There are two significant trends in the workplace worth noting: 1) increased concern for the health and well-being of employees, and 2) greater emphasis and value placed on workforce Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). (Note: DEI is a vast topic with three distinct components. This article will specifically tackle the “I” of DEI.)
Although these trends are often seen as separate, they are, in fact, inextricably linked. The health and well-being of any organization depends on having a workforce that feels that they belong and are valued and respected for their unique social identities, such as citizenship, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, gender/sex, gender identity, age, or dis/ability.
The issue with many organizations, however, is that underrepresented groups often feel a lack of belonging; this has implications for employees, teams, as well as the enterprise, such as stagnant creativity and innovation, dysfunctional/non-productive teams, and higher levels of attrition of marginalized groups. Using the latter as an example, many women and people of color are leaving the tech world voluntarily due to unfair treatment, costing these companies $16 billion a year (Scott, Kapor Klein, & Onovakpuri, 2017). Furthermore, there is growing concern regarding the impact that a negative workplace can have on physical and mental well-being (WHO, 2019). Absenteeism, due to mental health issues, has severe worldwide economic ramifications. Because of this, it is imperative that organizations build inclusive climates, as inclusivity is a key factor in producing psychologically healthy and economically thriving workplaces.
The wellness and inclusion link
Psychologists, such as myself, understand that our well-being is influenced by three factors: biological, psychological, and social. The latter factor emphasizes that we are social beings with a real need to connect with others and feel like we belong. Brown (2017) discusses how it is not just people, but places, that play a role in our feeling connected, hence why inclusive work climates matter so much to our psychological well-being.
Let’s think about how this works using common sense psychology. If someone feels seen, heard and valued by their company, manager, and team, they are more apt to thrive at work. If someone feels unseen, ignored, or devalued, their ability to focus, concentrate, and remain motivated is compromised. In both instances, work quality will be impacted. Hitlan, Kelly, Schepman, & Zárate (2006) shed more light on this: people who feel ostracized appear to have lower levels of organizational commitment, which, again, can impact the quality of work produced.
Cause of exclusion
There are a myriad of reasons why people feel excluded at work. One significant factor is microaggressions. Sue (2010) defines microaggressions as subtle verbal or non-verbal indignities, which communicate hostile, negative messages to a person based on their social group status. These messages can impact any marginalized community. Some examples would include asking a coworker who happens to be a person of color, “Where are you really from?,” or using the incorrect pronoun to describe a trans+ colleague. While these comments may be made by well-intentioned people and without the purpose of excluding, these incidences add up and can really make employees feel unwelcome and even ostracized in the workplace. Moreover, there is ample evidence that microaggressions adversely impact physical and mental well-being (Sue et al., 2019).
Actionable steps to foster inclusion
In discussing ways to rectify gender disparities in the tech world, Chang (2018) identifies a need for actionable tools that can be applied to the organization and on the job. So, what can we do to create an inclusive work climate? The following are three (non-exhaustive) intervention strategies to help enhance a climate of inclusion in the workplace:
1. Identifying and Living Values - Company values are the guiding force behind a business, and strongly influence company culture. An organization should clearly write-out their values regarding inclusivity at work, and widely display these values in work spaces (including virtual ones). Additionally, leaders should consistently and openly discuss these values, and how they apply to the work employees are doing. Most importantly, however, leaders should embody these values in their behaviors: company leaders should practice what they preach. How can they do this and encourage all employees to do the same? The next two suggestions can help in this endeavor.
2. Compassionate Call Out - The truth is, due to the way our brains are wired, we are all biased and are mostly unaware of it. Although unconscious biases may misalign with personal values, it is important to recognize that they still unconsciously impact how we behave and treat one another. As such, creating a climate where people can “compassionately call out” their fellow colleagues on behaviors that lead to individuals and groups feeling excluded is really central to creating an inclusive workplace. Compassionate call out allows people to become aware of their behaviors, so that they do not repeat them. Moreover, it is imperative that colleagues speak up on behalf of others, as constantly pointing out subtle indignities directed at you can be psychologically overburdening (Sue et. al, 2019). I’ll be the first to admit that this is hard to execute, as it is an uncomfortable process. The process requires us to be non-defensive, respectful, and humble. But the benefits of having frank conversations with your colleagues is paramount; it ushers in a sense of real trust and authenticity, if executed well. Although the directions to execute well would require a lengthier conversation, every process starts with the first step: managers must model this behavior in order for it to work: they must set the stage so that employees feel safe to do this. It can go something like this: “As your manager, I may not intend to say/do harm, but I still may say or do something that has an adverse impact on you or others. It’s the impact with which I am concerned. I want this team to feel safe to tell me if I do/say something that makes a person or group of persons feel excluded. I am invested in learning how to be a more inclusive manager.”
3. It’s All in the Everyday Actions - Smith (2017) points out that for some organizations, creating an inclusive organizational climate can feel daunting, but that everyday behaviors that communicate care can make a significant difference and lead to sustainable change. Encouraging employees to do this with one another is also important. So, what exactly does an actionable step entail? It would be to acknowledge colleagues lives outside of work and to be emotionally responsive and supportive if they are going through a difficult time, such as caring for an ailing parent. It would be to recognize a religious and/or cultural holiday, if you know that the religious and/or cultural identity of your coworker is important to that person. It would be to include gender pronouns in your email signature. It would be to explicitly ask if employees/colleagues need more support with their professional development and connecting them to potential mentors. It would be to celebrate team and individual wins in public; telling people “great job” out loud matters! It would be noticing if there is a change in your colleague’s behavior, and checking in to see if they are doing okay. It would be to ensure everyone on the team gets their voices heard in a meeting and that there is a “no interruption” policy. It would be to show appreciation and gratitude towards all colleagues for what they do and who they are; saying “I appreciate you” goes a long way.
Change can be difficult, but working towards inclusivity can lead to stronger, healthier, more productive, efficient, and creative organizations that in turn produce higher returns. Although what is suggested in this article is by no means a complete solution, I hope these ideas can be a springboard towards inclusion; it is central to the health and well-being of employees, teams, organizations, and communities. Inclusivity makes us all better.
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Brown, B. (2017). Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. New York: Random House.
Chang, E. (2018). Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Clubs of Silicon Valley. New York, New York: Portfolio/Penguin.
Hitlan, R. T., Kelly, K. M., Schepman, S., Schneider, K. T., & Zárate, M. A. (2006). Language exclusion and the consequences of perceived ostracism in the workplace. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 10(1), 56-70. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1089-2618.104.22.168
Smith, J. (2017). The garden: An organismic metaphor for distinguishing inclusion from diversity: Diversity and inclusion are not synonyms. Graziadio Business Report. 20.
World Health Organization. (2019). Mental health in the workplace. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/
Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74(1), 128-142. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000296
Sue, D.W., Sue, D. (2016). Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice (6th Edition). John Wiley and Sons Publishers, Hoboken, NJ. I
Scott, A., Kapor Klein, F. & Onovakpuri, U. (2017). Teach leavers study: A first-of-its-kind analysis of why people voluntarily left jobs in tech. Retrieved from Kapro Center for Social Impact website: https://www.kaporcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/TechLeavers2017.pdf