Creating an Unconsciously Inclusive Business Culture
Inclusivity begins with conscious, intensive efforts; over time, efforts become habits, and inclusion becomes the cultural default. Imagine what that can do for your firm or company operating in an anything but vanilla business world.
Here’s a scenario that’s becoming increasingly common in the accounting and
finance industry: the conference table is full, the people around it diverse, with
a wide range of backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, beliefs, orientations, and life
experiences. A senior partner raises a question, and three people provide ideas.
The ideas are sound, but eerily similar. There’s a brief discussion, a mild back-and-forth that results in consensus within 30 minutes. Everyone leaves the
productive meeting for a culturally inclusive celebration, where they exchange
pleasantries and don’t ask each other too many questions.
It’s easy to reach consensus when the options are similar: it’s like choosing
between three brands of vanilla ice cream. There are slight differences in quality
and variations in taste and texture, but in the end, it’s all vanilla. When diversity in
hiring is considered a final achievement, and diversity in thinking is treated as an
organizational threat, the only ideas offered will be vanilla ideas. Organizations
will suffer from a lack of diverse thinking and employees who aren’t satisfied with
vanilla thinking will find the nearest exit.
“Often, if someone feels that the culture of the organization is
not one where diverse opinions and ideas are welcomed, they
will not say anything,” says Mary Morten, president of The Morten
Group, a national consulting firm focused on racial equity and
customized approaches for organizational development.
Morten, a lifelong activist dedicated to providing a voice for
marginalized communities, explains that in many cases,
employees from underrepresented communities are treated as
the “token representative” for entire groups and communities, if
not excluded altogether from high-level conversations that
involve organizational planning. It’s not uncommon for them to
be “routinely passed over for promotions and, in some cases,
even asked to train the person who has less experience for a
new position,” Morten adds. “Some employees may have hope
that things change; others just leave and hope it is better at
the next organization.”
As a result, firms large and small face a reddening bottom
line when it comes to talent: the costs of hiring, on-boarding,
and training new, diverse employees can’t mature into an
investment with a positive return if employees leave six months
after hitting productivity.
“At a high level, what prevents businesses — and people — from
being inclusive is a lack of knowledge,” says Suri Surinder, co-founder
& CEO of CTR Factor, which advises organizations in
leadership, diversity, and inclusion. Surinder, with 30 years of
business experience in various C-level roles and as a consultant
in multiple industries, argues that lack of knowledge and lack of
self-awareness together form “the single biggest cause for
absence of inclusion in the workplace.”
At heart, most people want to do what’s right. They have
empathy for others. They understand the pain of exclusion.
There’s just one big barrier to expressing empathy, making new
connections, and stepping into unfamiliar territory in order to
create a more inclusive workplace: nobody seems to know how.
“People are hungry to learn how to interact with those who are
‘Other,’” says Ellie Krug, lawyer, writer, activist, and founder of
Human Inspiration Works. “Companies do not get inclusivity
because they can't see it. They get diversity because they can
see it,” she explains. Krug, who has presented on diversity and
inclusion to governmental entities, court systems, Fortune 100
companies, law firms, and organizations across North America
confirms that “a company will spend a lot of time to bring in
diverse people. And then they’ll forget about it.”
Diversity is not an item on a checklist that, once achieved, will
cause a firm to evolve into the innovative, inclusive company it
wants to be. Further, there are different types of diversity, and
only when both types of diversity are valued can a company shift
to a culture of inclusivity — a culture that actually receives the full
potential from its diverse hires.
ATTRIBUTE VS ACTIVE DIVERSITY
Attribute diversity is a familiar concept for most: it’s what people
mean when they say things like, “We need more diversity in the
“Attribute diversity is really all of the aspects of who we are that are
driven by either intrinsic things or explicit things or organizational
variables,” Surinder says. Intrinsic variables, he explains, include
things that are visible but not changeable: race, ethnicity,
generation, sexual orientation. Extrinsic variables, on the other
hand, are not always visible, but they are changeable: education,
experience, marital status, so on. Then there are organizational
attributes, such as functional expertise and specialization.
“All of these attributes — intrinsic, extrinsic, organizational — will
result in our thinking and our behaving differently,” Surinder
explains. Variations in thinking can, and often will, lead to more
disagreements, longer meetings, more intense discussions, and
more opportunities for conflict. That’s the perfect opportunity to
welcome and support active diversity — the missing ingredient
for many companies — but it often feels like an organizational
step backwards. It might become harder to reach consensus,
which feels inefficient. And relating to people who are “other”
makes many people uncomfortable. “Our natural instincts are to
gravitate toward people like ourselves,” Surinder says. “That's
the herd mentality for safety, built into our psychology.”
Krug calls this instinct grouping and labeling. “We need to have
tribes that provide for identity and security,” she says. “But it’s also
very problematic. In my training sessions, I will identify the tribes
that are in the room. You’ll have all the accounting people sitting
with each other. All the people in the sales team sitting together.”
In other words, companies can do everything right to increase
diversity, and still end up with distinct groups, stifled individuals,
and little to no real communication.
Surinder points out that there also are two different types of
inclusion — cultural inclusion, and leadership inclusion — and
many organizations focus solely on the first. Human Resources
adds a few “diverse” holidays to the company calendar and calls
it a day. But inclusion must extend beyond an organization’s
social activities. Inclusion, Morten explains, “is the act of creating
environments in which any individual or group can be and feel
welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to fully participate.”
Cultural inclusion is good, but it’s a first step, not a final one.
Leadership inclusion asks the question: “What do you want to be
included in?” and then responds to the answer with action.
“There are 20 different shades of inclusion — from financial to
recognition to decision-making — that we have discovered as
part of our research,” Surinder says. Leadership inclusion
requires an individualized approach, and that’s where most
organizations hit a wall.
TOOLS AND TRAINING
To break through that wall, people need tools they can use and
understand, tools that make sense, and tools that can become
second nature. And, in most cases, they need training. Be
warned that a cookie-cutter approach won’t work. One-size-fits-all
programs and methodologies are, in a sense, the antithesis
of what inclusivity truly is. Individuals and companies are asked
to conform to a certain set of parameters, regardless of size,
resources, mindset, culture, history, and previous efforts. Not only
are such programs often ineffective and costly, they also give
many organizations a “free pass” mentality that, they feel,
excuses the need for further effort. “A lot of diversity and
inclusivity training becomes one-off,” Krug cautions.
D&I (diversity and inclusion) or DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion)
training that works is customized, clear, and action oriented.
Morten’s work starts with an organization-wide assessment and
targeted training, and results in a customized plan of action. Krug
uses an approach called Gray Area Thinking™ to give individuals
and companies a toolset that includes increased awareness, risk-taking
(consciously moving away from what is familiar and toward
what is perceived as “other”), and compassionate acts. Surinder
teaches from a model that asks — and helps — individuals and
organizations to apprehend, assess, and act.
Their approaches are memorable, adaptable, and focused on
specific, measurable changes. Further, they come from a
personal passion and long-term interest in the ongoing work of
creating inclusive workplaces. A minimally trained rep, reading a
dry inclusivity presentation from a three-ring binder, won’t inspire
change. Consultants and trainers who have life experiences and
deep interest in the process of cultivating inclusivity bring
enthusiasm and curiosity to their work, which motivates others
to participate fully. Their experiences also enable them to answer
questions, solve problems, and help organizations develop the
individualized plans of action that will make a difference.
If finding and implementing the right training — down to the level
of individual customization recommended — seems overwhelming,
there’s help. The answer is to handle it the same way any complex,
organization-wide task would be handled: with technology.
“Companies will micro-segment customers,” Surinder points out.
“But they don't spend the time to segment their own employees
and say, ‘We have five different segments of employees in this
organization, all wanting a different type of inclusion. Now let's
put in place some methods and processes, some actions, and
some initiative to address these inclusion needs of employees.’’’
The same tools that enable customer segmentation to the
furthest degree enable employee segmentation as well. A
company-wide survey could ask employees to rank the different
types of leadership inclusion according to what is most important
to them. After the data is collected, the results can be sorted and
prioritized according to importance. Once the needs are known,
it’s a process of addressing them, one by one. Even the process
of addressing needs can become a means of creating inclusivity;
when companies present a transparent plan of action, diverse
employees can breathe a sigh of relief. Knowing that there is a
plan, and that the organization’s leadership supports it, can keep
dissatisfied employees from walking out the door.
To meet the needs, there must be support from leadership and
a willingness to invest resources. “An individual department
manager or supervisor will have nominal impact, if any, without
the support of leadership,” Morten says. The cost of employee
turnover is often enough to convince hesitant leaders. Every
employee who leaves, frustrated by the exclusion and limitation
they feel, costs thousands of dollars — upwards of 33 percent of
an employee’s annual salary, according to a 2017 Employee
Benefit News report.
Until the problem of exclusionary culture is corrected, the same
scenario will repeat. If there’s no buy-in from the top tiers of
management, Krug says, that’s where you go to convince them
of the need for individual, thoughtful inclusivity training that helps
people understand why, what, and how to change. Go to the
money. Make it talk.
“Your employees are your first customers,” Surinder says. “Take
care of your employees and they'll take care of your customers.”
Support from leadership, willingness to invest resources, and
truly valuing employees indicate organizational readiness.
Organizational readiness paired with individualized, action-oriented
training can result in real culture shift, the kind that turns
attribute diversity into active diversity, and makes inclusivity the
normal mode of the workplace.
The goal may seem daunting, but the only requirement for any
organization is to start somewhere and start now. Diverse
employees who feel unheard and overlooked are not asking for
miracles — they are asking for clear changes and defined
processes. “The initial efforts are high,” Surinder agrees. “But
once you focus on it long enough, it becomes an unconscious
habit. That is really the progression of a successful leader and
organization: they become unconsciously inclusive.”