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Embracing Inclusivity in the Workplace (Author Q&A)

Potted plants.

An inclusive workplace culture empowers diverse talent to use their experiences to help drive innovation, engagement and development. Improving inclusion is an ongoing task, but by encouraging diversity, equality and inclusion at work all employees can feel safe, valued and respected in the workplace.

We asked our five experts to share their personal experiences and insights to help promote the benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce. This is what they’ve told us.

What does inclusion mean to you?

Sheree Atcheson: Inclusion means voices are actively heard and insights are actioned. It's ensuring people of all perspectives and backgrounds know that when they speak, they're listened to fairly and openly. And they know that their feedback is digested and worked into a fair and balanced outcome, alongside other people's voices. No one's voice is greater or lesser than anyone else’s.

Advita Patel & Priya Bates: Inclusion for us is when every person feels they can fairly contribute to conversations in their workplace without the fear of being ostracized for having a different point of view. It’s also about ensuring that everyone has equitable opportunities to progress in their careers, despite their background or demographic. It’s about creating a space where people feel like they belong and are able to be whoever they need to be to do their job well and help others do the same.

Stephen Frost: Inclusion means incorporating talent that would otherwise be missed. It means adapting to other people rather than expecting them to adapt to you. This is kinder and helps you grow as a person.

Do you think inclusivity should be a collective responsibility for everyone in an organization? Why?

Sheree Atcheson: Yes, I believe inclusivity should be a collective responsibility because each of us impacts other people - whether that be on a peer level, manager level or team level. We all interact with each other and there is a responsibility as colleagues to do so in a way that is open, empathetic and inclusive. The world doesn't revolve around any one person singularly and it's important we recognize that.

Advita Patel & Priya Bates: Yes, it should be. You can’t cultivate change when you don’t have allies and supporters doing their bit. It’s exhausting and unfair having to lead this change on your own. If every person took responsibility to ensure no one in their area of work felt excluded, it would change the entire organization for the better. We always say small ripples create big waves - everyone can do their part.

Stephen Frost: Yes, obviously. Inclusion is leadership and you can’t delegate that. You can’t outsource your own behaviour to the Head of DEI. The problem comes with accountability. It’s so easy for a corporate website to say “everyone is responsible for inclusion” but what does that actually mean? What it should mean is that whilst certain people might have paid accountability for strategy, data, workstreams and so on, everyone should have a specific measured accountability for their own behaviour. The Board are responsible for overall organizational conduct, including inclusion. The Executive are accountable for their departments and every person in the organization is accountable for their own behaviour.

Salma Shah: Yes absolutely! Inclusion is critical for transformational change. We can only raise the bar towards building a future-focused organization collectively.

If all organizations were inclusive, what impact would that have had on you during your career?

Advita Patel & Priya Bates: We believe we may have had more equitable opportunities to progress to board or executive-level roles. We worked hard in our organizations, and we’re proud of what we achieved despite some adversity. But we had to prove ourselves 100 times more than someone who wasn’t underrepresented.

Stephen Frost: It would have changed it completely. Despite coming top in the CSSB exams in 1998, I couldn’t join the Foreign Office as gay people were prohibited from serving until 2000. So, I went into advertising. I was the only openly gay person at my agency in the early 2000s.

Salma Shah: I always had a ‘just get on with it’ mentality and forged ahead regardless of lacking a sense of belonging or not feeling psychologically safe. In hindsight, not feeling safe or seen took me close to burnout and the resilience I was showing was actually dysfunctional resilience from running on empty. There is only so much emotional detachment and rising above one can do before it impacts loyalty and performance levels. Having said that, I worked with many great colleagues and the lesson I learnt was to work with those who respected and valued me.

How do you think organizations can promote inclusion?

Advita Patel & Priya Bates: Encourage curiosity to help build connections. People don’t know what they don’t know. But, in the world of hybrid working and the polarizing views often shared in the media and across social channels, we’re prone to more misinformation and disinformation than ever, leading to biased opinions. To address the disconnect, we need to learn about the people we work with. This means we have to be intentional with the time we spend together at work. How often do you check in on colleagues and ask how they are doing, or if they need anything from you to help them do their job better? It shouldn’t be difficult to personalize employee experience depending on the needs of your team. That is how inclusivity starts.

To allow inclusive cultures to thrive, you must build a psychologically safe environment. People shouldn’t fear speaking up if they feel they are being treated differently. Getting defensive is not helpful and will diminish trust quickly. Once trust is broken, it’s hard to rebuild.

Stephen Frost: Stop thinking of inclusion as a workstream (that often gets deprioritized) and make it a core priority. To do this you need to view inclusion as a method, not a task. It’s how you do something, not just what you do. Reward the behaviours you want to see – include them in your performance metrics, compensation calculations, values, role model behaviours and celebrate achievements. Sometimes you need to lay down the law (literally and figuratively) to make it clear what’s simply not acceptable.

Salma Shah: Promoting inclusion shouldn’t be treated as a silo, one-off activity or project: itis just one piece of the jigsaw puzzle of creating a more inclusive workplace. Inclusion needs to be embedded into a culture of psychological safety and belonging, where everyone has a fair and equitable opportunity and a seat at the table. These measures should be incorporated as KPIs.

What steps can each of us take to promote workplace inclusivity?

Sheree Atcheson:

1. Listen - listen to perspectives both like and unlike yours.

2. Self-reflect - reflect on why we’re drawn to certain people over others, recognizing that we may provide different experiences to different people.

3. Change - know that we don't have all the answers but that if we're willing to make even small changes for big impacts, we can create healthier, more inclusive environments.

Advita Patel & Priya Bates: Don’t underestimate the power of curiosity. Listening to someone who may be different and making adjustments so they can thrive in their work is essential. But you can only make these adjustments if you know who they are and what they need from you. Not giving people the space to share will create a culture where people will not be engaged or connected to their work, leading to poor performance and impacting profits overall.

At an individual level, you need to understand the gaps in your knowledge. Most organizations don’t tend to have an issue recruiting diverse talent, but they do struggle in retaining the talent because often the culture is not inclusive. This is due to managers and peers not recognizing the symptoms of their toxic behaviour such as micromanaging, gaslighting others, not allocating projects fairly, ignoring feedback, excluding people from meetings or conversations, etc.

The other challenge is that many organizations try to do too much and then fail because they haven’t allocated the right resources or budget. And when they fail, they think it’s because nobody cares and it’s too much hard work. In our experience, the majority of good leaders do care. The challenge is the lack of accountability, consistency and resources allocated.

We also believe that every leader should have an inclusion coach who can help them understand what they need to do to be better. They need to explore their learning in a safe space and be able to learn without fear of making mistakes.

Ultimately, we all have a choice on how we treat people and how we can ensure they feel included in our presence. We need to choose hope over fear. It’s the only way we can progress this work.

Stephen Frost:

1. Understand - why does it matter to you? It could be moral, ethical, personal or it could be a matter of compliance, progression, sales or simply ego and reputation.

2. Lead – only you can lead yourself. Be aware of your own bias, cognitive load and impact on others. Get regular feedback and consider inclusion as part of your ongoing professional development.

3. Deliver – choose two or three concrete, tangible actions that you hold yourself accountable for and regularly measure. They can be really simple, like how you run a meeting or who you have coffee with.

Salma Shah: We need to ask ourselves the following 5 questions:

1. What is my intention when it comes to being inclusive?

2. What will be my action?

3. What stops me from including everyone?

4. Who am I most likely to exclude?

5. What can I do to change?

 About the Authors

About the authors

Sheree Atcheson is Group Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion at Valtech. As an award-winning leader, she works across regions and industries providing thought-provoking, boundary-breaking leadership training to business executives to develop data-driven diversity and inclusion strategies. She's the author of Demanding More.

Advita Patel is the director of CommsRebel and co-host of an award-winning podcast, CalmEdgedRebels and A Leader Like Me. An experienced speaker, she has worked in internal communications for 17 years and has gained experience in various industries. In September 2023, she was nominated as President of the CIPR. She's the co-author of Building a Culture of Inclusivity.

Priya Bates is President and owner of Inner Strength Communication and co-host of the Leader Like Mepodcast. She is an accredited Business Communicator (ABC) and was one of the first Certified Strategic Communication Management Professionals (SCMP) globally. She's the co-author of Building a Culture of Inclusivity.

Stephen Frost is the CEO and Founder of Included, a global impact-led diversity and inclusion consultancy. He works with clients around the world to embed inclusion into their decision making and was formerly Head of Diversity and Inclusion for the London Organizing Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. He's the editor of The Key to Inclusion.

Salma Shah is the Founder and Director of the award-winning Mastering Your Power, a certified coach training programme designed with a wider systemic lens of diversity, inclusion, belonging and equity. She's the author of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging in Coaching.

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