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March 15, 2023

How to Create Inclusive Workplaces Year-Round

6 min read
By Suzanne Wheatley

Notable days and months such as International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month, Pride Month, and Black History Month are powerful. And necessary.

They draw attention to and inspire conversation about critical issues, often for underrepresented groups of people. The downside of this can be what is called “performative activism” whereby organisations publicly champion their underrepresented groups and their contributions… for one day or month only.

In a rapidly-transforming workplace of shifting employee expectations around Corporate Social Responsibility, can organisations afford not to celebrate underrepresented groups year-round? Gen Z in particular are adept at seeing through performative D&I initiatives, and place authenticity and transparency high on their list of must-haves: In fact, 87% of Gen Z say a company’s diversity affects their decision to work there. People are increasingly demanding consistent, open, equitable and inclusive workplaces.

What is equity in the workplace?

The theme celebrated by the UN in March 2023 is embracing equitySharon Amesu, leadership and inclusion specialist and former criminal barrister, reminds us “equity acknowledges that everyone does not have the same starting point – economic, educational, relational, circumstance.”

As a people leader, especially if you are fortunate enough to feel represented and included, what can you do to help people in your organisation find equity and inclusivity every day? By kick starting conversations and initiatives that embed meaningful and lasting change. 

Here are three ways to begin fostering a more inclusive and equitable working environment year-round:

1. Empower through Psychological Safety

  • Often quoted as an essential pillar for high-performing teams, psychological safety is a critical foundation to enable people to be their full, authentic selves at work. Dr. Amy Edmondson defines Psychological Safety as “a climate in which people are comfortable being (and expressing) themselves.”
  • With it, people feel safe to voice their opinions, thoughts, and ideas in a collaborative environment. They don’t fear being ridiculed or rejected. This can lead to higher performance, in due course. But it starts with enabling your people to perform at their best and deploy the skills, behaviours, and expertise for which they were hired.
  • When designing a programme, campaign, experience, or any type of touchpoint, seek the input and perspectives of the outliers in your audience population. The people who normally aren’t considered. Design for them, and you’re more likely to make your design relevant and accessible for everyone.
  • Remember, too, that Psychological safety is about more than Line Manager check-ins to discuss pain points or difficulties. It’s a two-way street that requires candour, transparency, and open discussion from both parties. Are your leaders demonstrating openness and empathy as well as demanding it?

2. Choose inclusive language

  • Many words and phrases are so ingrained in our vocabulary that we use them as a reflex, rather than an active choice. For example, the Male Default is pervasive in our language and our society. Think back to recent meetings and consider how many people used the term “guys” or “ladies and gentlemen” to address the assembled group. It may be a common collective noun for addressing groups of people, but is it one that actively includes and engages everyone?  Language matters. And it can be an incredibly powerful tool in your toolkit when creating equitable workplace norms. For example:
    • Personal pronouns: Check the email signatures, LinkedIn profiles, and Teams/Zoom names of your coworkers and clients to find their personal pronouns, and pay attention. The quickest way to exclude someone is not to pay attention to something they have put right in front of you. Using the correct personal pronouns matters – in front of people, and when talking about them to a third party
    • Automatic assumptions and references: “Mastering a skill”, “he” as the default when talking about people or personas, or phrases such as “strong women”, can make an unintentional and unnecessary value judgement and exclude groups
    • Antiquated phrases and words: Language evolves, as do people. Seemingly innocuous phrases used today such as “cakewalk”, “uppity”, and “peanut gallery” have racist origins that organisations should be wary of to ensure their language isn’t unintentionally offensive

3. Create space for everyone’s voice

  • In a recent global research project, we spoke with Early Careers in the financial services sector. One female focus group participant told us that the move to virtual meeting software had positively impacted the working environment for women in her organisation. She commented that functions like raise hand and chat enable her to confidently contribute and speak up because meetings are held in a more equitable fashion. In virtual, when no longer able to rely solely on physical cues in front of you (for example, someone leaning in in readiness to speak), how can you be sure to give everyone equal opportunity to use their voice?
    • Assign a meeting chair who is charged with actively listening and looking for cues for people who want to speak
    • If the meeting is hybrid, being run both in a room and virtually, consciously choose alternating responses from physical and virtual audiences, to make everyone feel included
    • Encourage contributions, but don’t shame those who remain quiet. Instead, offer alternative methods of reply, such as inviting offline responses after the meeting, or adding comments in the chat function
    • The inclusive baseline should be offering everyone a chance to speak, while remembering that speaking doesn’t always mean a verbal response

Final thoughts

In Manchester in 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. Its motto was Deeds, Not Words. That motto still rings true today: when it comes to creating an equitable, inclusive workplace, try to think in deeds as well as words.


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