insight magazine

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. By ANNIE MUELLER | Summer 2019


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 diversity is a familiar concept for most: it’s what people mean when they say things like, “We need more diversity in the accounting industry.”

“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.


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.”

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