• Published January 23, 2024
  • 14 Minute Read

What Is Inclusion in the Workplace? A Guide for Leaders

Use these 5 steps to build an inclusive work culture for your organization, and learn what things to watch out for.
Published January 23, 2024
People discussing the definition of what Is inclusion in the workplace

Defining & Creating an Inclusive Work Culture

Inclusion is when everyone feels welcomed, respected, and valued. It’s a common part of organizational mission statements. But it’s also a profoundly personal experience.

We’ve all experienced what inclusion is by sensing more — or less — of it at some point in our lives. From an early age, we can feel included by being part of a loving and accepting family. Or, we can feel inclusion in the workplace, such as when a manager involves us in team decisions.

But if we don’t feel included, we may question whether we’re respected and accepted. That’s why inclusion requires far more than words alone. It requires a commitment to the full participation of, and investment in, every individual in the group.

Whether most people at your organization are logging onto virtual meetings or stepping into physical offices, an inclusive workplace is vital to your collective success. It shapes how people see themselves, others, and the culture around them. And it has a direct impact on your organization’s ability to deliver on its mission and grow the bottom line.

What Does Inclusion Mean in the Workplace?

An inclusive workplace is one where employees feel valued, involved, and respected for the viewpoints, ideas, perspectives, and experiences they bring. In an inclusive work culture, employees know they’re an integral part of the organization, and believe that differences in backgrounds, social identities, and life experiences are a strength, not a weakness.

Ultimately, inclusion in the workplace means creating an environment where employees can show up fully, without feeling they must hide or minimize any part of themselves.

In an inclusive work culture, you won’t see everyone sharing everything. The goal is that employees can share parts of themselves or their lives without fear of retaliation — if they want to.

But passive acceptance isn’t sufficient. Organizations must work to actively build inclusive workplaces — or risk the consequences.

Why Is an Inclusive Workplace Important?

Employee perceptions of inclusion in the workplace can be one of the key predictors of employee engagement, turnover intentions, and burnout. In our survey of more than 2,500 employees at a global company, those who perceived a more inclusive workplace reported healthier work boundaries, lower levels of burnout, and were less likely to say they were looking for other jobs, as we shared in Chief Learning Officer.

But perceptions of how inclusive your workplace is can vary greatly across employee groups. As just one example, in the organization we surveyed, only 37% of Black employees reported feeling included at work, compared to 70% of White employees. Hourly employees also reported lower levels of inclusion than their salaried coworkers, as did individual contributors versus those in management or executive roles. Even for employees who shared a social identity, there were a range of perceptions. These findings underscore that workplace inclusion looks and feels very different, depending on who you are and where you sit in the organization.

Taken together, this and other research indicates that inclusion in the workplace is essential for supporting a happy, engaged, and committed workforce. As organizations race to attract and retain talent, investing in creating a truly inclusive work culture can be a major differentiator.

Organizations that don’t focus on inclusion and belonging can risk being left behind, as people leave in search of companies that are more inviting and share their values. A 2023 study found that almost half of workers in the U.S. who identify as Black say they want to quit their jobs; this can be due to a misalignment of personal values with company values or the desire for more diverse leadership at their organizations.

Is an Inclusive Work Culture Part of Your DEI Program?

Inclusion in the workplace is an important part of any organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. At CCL, we endorse an equity-first approach, which is why we prefer the term EDI rather than DEI — but regardless, a focus on building an inclusive work culture is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Importantly, inclusion in the workplace requires action. Even if you consider your organization to be inclusive, your employees cannot always see your good intentions. Failing to take meaningful action can limit the positive impact of your goals for an inclusive work culture and strain credibility with your workforce. For example:

  • Your organization could say that it supports parents, families, caregiving and leadership. But if flexible work options are limited, leave policies are meager, and no lactation rooms are offered, the idea may seem disingenuous to your employees.
  • Your organization may say it welcomes and supports employees of different religious or cultural backgrounds. But if you don’t provide workers with the option to take floating holidays, it’s difficult for them to celebrate important cultural or holy days, regardless of their heritage or beliefs.

That’s why organizations that are serious about DEI / EDI take time to understand the specific opportunities they have to support others within their unique culture and context, and don’t simply duplicate diversity initiatives that seemed effective in other organizations. They choose strategic actions that will drive the desired results and invest in training their people in inclusive leadership practices — recognizing that because of how structural inclusion in the workplace can be, leaders play a critical role in moving it forward.

How to Create an Inclusive Work Culture

5 Keys for Leaders

Don’t know where to start to build more inclusion in the workplace? Here are a few specific strategies leaders can use to foster a more inclusive work culture.

1. Foster meaningful and authentic participation.

There’s a world of difference between being invited into a conversation and being able to influence the outcome. As a leader, it’s important you actively seek out diverse perspectives across age, cultural backgrounds, departments, geographic locations, and leader levels whenever you’re making strategic decisions or developing new processes. It’s even more important to allow input from these employees to meaningfully impact your decisions.

Employees can only fully participate if their work environment makes it possible. Be sure to build psychological safety at work so employees feel a sense of ownership of their work and free to express their thoughts, ideas, and concerns. This is particularly important for empowering next-generation leaders, so they feel included in decision-making, feel heard, and can make a positive impact. Employees should feel like they have agency over their decisions to share — a concept known as employee voice. Our research underscores the importance of managers supporting employee voices and helping people feel heard by taking action and by providing explanations.

2. Invest in your employees.

Our research also suggests that leadership development opportunities can support employees’ in many ways, from boosting confidence and preparedness to strengthening connections and overall effectiveness. Development opportunities can also make employees feel more included and cared for at your organization.

By providing access to opportunities for growth through training programs and mentorship for newer employees, you can help your workforce learn new skills and demonstrate a commitment to their development.

It’s also important to use the lens of inclusion when you’re determining who is receiving development opportunities. Focusing solely on employees identified as “high potential” is often wrought with bias, and can exclude those who would benefit most from your support. To avoid this, consider how to meaningfully democratize access to leadership development opportunities.

3. Commit to diverse representation.

Inclusion in the workplace goes beyond your current employees. It involves your future workforce, too. To build an inclusive workplace, you need recruiting practices in line with your mission and goals. That includes identifying and mitigating bias in your screening procedures, committing to interview panels that represent diverse perspectives, and ensuring there are accommodations for candidates with different ability levels or specific needs during the hiring process.

Once hired, new employees should be made to feel as included as possible as they become familiar with your organization. New employees often experience barriers around differences in their work arrangements, rank, demographics, or location. By spanning those boundaries, and opening up collaboration, you’ll ideally have more diverse representation in your day-to-day operations.

4. Be intentional in your communications and actions.

An inclusive work culture takes time to build — but can be damaged in a single moment. That’s why leaders need to keep their mission and culture top of mind, especially during times of change. Communication with employees is a key factor in supporting an inclusive work culture, but some forms of communication are better than others.

Based on our examination of public statements made by hundreds of U.S.-based corporations following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, our researchers recommend strategies that move corporate diversity & inclusion statements from cosmetic tools toward deeper conversations and commitment. Organizations that focus on being invitational, accountable, consistent, and purposeful in their communications are likely to be perceived as having more inclusive workplaces. Communication that is both specific and actionable also helps to support workplace inclusion.

5. Remember there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and you must keep evolving.

In an effort to find quick solutions, it’s easy to think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to inclusion in the workplace. . If an approach works at one organization, then it should work just as well at another. But context matters. After all, what is an inclusive work culture good for if it’s in name only?

In the real world, isolated gestures or rigid ideas about inclusivity break down quickly. That’s because different employees face different experiences or barriers, and because everyone holds a unique combination of social identities. A policy solely focused on hiring women into more senior positions, for instance, can oversimplify the specific challenges faced by women of color or transgender women. Similarly, offering an unconscious bias training alone won’t address systemic issues with unequal pay or promotion opportunities at your organization. A holistic approach and continual focus on building belonging at work and inclusive work culture is required.

Furthermore, it’s critical to remember that the definition of inclusion — and our understanding of how to foster it — is constantly evolving. In the last few years, for example, organizations have had to reckon with new challenges like equipping managers to lead remote teams and adapt to the hybrid workplace.

It’s important to continually review and update your policies and practices, always through the lens of building greater inclusion in the workplace.

Things to Watch Out For

3 Common Mistakes In Workplace Inclusion or Diversity Initiatives

If you’re reading this, then you likely have good intentions. You may feel a pressing need to create more inclusion in your workplace — and you want to get there as soon as possible. But initiatives that aren’t carefully planned and executed can backfire if you’re not careful.

When diversity and inclusion efforts go wrong, strategies fall flat, and employees don’t reach their potential — or worse, they’re actively hurt. As others in the organization take notice, they lose trust in leadership and feel even less included.

According to Abigail Dunne-Moses, a senior faculty member in our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion practice — tokenism, assimilation, and dehumanization are 3 of the most common consequences of a diversity and inclusion workplace initiative gone awry. Here’s what to avoid to prevent a gap between intentions and impact.

Avoid Tokenism

Tokenism is the idea that organizations need to “check the diversity box” by hiring or including a few people from underrepresented or underestimated groups. It could look like having one Black person, one woman, or one LGBTQ person on a team or in a department, as if that meets the minimum requirement for being an inclusive workplace. In other words, it’s the opposite of fostering truly meaningful and authentic participation.

Tokenism prioritizes appearing diverse and inclusive, rather than having an authentically inclusive work culture. Tokenized employees can end up feeling isolated, awkward, uncomfortable, disempowered, and pressured to represent an entire group.

Employees who are tokenized often report feeling reduced to one part of who they are, as if others are overlooking all they have to offer and the rich set of experiences, perspectives, and identities they bring. Tokenism backfires because, without actual representation and real inclusion, organizations don’t benefit from the diverse perspectives and backgrounds of all their talent. And employees who don’t feel seen or who feel taken advantage of are likely to disengage at work, or leave entirely.

  • How to promote an inclusive work culture and avoid tokenism: Ensure that employees from different identities and underestimated groups can contribute in meaningful ways that make a difference, such as being included in decision-making conversations. Focus your recruiting and promotion practices around the value of representation, instead of the desire to hit a quota. Invest in increasing the cultural intelligence of managers and help them understand how social identity affects the way they lead.

Avoid Assimilation

If employees feel the dominant culture at their organization is different from or incompatible with their own, they may feel pressure to assimilate. Assimilation represents a deep loss of identity, as employees feel like they must be someone other than themselves. For some, it can feel like erasing your values or invalidating your experiences and sense of self. In other words, it’s the opposite of committing to diverse representation.

Assimilation is, at its core, elimination. It’s a huge loss for an organization because it dampens the unique perspective that each employee brings. It also negatively impacts employees who feel pressured to assimilate. Inclusive workplaces enable and facilitate people working together with different lived experiences.

  • How to promote and inclusive work culture and avoid assimilation: Foster a culture where everyone can be their authentic selves. Prioritize equity in your diversity & inclusion initiatives, giving fair and contextually-appropriate access to resources, and ensure your organizational policies allow employees to celebrate and share aspects of their culture, heritage, and identity with others. Facilitate speaking out against non-inclusive behavior or policies and amplifying marginalized voices at your organization — not just in words, but with procedures or systems to do so. Consider providing leaders with psychological safety training so they understand how to create space for different backgrounds and lived experiences than their own and can show allyship with and for others.

Avoid Dehumanization

Dehumanization represents one of the most potent and painful reminders of how crucial it is to implement inclusive workplace initiatives well.

At times, individuals may be recruited through an organization’s diversity hiring initiative, only to be dehumanized once they get there, as if they don’t have the same level of intelligence or capability as their colleagues.

If you’re on the receiving end of dehumanizing behavior, it can feel as if your life is seen as holding less value than others. This can take the form of overt slurs, stereotyping, or microaggressions, which are subtle but hurtful comments or actions. Examples might include being constantly confused for another colleague of the same racial or ethnic background (this was an experience that members of our Black professionals Employee Resource Group shared, which has happened to them repeatedly) or referring to a colleague’s same-sex life partner as their “friend” or “roommate.”

  • How to promote an inclusive work culture and avoid dehumanization: Set expectations early for open and respectful communication, and ensure leaders have access to tools, resources, training, and support as they improve their ability to identify and mitigate bias, respect differences, manage conflicts, and practice compassionate leadership by asking questions and listening closely to learn more, especially on topics outside their lived experiences.

How to Repair Damage

Even when they don’t use the word inclusion, many leaders are interested in creating an inclusive culture at their organization. Inclusive workplaces can help bring out the best in all employees, fostering a climate of innovation and creativity.

For those who are less comfortable in the equity, diversity, and inclusion space, creating an inclusive culture can also feel intimidating. Honest mistakes happen. Even with the best of intentions for an inclusive workplace, you or your organization may hurt someone along the way. It’s important to apologize, listen to understand, take action (and check in with others on the impact of those actions), and not give up. Fear of failure can often hold leaders and organizations back.

Avoiding difficult conversations can be far worse than making a mistake and being open to learning and improvement. Trial and error, paired with continuous learning and humility, make things better — and foster more inclusive workplaces.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Organizations and leaders who are committed to cultivating inclusive work cultures do more than simply talk about inclusion in the workplace, and take the conversation from “What is inclusion?” to “How can we promote an inclusive work culture?” We’re ready to be your partner in creating solutions that shift mindsets, behaviors, and practices at your organization. Learn more about our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion practice, which can help you foster greater trust, and respect, and inclusion at your organization.

Written by

Stephanie Wormington
Stephanie Wormington, PhD
Former Director, Global Strategic Research

Stephanie is a researcher with a background in developmental and educational psychology. Her research at CCL focused primarily on promoting equitable and inclusive organizational cultures, exploring collective leadership through networks, and enhancing motivation and empowerment for leaders across their professional journeys.

Stephanie is a researcher with a background in developmental and educational psychology. Her research at CCL focused primarily on promoting equitable and inclusive organizational cultures, exploring collective leadership through networks, and enhancing motivation and empowerment for leaders across their professional journeys.

What Is Inclusion in the Workplace? A Guide for Leaders
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