New technology, social activism, and an unexpected global pandemic have helped us redefine what it means to be an inclusive workplace.

In-office teams are no longer limited to an applicant pool of nearby commuters. Increasing numbers of digital nomads and freelancers have helped teams become multinational.

With this evolution comes an increased responsibility to become more inclusive. Even if your company isn’t global, you probably still interact with clients, vendors, and colleagues around the world.

Hopefully, you are already making honest strides towards a more inclusive workplace. If you’re looking to modernize and improve your approach, start by understanding what inclusivity really means.

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Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Accessibility: What’s the difference?

DEIA is an acronym that stands for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Accessibility. While there are many similarities and much overlap between these four concepts, there are also key differences.

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Here’s how we can define each:

  • Diversity: Actively recruiting a wide range of individuals across all spectrums, such as race, culture, gender, age, language, etc.
  • Equity: The acknowledgment that not all individuals have the same start point. Extra steps or accommodations may be needed for some so that opportunities are available to all.
  • Inclusion: Acceptance and appreciation for an individual’s unique qualities without enforcing conformity.
  • Accessibility: Ensuring that all individuals are able to access and use the same resources, equipment, and facilities.

When it comes to DEIA, it’s usually the “diversity” and “accessibility” aspects that get the most attention. Unfortunately, a diverse workforce and accessible environment don’t always lead to an inclusive workplace.

This post will focus primarily on inclusion, but many of the practices mentioned are beneficial to improving every aspect of DEIA for your employees.

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What makes an inclusive workplace?

Inclusion can’t stop when the hiring process is complete.

A truly inclusive workplace values each person’s contributions and strives to help them reach their full potential regardless of their background, identity, or circumstances.

But creating inclusive policies and procedures is only half the battle. To truly have an inclusive workplace, these values need to be practiced from the top down.

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Actively support and demonstrate that these are not just written policies. One of the best ways to truly showcase inclusivity is by acknowledging your privilege as a leader.

Take it from Madison Butler, CEO of Blue Haired Unicorn:

“If you’re a business builder who truly wants to create an inclusive workplace, you have to educate yourself on the identities of others and maintain awareness of your privilege as a leader — leaders have the power in their hands to create change.”

Madison Butler
CEO/Founder
Blue Haired Unicorn

All team members, regardless of seniority, role, or status, should feel empowered to call out exclusive practices when they encounter them. Managers need to establish relationships that facilitate open communication in these situations.

Promoting an inclusive work environment isn’t just about making people feel good, though.

Inclusion is about engaging teams. The more engaged your people are, the more likely they are to be happy, healthy, and productive.

Workplace inclusion best practices

Organizations can (and should) take steps to promote inclusion in the workplace, but not all changes have to be monumental. There are many small actions that contribute to a safe and comfortable environment.

1. Reassess your vocabulary

What are you really saying when you speak?

communication in remote teams

It may seem like an odd question, but the specific language we use doesn’t just communicate the concept we’re trying to share. It also reveals important insight into our backgrounds, attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions.

Be aware of the words you use and what they mean, particularly when it comes to slang. Many slang words have bigoted or discriminatory origins. This can make it very easy to be unintentionally offensive.

A good example of this is the word “gypsy.” Mainstream media has created its own caricatures of gypsies which range from free spirits to con artists. Few people are even aware of the connotations surrounding this offensive term. However, it’s a hurtful stereotype and racial slur for many Roma and other traveling communities.

Similarly, “lame” is a popular slang word that suggests something is boring or stagnant. Since it’s also used to refer to people with impaired mobility, it can take on unintended ableist connotations.

Communication and gender

Urge your team to be proactive by switching to gender-neutral terms.

misunderstanding illustration

Instead of chairman or salesman, say chairperson or salesperson. The same goes for gendered occupational terms like waiter or waitress. Server is probably a better choice.

Ask what pronouns an individual prefers. If you’re unsure, simply use “they.” Some people even prefer they as their pronoun.

These are just the obvious instances of gender-coded language, however. Some examples are more subtle.

When writing job postings, look out for words that imply the job is more suitable for a particular gender. Words like empathize, nurture, and compassion tend to be perceived as female-coded while aggressive, competitive, and fearless are viewed as male-coded.

You should also eliminate words like young, recently retired, native English-speaker, or able-bodied. All of these terms are likely to alienate prospective candidates who may be a perfect match for the role but feel they don’t meet all of the specifications.

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If you’re unsure about how to communicate something correctly, look it up. If you do make a mistake, don’t argue. Hear the person out and apologize.

“I’ve seen so many managers being scared of accountability because it’s always seen as a negative message, when it shouldn’t be. It’s a valuable part of our learning,”

Gethin Nadin
Psychologist and HR author

In short, ask yourself:

  • What do the words I use really mean to others?
  • Are my unconscious biases affecting my communication style?
  • Is my word choice and communication style accommodating to all?

2. Optimize the environment

When thinking about inclusive practices, it’s important to remember that not every difference is immediately recognizable. This is true in terms of hidden disabilities (such as mental health conditions, epilepsy, and learning difficulties), but equally true in terms of other identity characteristics.

You may not be able to identify a person’s ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation from their appearance — nor should you. Some people may even want to keep this information private for a variety of reasons.

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Making physical changes

Consider the sensory output of your workplace. Many of those who are neurodiverse have difficulty with certain sounds or smells. They may be sensitive to perfumes, air fragrances, or scented cleaning products.

Lighting is another important factor. Is the lighting in your workspace overly harsh or too bright for those with light sensitivities? Is it too dim for those with visual impairments?

You may also have customers, clients, vendors, and other representatives coming to your office. This is why it’s important to ensure that your work environment is optimized for inclusion. When assessing your workstations, think about the small details as well as the obvious ones:

  • Is the floor uneven or difficult to walk on?
  • Are meeting materials and memos written in legible fonts and sizes?
  • Are these materials distributed in advance so attendees are able to thoroughly read and process them before discussing them?
  • Are those chairs in the waiting room really functional, or do they just look nice?

Transition to remote work

Another strategy is to create a fully remote work environment. By allowing your teams to work from home, you put them in the most comfortable environment possible. They’ll have full control over lighting, air quality, flooring, and the overall ergonomics of their workspace.

How to create a remote work policy

Working from home can also help with workplace morale. It’s easier to establish a healthy work-life balance that ensures that team members put their mental health above all else.

You might even consider utilizing a time tracking tool. This can help you implement an asynchronous environment where teams can work the hours they feel most comfortable.


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If you’re concerned with making a smooth transition to remote work, check out these helpful tips.

3. Check what’s on your calendar

Altering your calendar is one of the easier changes to make.

Google calendar time planning

Look at your work calendar and evaluate which holidays and events are posted on it. Most Western organizations will have the standard Christian holidays marked off.

But ask yourself these questions, too.

  • What significant events do you acknowledge for other cultures and religions?
  • Are employees given time off for these days, or do they have to use PTO?
  • Are your maternity and paternity leave policies aligned with your values?

A more challenging obstacle is addressing the social events your company holds for employees.

  • What opportunities do you provide for employees to share their different cultures and experiences?
  • If you have a company event, what sort of food do you serve? Are there enough options for different dietary requirements?
  • If you throw a Christmas party, do you also have events for Eid, Diwali, and Rosh Hashanah?
  • Do you celebrate engagements and other relationship milestones for same-sex couples the same way you celebrate heterosexual couples?

You may choose to refrain from faith-based events at your company at all, which is fine. Other events you might consider are things like Black History Month, Pride Month, and Women’s History Month. Does your company participate in these celebrations?

More importantly, do you support these communities all year round, or is your support an example of woke corporate capitalism?

4. Provide appropriate recognition

Unconscious bias is something we’re all vulnerable to. It’s difficult to address because it’s so embedded into our typical thought process. In fact, your unconscious bias can even contradict your conscious values.

How do you handle it?

One method is through increasing your own self-awareness. When you have a thought or impression about someone, ask yourself:

  • What influenced my perception?
  • Did the person say or do something specific that created that association?
  • Would you have taken the same action with a different person or under different circumstances?

Unconscious bias occurs when someone makes an assumption about a person based on false beliefs or stereotypes. With this in mind, unconscious bias doesn’t always have to be negative.

It’s equally possible to think favorably of someone because you feel you’re alike in some way. Experts refer to this phenomenon as affinity bias. You may even put your colleagues on a moral pedestal.

This is similar to the halo effect which causes us to view people more favorably if we notice something that we like. For example, if you like the way someone dresses, you’re more likely to assume that they are competent, professional, and organized, even though fashion and professional skill are not related.

four types of unconscious bias that affect inclusivity

Unconscious bias comes into play in your interview and hiring practices, but it also poses a problem day-to-day.

A common instance of gender bias in the workplace is when a woman makes a suggestion that is either dismissed or ignored. Shortly after, a male colleague makes the same suggestion and receives praise.

While this scenario is obviously unfair, it also has long-term consequences. Most women will leave this situation feeling frustrated and unheard. Over time, they may be less motivated and unwilling to contribute ideas.

Addressing bias

It’s necessary to establish a system where people are being recognized for their ideas and achievements. Keep a record of who gets recognition most often and why. Ask yourself:

  • Are there groups/individuals who never speak up in meetings?
  • Why is this the case?
  • What can I do to help?

Make sure that your employees not only have an equal chance of being heard, but that they both know and believe they have an equal voice in your organization.

5. Build a culture of belonging

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Above all else, people want to belong. Humans are social creatures and generally prefer to work together. That being said, it’s easy for cliques and subgroups to form, especially in larger circles.

These groups get even smaller when we consider the concept of intersectionality. We are more than our race, gender, class, or religion. Our identities start to take shape where these characteristics intersect.

The best leaders are able to take pride in what makes them unique, but also see their identity as an opportunity to empathize with others:

I acknowledge my intersectional identities, but I also acknowledge my privilege. I am a Black queer woman, but I am also a citizen. I am a college graduate. I am a native English speaker. I come from a decent, middle-of-the-road socioeconomic status. I try to be constantly aware of the privilege that comes with those things so I can leverage it and harness that power to uplift others.”

Madison Butler
CEO/Founder
Blue Haired Unicorn

Leadership has to set an example for inclusive behavior. This is the only way for it to become an integral part of your company culture. If inclusivity isn’t a core value to everyone, you simply won’t have an inclusive workplace.

There are two main ways you can ensure that inclusivity is built into your organization: trust and communication.

Trust

First and foremost, your employees need to trust your leadership. They must know and believe that the company has their best interests in mind.

How to build trust in a remote team

Start by making leadership approachable and accessible to all employees. Create scenarios where employees have a chance to engage with leadership one-on-one or in small groups.

You can also arrange informal (but paid) lunch meetings or coffee breaks. These interactions give leadership an opportunity to connect with employees they may not otherwise encounter on a day-to-day basis.

Treating your employees as unique individuals shows that they have value to an organization.

Those who don’t feel valued are likely to move on.

Communication

Trust is just one side of the coin, though. The best work environments promote open and honest communication. Each member of your team needs to feel confident that they can go to their manager with an issue and receive the appropriate support.

communication is an important soft skill

This doesn’t mean that management is in a position to give every team member everything they want. But it does mean that they deserve to be heard. Here are a few ways to show this.

  • If their request can’t be accommodated, provide an explanation and possible alternatives they can pursue.
  • If the request can’t be approved immediately, provide them a timeline and what steps need to be taken.
  • Continue to check in on them during and after the process to ensure everything is going well.

Even if you don’t know how to solve an issue, acknowledge their concern. Assure disgruntled team members that you’ll look into all possible options. If you don’t know how to help, ask them what they need.

Compliance with diversity legislation

In terms of promoting diversity within a global workforce, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966) were important and necessary first steps taken by the UN.

Legislation alone is not enough to truly effect change. That legislation needs to be accepted, implemented, and enforced.

The UN put forth these initiatives, but not everyone agreed to them. Regulations that apply in one country may not be suitable or adequate for another.

Individual managers need to be well-versed in the laws and regulations in their own location, but they’ll need to do more if they manage distributed teams. By taking both regional and company-wide laws into account, it becomes easier to ensure everyone on your team is treated equitably.

How do I promote inclusion in my workplace?

Creating an inclusive workplace can be a challenging task. There are many costly options for improving workplace inclusivity, but there are also more affordable steps you can take right now.

For example, the UK Home Office has created a set of posters with easy-to-follow guidelines to help optimize websites for people with sensory processing challenges like dyslexia and low vision. Follow the link to download them and view at full-size.

Accessibility design guide

(Source)

The most effective thing you can do is communicate with teams and customers.

Ask what they need and how your inclusion practices work for them  — or don’t. It’s important to check in regularly as the company, your workforce, technology, and circumstances evolve.

Surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one discussions are a good way to touch base and let people share their experiences working on your team.

Make sure you segment the results of these discussions by minority groups, though. If you only look at the total numbers, you may miss out on an opportunity to address issues faced by smaller groups.

That being said, make sure to invite majority groups to some of these conversations, too. Inclusion initiatives can fall short when they focus too much on smaller segments of the group.

Isn’t it more inclusive for everyone to understand the concerns and needs of their peers?

“What good are [these] initiatives if people in the majority don’t feel welcome in the conversation?”

Damien Hooper-Campbell
Chief Diversity Officer
eBay

It’s also a good idea to install an employee suggestion box for people to provide feedback anonymously. Some team members may feel uncomfortable giving feedback publicly, so a suggestion box will encourage them to speak up about any issues they’re having.

You can do this virtually with a tool like OfficeVibe. However you do it, make sure that your feedback system is accessible to everyone and your team trusts that it’s anonymous.

Those in under-represented groups who are significantly different from their colleagues often use what’s called “identity cover,” where they hide these parts of themselves at work due to fear of negative reactions.

This fear means they are less likely to voice any concerns for fear that they won’t be taken seriously, will be told they’ve misinterpreted the situation, or be dismissed due to stereotypes (e.g. the “emotional woman” or the “angry Black person”).

An anonymous channel allows these individuals to have their needs met while also not being stigmatized as “uptight.” It also shows them that leadership cares about their well-being.

Conclusion

Inclusion is a continuously evolving process. You will never reach a point where you are “inclusive enough.” You may be able to meet your current staff’s needs, but new hires may have needs that you didn’t anticipate.

This is why communication is your greatest tool. You probably will make a mistake by misunderstanding a need, acting on a piece of misinformation, or mispronouncing a name.

The important thing is to acknowledge your imperfections and ask what can be done to prevent them in the future.

You’ll never be able to fully predict your team’s every need — but that’s the point. At the end of the day, inclusion is about listening to and addressing the concerns of others.

About the author – Leks Drakos

Leks Drakos, author of this post about how to improve inclusivity in your organization

Leks Drakos is a rogue academic with a Ph.D. in contemporary fiction from the University of Kent (Paris and Canterbury). In addition to writing for Process Street, his research interests include post-apocalyptica, contemporary fiction, and monster studies. Twitter: @leksikality [he/him]