It Takes All Kinds: Workplace Inclusion

Diversity is only part of the equation. A workplace that’s inclusive helps with retention, productivity and innovation.

A person of color who feels pressure to speak a different way at work. An LGBTQ person not comfortable talking about their personal life at the office. A new father afraid to address his company’s lack of a paternity leave policy. 

These are all examples of employees not being able to be their true selves at work. Think about your company culture. Could any of these issues happen in your workplace?

Diversity + Inclusion

Over the past three decades, diversity has been a hot-button issue in nearly every business sector. Recently, though, modern businesses have shifted their focus toward the concept of inclusion as a way to enhance their diversity efforts. 

So what’s the difference between diversity and inclusion? 

“The way I think about it, ‘diversity’ is who is there—the demographic composition of your workforce,” explains Siri Chilazi, research fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School. “Inclusion is the idea that once the people are in the door, they have an equal opportunity to contribute, to succeed, and to have their ideas considered and their voices heard.” 

The pitfall with diversity is that it’s easy for companies to develop a “check-the-box” mindset. Employers might chase workforce numbers about the percentage of employees who are female or racial/ethnic minorities—numbers that can be added to press releases and make good sound bites. But without inclusion, those surface-level statistics might be the only benefit a company will reap from its diverse staff. 

Inclusion harnesses the power of diversity. Groups that are composed of diverse people—for example, different races, religions or sexual orientations—have been shown to perform better at problem solving compared to homogenous groups, Chilazi says. That’s precisely because their varied life experiences have taught them to think differently. 

Innovation feeds on diversity. Companies with policies encouraging the promotion and retention of a diverse workforce introduced two additional products over a 10-year span compared to firms that don’t meet as many diversity criteria, according to a 2018 study in Financial Management

Diversity and inclusion must go hand in hand from a resourcing standpoint. “Without inclusion, it’s hard to maintain diversity,” says Michelle Kim, co-founder and CEO of Awaken, a company that hosts workshops on inclusion. “If you don’t have an inclusive workplace, then it’s inevitable that you will observe a high level of turnover. If people don’t feel like they can be successful because there aren’t equitable systems or processes, or they lack a sense of belonging, that creates additional burden on the recruiting side to continuously hire to fill the gaps.”

Building an Inclusive Workplace

Plenty of business leaders are on board with the idea of inclusion but don’t know how to create it. Nurturing a welcoming atmosphere can be tricky, even for those with the best intentions. Here are three lessons to increase inclusivity.

LESSON ONE: Start from the top.

“One major stumbling block to inclusion is a lack of executive alignment,” Kim says. “If not everyone at the top layer of leadership makes it a priority, it’s easy for any of the diversity and inclusion initiatives to not be successful.” 

The attitude and behavior of leaders can increase feelings of inclusion by up to 70% among employees, Deloitte reports. The effect was even greater for minority groups.

Inclusion can’t just be a talking point at company meetings. “It’s one thing to add a couple lines to a speech or two,” Chilazi says. “It is a different thing to make inclusion a daily business priority.” 

New product launches involve focus groups, market testing and sales analysis from departments working synergistically across the company, she says. “Why not apply that same kind of data-driven rigor to our human capital and leverage decades of academic research?” Chilazi asks. “If we did that, we could get much further much faster with our diversity and inclusion efforts.” 

An easy way to show that diversity and inclusion are important to a company is to have leadership share what it is doing externally, suggests Robert Beaven, managing director of Jennifer Brown Consulting. Push out something about the topic on LinkedIn or on your company’s site every two weeks or so. 

LESSON TWO: Build a foundation of inclusion. 

The most successful implementations of inclusion are ones that strive to fundamentally change how employees view the organization—and, in many cases, the world. Some companies settle for compliance-based training, teaching employees to steer away from certain phrases that can lead to complaints or even litigation. This is a Band-Aid approach that will do little to initiate real cultural transformation. 

“Inclusion is not only about taking extra steps to make certain people comfortable,” Chilazi says. “Everyone is responsible for creating and upholding a culture that enables all of us to feel that we can do our best work.”

LESSON THREE: Gain buy-in from middle management. 

Employees crave inclusion, and many CEOs are calling for it. But it’s in middle management where adoption of best practices often succeeds or fails. 

“The majority of team managers are not aware of how to create an inclusive team culture and how to lead inclusively. And that can cause a lot of dissonance among the team,” Kim says. “A company might be marketing their commitment to diversity and inclusion externally, but unless it’s actually felt at the team level through managers, true diversity and inclusion cannot exist. Manager buy-in and accountability is huge.”

Ideally, make inclusion training part of an existing manager curriculum or leadership development program. A once-a-year seminar isn’t enough. For a manager to recognize the biases of how work is divided on a team, inclusion awareness needs to be a foundational element of team leaders’ continuing education. 

“That helps managers understand that this is not an optional extracurricular activity,” Kim says. “If you want to be a modern, effective leader, this is part of your core competency.” 

Unconscious biases are ingrained over a lifetime of observation and experience. For instance, if an employee recently became a parent, a manager may easily assume they won’t want new assignments or travel opportunities. Overcoming these societal norms takes a concerted effort, and for a manager with a full plate, it can feel like extra work.

That’s why integrated and comprehensive training is the most effective way to introduce inclusionary leadership traits. 

Photo by Andy Roberts/Getty Images

The way I think about it, ‘diversity’ is who is there—the demographic composition of your workforce. Inclusion is the idea that once the people are in the door, they have an equal opportunity to contribute, to succeed, and to have their ideas considered and their voices heard.
— Siri Chilazi
Research fellow at the Women and Public Policy Program Harvard Kennedy School

Inclusion Training Tips

Inclusion training aims to open your team members’ eyes to biases they didn’t even know existed. Here are some tips from Robert Beaven, managing director of Jennifer Brown Consulting, which specializes in tackling this tough topic.

Create a safe space. 

It’s best practice to have someone outside the company facilitate. These sessions should include about a dozen employees, and they tend to bring up a lot of emotions for people, regardless of how they identify. Everyone needs to feel respected and heard—there’s no place for shaming. 

Move beyond the adage, “Walk a mile in another man’s shoes.” 

The reality is, we’ll never know what it’s really like to be another race, gender or sexual orientation, Beaven says. The alternative is to try to get at our unconscious biases. “People are innately good,” he adds, “but many of us have been affected by a single negative experience.”

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

Inclusion training isn’t easy. People can feel anxious when they don’t fully understand something. But by sharing experiences and motivations, people can come to a better awareness of their co-workers’ life experiences.

People are innately good, but many of us have been affected by a single negative experience.
— Robert Beaven
Managing director Jennifer Brown Consulting

Gender Talk

As more people feel comfortable transitioning their gender, an inclusive workplace should make the effort to understand the evolving language.

assigned at birth: Instead of saying that someone was born male or female, start saying that it’s the gender they were assigned at birth.

gender non-conforming: Someone who does not personally subscribe to the societal expectations commonly attributed to male or female identity and expression.

nonbinary: Gender is more commonly being seen as a spectrum rather than only two options: male or female. Someone who identifies as nonbinary likely does not identify as exclusively male or female.

they/them, ze/hir: Examples of gender-neutral pronouns that might be used by some trans, nonbinary or gender non-conforming people.

transgender: Relating to people whose gender identity does not align with the sex they were assigned at birth. 

If you don’t have an inclusive workplace, then it’s inevitable that you will observe a high level of turnover.
— Michelle Kim
Co-founder and CEO Awaken

3 Inclusive Spaces Every Office Should Have


Lactation Room: One provision of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 requires companies that employ more than 50 people to provide reasonable time and space (bathroom stalls do not count) for mothers to express milk. Ideally, this space has a chair, a flat surface to place containers, easy access to electrical outlets for a breast pump, and a door lock or “occupied” sign.

Prayer and Meditation Room: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to reasonably accommodate the religious beliefs of their workers. Many progressive companies now provide prayer rooms. While these spaces are often booked by Muslim employees, they’re also available to anyone who might need some silence and solitude.

Gender-Neutral Restrooms: Bathroom laws tend to be governed and enforced by state law. With more regulatory guidelines being rolled out concerning gender identity, however, signage on bathroom doors that state “unisex” or “all gender” are becoming more common.