholder satisfaction, decision-making and innovation, without inclusion, the challenges of managing diversity (stereotypes and bias, language and communication barriers, differences in values, beliefs and behavioural norms) may prevent diverse employees from contributing fully to work processes. Diversity may even detract from performance. Workgroup diversity is associated with reduced cohesion and integration, increased conflict, decreased satisfaction and increased turnover. Meta-analyses report that the net effect of diversity on workgroup performance is nil, meaning that while some diverse groups outperform homogeneous groups, others underperform.

A growing body of new research exploring the factors that moderate the relationship between diversity and performance indicates that inclusion is a necessary precondition for leveraging the benefits of diversity. While diversity, per se, does not guarantee workgroup outperformance, diversity plus inclusion does. For example, a 2013 report by The Centre for Talent Innovation showed that organisations that give diverse voices equal airtime are nearly twice as likely as others to unleash value-driving insights and their employees are 3.5 times more likely to contribute their full innovative potential. The same report showed that firms with inclusive cultures are 45% more likely to report growth in market share over the previous year and 70% more likely to capture a new market. Inclusive workplaces also benefit from increased employee morale, trust and engagement, as well as pro-social workplace behaviours like collaboration and helping others.

Four-factor model of inclusion

Four factors are characteristic of inclusive work settings. Inclusive work settings are workplaces where;

  •     all employees feel respected
  •     all employees experience a sense of belonging
  •     all employees are empowered to contribute to work processes, and
  •     all employees have a fair chance of progressing their careers

When those four conditions are present, all members of the organisation participate in and contribute to an organisation’s decision-making processes and operations. Employers that are committed to creating inclusive work-settings must understand the drivers for each of these factors and implement policies, practices and behavioural change initiatives that support them.

In this blog, I shine a spotlight on the first of the four factors listed above, respect—exploring what it means to feel respected and ways that organisations can foster workplaces where employees feel respected.

Respect and inclusion

Respect exists when employees perceive that they are valued by the organisation and colleagues and that they can bring their whole and authentic selves to work without risk of prejudice, discrimination or harassment. Only when employees feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work will the company benefit from their differences. Respect is a basic human need, and its fulfilment enhances well-being. In motivational models, respect triggers approach behaviours and improves engagement and effort. The experience of disrespect, on the other hand, damages self-worth and triggers avoidance behaviours.

Respect and diversity

Despite a universal need for respect and esteem, disrespect occurs with alarming frequency, particularly between members of different social and cultural groups. The #MeToo movement has highlighted the shocking prevalence of sexual harassment at work globally. As another example, consider the high-profile case of the Asian-American doctor who was forcibly dragged, screaming and bleeding, from a United Airlines flight to make room for airline staff needing to travel home at the end of their shift. Consider also the arrest in April this year of two Black men after Starbuck employees called the police and complained the men were trespassing.

There are a few reasons why disrespect is more common intergroup compared with intragroup. First, studies show that, in general, people extend greater positive regard and liking towards ingroup members compared with outgroup members. This is called ingroup or affinity bias and is theorised to result from a universal human motivation to maintain a high regard for the self. Group membership is an important source of one’s self-esteem; we can boost our self-esteem by associating with high-status groups, by distancing ourselves from low-status groups, and by boosting the relative status of our ingroup compared with outgroups.

Ingroup bias across cultures or ethnic groups can manifest in its extreme form as ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is a belief in the superiority of your own culture. It results from judging other cultures by your own cultural ideals. Ethnocentrism is often accompanied by negative feelings, such as fear, hatred, or disgust. In its extreme form, ethnocentrism can lead to terrorism, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.

Negative stereotypes are also connected to disrespect. Stereotypes refer to beliefs that certain attributes, characteristics, and behaviours are typical of members of a particular group of people. We construct stereotypes from direct personal experience or, more commonly, from other people, or via the media. The media has a large influence on stereotype formation when we have limited opportunities for meaningful exchange with people from outside our own social group. Many of the stereotypes we hold are invalid and negative— particularly when they are based on race, religion, or gender. Negative stereotypes are linked to prejudice, discrimination, harassment and other forms of incivility.

Elements of respectful workplaces

Because the risk of disrespect is higher among individuals from different groups, organisations with diverse workforces must work harder to cultivate a culture of respect. Building workplaces where all employees feel respected requires attention to the following building blocks of respectful work settings:

(i) Civility

Civility is about treating others with courtesy, politeness, and concern. Civility is respecting the humanity of diverse others and showing positive regard for others as equals. Respect as civility involves a nonjudgmental acceptance of differences. It involves disagreeing without demonising and hearing diverse opinions without attacking.

(ii) Pay equity

Pay equity extends beyond equal pay for like roles. Pay equity means that everyone, irrespective of background, has equal access to opportunities. Pay inequity, on the other hand, implies that some groups are valued less than others because of who they.

(iii) Well-defined code of conduct and a zero-tolerance policy

Clearly communicated codes of conduct supported by a zero-tolerance policy for unacceptable behaviour send a strong message that every employee deserves to be treated according to, and will abide by,  the same standards.

(iv) Celebrating individual differences

When organisations formally acknowledge and celebrate aspects of an individual’s identity it sends a strong message to employees that their differences are valued and respected. Examples include acknowledging and celebrating days of religious significance, and participating in community-sponsored events such as Wear It Purple Day in support of LGBTIQA+ awareness especially for young people, or NAIDOC week, celebrating the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

(v) Acknowledging contributions

Everyone wants to feel that their contributions are valued. When an organisation or leader formally recognises the achievements of members of underrepresented groups, it helps to negate unconscious preferences for in-group members, which may lead to relatively greater recognition being granted to members of the majority group in an organisation compared with members from underrepresented groups.

(vi) Respectful language and addressing

Our choice of language conveys meaning other than the literal translation of the words used. Disrespect is expressed through crass language and demeaning terms. Crass language is language that is rude or insensitive, unrefined, undignified, vulgar or crude. Jokes that reference bodily parts or functions are crass, as are swear words. Demeaning terms are terms that we use to address people that reference stereotypes and diminish or imply, whether intentionally or not, one’s worth or value. Consider, for example, the use of the terms ‘babe’, ‘missus’, ‘girls’, ‘love’, ‘honey’, ‘dear’. Also included under the banner of demeaning terms and phrases are ‘man-up’; any reference to a female’s looks or body parts (even if intended as a compliment); always asking the women to do the office housework (organise social events, tidy the kitchen, empty the bins, put away the coffee mugs, take the lunch order, take the minutes, answer the office phone).

While seemingly harmless as an isolated incidence, overtime, disrespectful and demeaning language and behaviour can devalue, discourage, and impair workplace performance. Further, objections are often met with accusations of ‘overly sensitive’ or ‘too politically correct’. Those responses attack an individual’s self-concept and amplify the harm done.

Whatever you personally think about this issue, it’s worthwhile noting that inclusion or inclusive leadership isn’t about you– it’s about how you make other people feel. It’s therefore useful to mindfully monitor your day-to-day language and responses when interacting with others and actively seeking their input and feedback as to whether your choice of language and your behaviour is inclusive or whether it excludes by making other people feel uncomfortable, undervalued or ignored.

(vii) Micro-affirmations

When we interact with each other, we send unconscious messages that reflect how we feel and what we believe about each other. Those messages or micro-biases are conveyed through facial expressions, gestures, vocal tone, choice of words, nuance and syntax and can be positive or negative. For example, we might smile warmly at people like ourselves but fail to make eye contact with people from a different racial background. Other examples include failing to look up from your smartphone when engaging in a conversation with someone, interrupting someone or talking over them, directing your conversation more to one person or group of people in the room compared with others, and actively soliciting and favouring the contributions of some team members over others. Micro-biases are often automatic and unconscious, and it can be difficult for us to monitor and override them, particularly if we are rushed, stressed or distracted.

The impact of micro-biases is tempered by the active and intentional practice of micro-affirmations. Micro-affirmations are subtle, every-day acknowledgements of a person’s value and achievements. Examples include greeting colleagues, making introductions, listening attentively, personally acknowledging efforts and achievements, and responding to emotions with empathy. Micro-affirmations can also be expressed through positive body language such as smiling or making eye-contact. Because it is virtually impossible to convey a micro-bias and a micro-affirmation at the same time, intentionally practicing micro-affirmations is a useful strategy for managing unconscious biases.

(viii) Upstanders

Every time that a disrespectful or demeaning comment goes unchecked, it not only erodes the self-worth and esteem of the target but failing to call out a harmful behaviour normalises it. Upstanders are individuals who speak out or act in support of others and in doing so, help to discourage repeats of the unwanted behaviour.

A disturbing feature of many of the high-profile claims of sexual harassment covered by the media is the failure of bystanders to intervene. Although numerous colleagues of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Burke corroborated targets’ allegations of sexual harassment, the actions of these men continued for years without interference or reporting to the authorities by those who knew of the activities.

Social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley discovered that the bystander effect — the phenomenon whereby people are less likely to help others when there are other people around who can step in — is partly due to a diffusion of responsibility. Knowing that other people have witnessed a harmful event leads people to assume that others will step in to help the victim. The result is a disturbing lack of action. Other factors are also likely to be at play. For one, a powerful determinant of whether one will intervene or be a bystander is whether there is anything that suggests it might be costly to render assistance. This suggests culture and power have a contextual influence on the bystander effect. Another contributing factor to the bystander effect is whether the victim is similar to the bystander – people are more likely to help similar others, which partly explain why targets are more commonly (but not always) from underrepresented groups in the workplace. Also, the degree of ambiguity of a situation influences whether or not people intervene to assist others. People are more likely to intervene when it is clear that someone is being harmed and that they should intervene. Confusion around what behaviours are unacceptable, as well as the normalisation of some forms of discrimination and harassment in the media and society, can contribute to confusion over whether or not the target is being harmed.

A powerful antidote to the bystander effect is observing a respected role model intervene. Leaders that act as upstanders are particularly helpful in driving a respectful work setting.

(ix) Cultural competency

Cultural schemas are mental frameworks for interpreting the world that are shared by members of a cultural group. They act as social codes that guide individuals’ behaviour as they strive to fit in and succeed in a particular cultural context. There is great variation among the cultural schemas of different social groups, but when we do not appreciate the diversity of cultural schemas, we are limited to interpreting the world narrowly through our own cultural filter—our natural cultural code defines our reality and determines what is true and right for us. Any variations are deemed bizarre, wrong, or inferior.

Because our cultural frameworks are intimately tied to our self-concept, differences in values, beliefs, and behavioural norms can trigger emotional resistance or backlash. Cultural conflict is not inevitable, however: different cultural groups can and do coexist peacefully across the globe when there is an “appreciation of diversity, a recognition of the other side’s equality, and intercultural competence”. Developing intercultural competence helps individuals to come to accept the validity of different worldviews. Individuals with cultural awareness are less defensive and more accepting of novel ideas. They are open and receptive to new perspectives, ideas, and relationships.

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.