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Creating an inclusive workplace

Inclusive Workplaces

Tamara Thorpe hears a common complaint from women at workplaces that don’t embrace inclusiveness.

“They’ll share an idea in a meeting and it doesn’t get heard or validated,” says Thorpe, owner and lead trainer of TNT Development and The Millennials Mentor. “Then a male employee will share the same idea five minutes later and everybody says, ‘That’s such a great idea.’’”

Thorpe specializes in helping leaders and organizations develop cultural competence to create inclusive workplaces. Inclusiveness is what an organization does internally to ensure diverse voices are heard, represented, secure and thriving, Thorpe explains.

One simple solution was seen in the White House under the Obama administration. “When a woman would share an idea, three other women would validate the idea right away to ensure that it was heard,” she says. “Those are tactics teams and individuals can in terms of practicing inclusion.”

Embracing diversity within a company is equally important.

“Diversity is about the actual resources we have,” says Rob Bogosian, Ph.D., founder of RVB Associates. “In other words, people are from different backgrounds. They have different points of view. They have different national cultures. They’re different by gender and by sexual orientation. And they bring a broad spectrum of viewpoints.”

Workplace advantages

Bogosian is a behavioral expert in leadership and organizational cultural development and regularly speaks to Fortune 500 companies about how to foster an employee environment that welcomes ideas and contributions. He’s found that creating a workplace culture that celebrates different ideas, experiences and perspectives not only provides benefits to employers – it is becoming essential to their success.

“Digitization is changing the way we work, the way we think about work and how we accomplish work,” Bogosian explains. “The same old solutions are not going to work. They’re not going to keep you ahead of the competition.”

A workplace with a high tolerance for divergent thinking has a competitive advantage, he says. Leaders in these workplaces have positive attitudes toward new ideas, new ways of handling processes and change. Openness also fosters a company culture where employees know their voices matter and are more willing to contribute, he notes.

“An inclusive culture has better ideas,” Bogosian says. “It brings solutions and innovation that increase your chances of staying ahead.”

From the customer side, a work culture that embraces personal differences can also help companies attract and retain business.

“Clients and customers go to places that they think is going to represent their voices well, or where they think they’re going to be best served,” Thorpe explains. “If an organization is able to reflect a culture of inclusion – or that they’re representative of the community that they’re doing business in – that can go a long way in building trust.”

 Promoting the culture

Once leaders decide they want to create inclusive workplaces, they must promote it.

“It’s really important for leaders to be really clear about their intentions when they talk about increasing diversity or having representation in their organization,” Thorpe says.

Bogosian has done extensive research on what he calls the “cultures of silence” and “cultures of voice” in the workplace. “Cultures of silence are characterized as workplaces where employees willfully withhold important work-related information,” he says.

There are four main reasons employees tend to be silent, Bogosian notes. Employees may withhold because of fear to “stay safe” in the workplace or as a form of retaliation for past wrongs. They may also practice social silence out of futility – feeling like their ideas are never taken seriously by leadership and change is never made – or in an effort to protect others.

Identify whether your organization supports being diverse and inclusive. Then ask yourself if you have the right skillset to promote the culture you want to embody. You may need to adopt a few practices and mindsets to make inclusion a priority and gain traction with your efforts.

“It’s important that leadership invests in their own ability to develop empathy and work across differences,” Thorpe says. “Ensuring that their efforts have traction also means that they’re investing time and resources.”

Those resources may include coaching or employee training. You may also need to develop staff mentoring programs or make changes to how internal hires are made, she says. “It’s not a one act deal. It’s something that you invest in over extended periods of time, understanding that it’s a continual process of learning, growth and change,” Thorpe concludes.

Common challenges

There are barriers that can impede progress when making a culture shift.

For example, a mindset of it’s “not about us” causes a lot of business leaders to reach out for help, but in the wrong way. If a company is struggling to retain millennial workers, a lecture about millennials is not going to fix the problem, Thorpe explains.

“Your inability to retain millennials isn’t about millennials,” she says. “It’s likely about your leaders’ inability to support an inclusive work environment.”

Another barrier to inclusive workplaces is when company leadership decides to implement change after something negative has happened, Thorpe says. It could have been bad publicity, a bad hire or internal conflict.

“They want a Band-Aid for this really big problem that’s already been created,” she says. “By that time, there’s already a lot of hurt feelings. There’s a lot of negative perceptions. It can be very hard for a trainer or a consultant to come in and try to move forward.”

Bottom line: Don’t wait for a catalyst to prioritize inclusiveness and diversity in your workplace. Proactive steps show people that you care about them as individuals – it’s not just about what they bring to your business.

“If leaders sincerely want their organizations to be more inclusive, sincere motivation is the best first step,” Thorpe says.