There’s no shortage of data and insights that highlight the importance of inclusion in the workplace. McKinsey & Company has been investigating the business case for diversity since 2015, with its most recent report released in May 2020. The research is clear: inclusion matters.

More specifically, we know that ethnically and gender-diverse companies are more likely to outperform their peers, and that companies with improved representation have seen a corresponding increase in profitability, while those that have not taken inclusivity measures have seen a negative impact on their bottom line.

Often, diversity and inclusion are treated interchangeably, with companies claiming to be “inclusive” despite lacking diversity in the workplace. This begs the question, “Can you have inclusion without diversity?” Simply put, the answer is no. You can’t have inclusion without both visible and invisible measures of diversity. Why? By definition, inclusion implies diversity. If an organization values the perspectives and contributions of everyone and allows authenticity in how people show up at work, then they are inclusive. Conversely, if only the perspectives and contributions of people from certain groups are valued in an organization, then diversity may be present, but inclusion is not.

To clarify the difference between diversity and inclusion, let’s take a closer look at what “exclusion” looks like.

Warning Signs of An Exclusive Work Environment

Exclusive workplace behaviors are those that focus on creating an “us” vs. “them” environment. Subsequently, exclusive workplaces tend to be plagued by consistent microaggressions, inaction when issues are presented, a lack of transparency and an expectation that employees must assimilate to the existing culture rather than bringing their authentic selves to work.

To determine whether your work environment is exclusive, start by performing an inclusivity audit based on your organization’s inclusion standards. This will help you gauge how well current policies, practices and protocols meet the intent of any objective listed within the standard. While there are not yet internationally recognized standards for inclusivity, organizations such as Inclusive Project, the Federal Reserve and GLHV can provide a framework from which to start.

The inclusivity audit will reveal the degree to which the following exclusive behaviors are present:

  • Dismissiveness: Dismissing or discounting suggestions from team members whose point of view opposes your own and/or the status quo.
  • Avoidance: Avoiding co-workers with whom you may feel uncomfortable (e.g., a co-worker who is transitioning, or someone with differing religious beliefs).
  • “Native Preferred”: Complaining about co-workers for whom English is a second language.
  • Inconsistent Policies: Failing to apply policies equitably (e.g., granting time off to an employee who wants to attend their child’s soccer game but not to the single employee who wants time off to attend a concert).
  • Stereotyping: Making assumptions about team members based on predisposed ideas, which are often biased, rather than getting to know them on a human level.

The objective of inclusivity is to treat everyone as an “insider,” where there is a sense of belonging, trust and value that is genuine and shared across all team members. Any scenario that leaves a team member feeling like an “outsider” contributes to an exclusive work environment.

Moving Toward Inclusive Behavior Change

As learning and development (L&D) leaders, we are uniquely positioned to impact organizational inclusivity. Below are few recommendations that embed inclusion in learning programs:

Create Realistic Experiences Using Role Play

Providing the opportunity for learners to have a lived experience of being part of a marginalized group will elicit emotion, lead to empathy and a greater opportunity to meaningfully connect with others. One famous example of this is the “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” exercise designed to teach children about racism, which was initially done by Jane Elliott in 1968.

In 1992, Oprah Winfrey performed this antiracism exercise with her audience, with Jane Elliott as her guest. The impact of the lived experience was clear, and created the opportunity for conversations about race.

The more L&D can create environments that leverage real-world scenarios to evoke empathy, the better.

Teach Emotional Literacy

Emotional literacy, also known as emotional intelligence (EQ or EI), is about our ability to express and manage our own emotions and respond to others’ emotions effectively. In so doing, we develop empathy. Once we are able to acknowledge our own feelings about inclusion (or lack thereof), we can talk about the intention and feelings behind the behavior. Given that humans first react emotionally when change is presented, being able to articulate what we feel versus how we feel helps us move toward desired change outcomes.

Find Common Ground

We all see the world differently based on our life experiences, values and upbringing. To drive inclusive behavior change, organizations need to discuss varying perceptions and find common ground around concepts such as respect, equality and dignity. The organization’s goal of inclusion can then be built from this shared understanding.

Reward Inclusive Behaviors

Consider the reward structure of your organization and the degree to which people are recognized and rewarded for inclusive behaviors. As you do:

  • Directly link rewards to specific inclusion goals.
  • Identify the desired inclusive behaviors that will reinforce the stated goals.
  • Determine how success will be measured.
  • Ask if the reward is appropriate for the level of work required.

Assessing the Impact of Inclusive Training

Awareness is the first step toward change. Start there; Is the organization aware that a problem around inclusive behaviors exists? Has the organization acknowledged the problem? Then, seek clarity and alignment by asking, “What problem are we trying to solve?” Without this alignment, any intervention introduced will mostly likely fail to have an impact.

Consider the questions below as a guide:

  1. What is the organization’s commitment toward inclusivity?
  2. What are the behavioral expectations or standards around inclusion for our organization?
  3. What gaps were identified by the Inclusivity Audit?
  4. What structure and processes are needed to address these gaps?
  5. How will the organization communicate and follow-through on changes?
  6. What does success look like for our organization? Or What does successful inclusion look like for our organization?

Driving behavior change for inclusivity requires leaders to regularly review their progress, revisit goals, and hold everyone accountable for achieving the behavior change they seek.

As we strive to create a more equitable and inclusive future for all, we can start by taking action and holding ourselves, and others, accountable by using tools that improve organizations rather than shield them from necessary change.