Nice job on improving diversity, HR leaders! Now it’s time to improve inclusion.
Researchers found many companies recently prioritized diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts – even when much of the workforce moved home. For the most part, diversity improved – and helped companies become more innovative, progressive and profitable, McKinsey researchers found.
But efforts to improve employee inclusion hasn’t fared as well.
“Inclusion may … fall short because it does not necessarily lead to a sense of belonging,” says Michael Slepian, the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School, in his Harvard Business Review research.
Employers have hired a more diverse workforce. But just because it’s a diverse group of employees working together doesn’t mean they feel like they belong together.
There are still cliques, perceptions, cultural and generational differences and poor attitudes that get in the way of true inclusion.
But HR leaders and front-line managers can help create a more inclusive culture in the coming year. First, you’ll want to identify where the problems are. Then you can improve.
How to identify inclusion issues
Most inclusion issues aren’t outright ridicule, exclusion or harassment. Instead, employees who are in diverse populations say they experience different degrees of rejection – from small slights to big blow-offs.
HR leaders and front-line managers will want to keep a watchful eye out for these inclusion issues.
Slepian coined “identity threats” as situations when one person makes it obvious that another is different. Those threats “can range from trivial to troubling,” he said.
For instance, a VP talks to low-wage employees about extravagant holiday gifts he gave to family members. Another example: An employee acts surprised when a co-worker doesn’t conform to a cultural stereotype.
Even if identity threats are unintentional, they lean toward intolerance and exclusion.
Microaggressions are everyday slights rooted in some kind of bias. No slight is OK. But when there’s conscious or unconscious bias behind a slight, it’s even more dangerous in the workplace.
McKinsey researchers found nearly every group of employees has experienced microaggressions – for example, by gender, gender identity, culture, sexual orientation, education level, etc.
Microaggressions are often displayed in one employee’s assumptions about another’s personal life. For instance, a male employee may assume a female colleague handles the majority of childcare and her husband works more, so she’s less capable to handle more responsibility at work.
Many employees – and especially women and ethnic and racial minorities – say their careers haven’t advanced as quickly as their peers. Part of the reason: exclusion, McKinsey researchers found.
Employees who are excluded from social events miss out on the networking, idea sharing and relationship building that occurs when colleagues get together professionally and socially. And when they don’t connect, they miss opportunities to advance their careers.
Disrespectful talk and behavior that’s passive-aggressive creates inclusion issues. It happens most often when employees say they’ve heard derogatory comments or jokes about people like them.
So employees who make an office feel less inclusive often target a group of people rather than their colleague who identifies with that group.
You can recognize this behavior if you listen for common – yet disrespectful – phrases such as, “Present company aside,” “With all due respect” or “Don’t take this the wrong way, but ….”
How to improve inclusion
Unfortunately, HR leaders and front-line managers can’t just plan more teambuilding events to fix inclusion issues.
It’ll take targeted efforts to get diversity and inclusion on track. Here are several research-suggested and field-proven techniques.
Recognize, don’t overemphasize
For D&I to work, HR leaders need to encourage and recognize diversity. But the key to winning at inclusion is to avoid overemphasizing diversity.
“A multicultural approach that focuses on emphasizing and celebrating people’s differences can too easily slide into unintentional endorsement of stereotypes and expectancies for specific differences between groups,” says the HBR researcher Slepian.
The fix: Strike a middle ground that makes minorities feel included without feeling singled out. You want to include diverse groups in all important conversations – but not because you need diverse insight. Do it because you want to make decisions based on what benefits all groups.
Create identity safe environments
This year, focus on creating a workplace that values employees from underrepresented backgrounds and demographics.
You can survey all employees about their experiences so far, what the ideal inclusive workplace should look like, and how to make it happen.
Remember you want to include all employees so you don’t single out minorities. Ask everyone: What is acceptable workplace behavior? How can your leaders speak to diverse audiences? How can we include more groups in more activity?
You want all employees to feel comfortable speaking up in their environment, especially if they see or experience something they don’t feel is inclusive.
And an open-door policy doesn’t cut it. Give all employees formal channels to connect with leaders and mentors who know best practices for reporting issues and supporting employees.
Think about the frame
Everyday work will still dominate the workplace. So it’s important for HR leaders, and especially front-line managers, to focus on day-to-day, individual inclusion efforts.
Include and reach out to employees from underrepresented backgrounds, but not as a representative of people like them. Instead, keep everyone’s unique perspective in focus. Perhaps they have insight from a different industry or job history. Leaders want to get to know employees better personally, so they can tap unique insight often.
McKinsey researchers found employees at companies with meritocratic culture – where people got ahead clearly based on their abilities and performance – had a greater sense of inclusion.
HR leaders want to lead initiatives that increase fairness in performance evaluations, career development and learning opportunities. Then train front-line managers to follow strict merit-based evaluation guidelines.
Create real – not surface – inclusion
Recognize the difference between surface and real inclusion. It’s important front-line managers help employees feel “real” inclusion – that is, included, involved and accepted.
Front-line managers want to avoid “surface” inclusion – only getting input so they can say they got the minority opinion. That makes minorities feel like they belong less – and undermines all D&I efforts.