What does an authentically inclusive workplace look like?
Rouzbeh Pirouz is Co-Founder and Senior Partner at London-based Pelican Partners, a real estate and private equity investment firm.
Diversity in the workplace and an authentically inclusive workplace are worth fighting for.
Promoting these essential tenets of a solid working environment is more than just proper people management. It goes much further.
A truly inclusive workplace values every single individual within an organisation. And a diverse workplace will absolutely pay off for the employer too. But what does it mean to build such an environment and is following the basic standards set by UK legislation enough?
Employers should strategise to create an inclusive workplace
Everyone deserves the chance to work in an accepting, inclusive environment. It’s about creating a workplace that allows everyone to achieve their potential, regardless of their individual challenges.
But in addition to being the obvious moral thing to do, inclusive workplaces are also essential for business and economic sustainability. If the labour market and corporate sector truly embrace diversity, then everyone benefits.
Companies and business leaders have this moral and legal obligation to model and strategise for diversity and inclusivity. While these two terms are often used interchangeably, it’s worth marking the difference between the two:
People management is much more than ‘one size fits all.
Employers must understand that it is not possible to have a homogenous management style. Managing people must recognise that a one size fits all approach does not work and does not achieve the balance of equality and fairness that should be in place.
UK law defines certain differences between people as “protected characteristics”. These are:
- Gender reassignment.
- Civil partnership and marriage.
- Belief and religion.
- Sexual orientation.
These protected characteristics are included in discrimination legislation to protect employees from unfair treatment.
Whether direct or indirect, the consequences of discrimination can be wide-ranging and extremely negative for the individual. Discrimination can:
- Adversely affect the wellbeing of the employee, their performance and work and whether they want to stay at the company.
- Negatively impact their employment or promotion opportunities.
- Waste their potential, skills and experience by failing even to recognise them.
- End up with legal costs, financial settlements and compensation due to the injured party to avoid discrimination claims.
So, how does all this work in practice, and what does an inclusive organisation look like?
Improving workplace diversity through inclusion
Over recent years there has been some improvement in workplace diversity. But this is so variable between different organisations that it has become clear that focusing solely on diversity isn’t enough.
Increasing the diversity of a workplace doesn’t go far enough in fighting the systemic barriers still in place between us and true equality, exclusionary culture or the detrimental effects of personal bias.
While including diversity considerations in the hiring and recruitment process is vital, it does not guarantee that each individual has the same opportunities and experience at work. And this is where inclusion can drive diversity to make a tangible, wide-reaching difference.
As employers, we want to create a workplace that empowers employees, drives creativity and free-thinking, and empowers individuals regardless of their personal challenges or background.
So, diversity alone isn’t enough. Inclusivity is necessary to ensure that a diverse workforce goes on to fulfil its potential.
What steps can employers take towards inclusion?
It’s useful to consider what an inclusive workplace looks like in practice. How can managers, business leaders and professionals ensure that inclusivity and diversity are in place?
Psychologically, we all try to work out where we fit in within any social environment we’re in. It’s the same in the workplace. Feeling included means feeling listened to, accepted and valued both by immediate team members and the wider organisation.
Truly inclusive companies support their workforce, regardless of their circumstances. They encourage their employees to thrive in their role, and to achieve this; managers must have coherent strategies in place to break through inclusivity barriers. Crucially, they must understand and value differences between people.
Inclusion needs a separate analysis to diversity to get a real, useful picture of the organisation and how employees themselves perceive inclusion. There are different ways to gather this information to measure inclusivity at their company. I can’t go into too much depth here, but the following are a good starting point:
- Create a survey for the data that measures individual people’s perceptions of inclusion in the workplace at different levels.
- Revamp existing internal surveys to include questions on inclusion.
- Use already existing data and information, such as any engagement surveys, as they more than likely touch on diversity and inclusion already.
- Hold employee feedback sessions to understand how employees view the environment properly.
- Include diversity and inclusion in all company strategies and values.
- Celebrate diversity and inclusion through frameworks actively guiding people’s behaviour.
- Ensure managers understand why diversity and inclusion must be prioritised — even under the most challenging circumstances.
- Avoid any bias and ensure that targets and priorities are set based on objective data and not on anyone manager’s personal viewpoint.
- Design bespoke, holistically developed diversity training.
- Analyse job specs and selection criteria for recruitment processes to ensure there is no bias.
However employers decide to approach this data capture, it’s always important to be really clear about why they want to know this information and what it will be used for. There should be lots of different ways for employees to leave meaningful feedback.
Inclusion benefits employers and employees alike
Inclusivity is linked with satisfaction levels among employees. It also impacts absenteeism, creativity and levels of production. In other words, it’s in the interests of both employers and employees to ensure inclusivity.
According to the CIPD, there are five key areas that employers should concentrate on:
- Employee behaviour.
- The capability of line managers
- Quality of senior leaders
- People management policies and strategies.
As we’ve seen from the last couple of years, employers, business leaders and organisations also need to have plans in place for the unexpected. Inclusion cannot fall by the wayside when major challenges such as COVID-19 impact the business.
The pandemic has, of course, presented the corporate world with many challenges, including the need for fast decision making under difficult circumstances. During the first lockdown, furloughing and WFH were quickly initiated. At times of great stress, it’s vital that employers do not drop their obligations to their employees, whatever their background or circumstances.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission came up with some direct guidance for employers, which is extremely useful. While life in the UK has returned to a semblance of normality, employers must keep on top of the changing workforce needs in times of extra uncertainty.
Currently, the UK is among the worst hit by rising cases of COVID-19, with deaths also creeping up. It’s absolutely feasible to expect another form of lockdown or restriction on public life at some point over the next 12 months.
Employers also have to understand the toll the pandemic, and the current uncertainty surrounding fuel and food shortages, are affecting the mental health of their workforce.
Business benefits for an inclusive workplace
There are essential business benefits in taking diversity and inclusion seriously. The main benefits that employers should understand are its impact on their corporate reputation and how it helps recruit the best talent in the sector.
Corporate reputation is affected by the way the company fulfils its responsibilities. In the context of inclusion and diversity, excluding people can limit business growth. Corporate responsibility (CR) initially focused solely on ESG issues, but it’s now necessary to take a much wider view.
The overall outward image of a business is vital for recruiting the best talent and retaining employees and customers. Research on what’s known as the ‘ psychological contract’ shows that individuals seek out employers with obviously and recognisably positive work practices.
People want to feel that their employer cares about its employees and that they will be valued while working there. Organisations need all employees to be performing to the best of their abilities, particularly in the current difficult economic times.
And employers are increasingly recognising the role that inclusion and diversity play in ensuring that people are comfortable at work and reaching their potential. Key components of any diversity strategy should include careful job design and flexible working practices. These will ensure employers can attract and, crucially, retain the widest possible pool of skilled people.