It should be pretty obvious to anyone reading the news that many women and minorities don’t feel fully comfortable at work. From Hollywood to Silicon Valley and from factory floors to government halls, too many women and minorities feel they are not treated fairly and lack sufficient opportunity for advancement.
It’s easy to attribute both the positives and negatives of a work culture to the domains of HR leaders and the select C-level executives who choose to embrace the cause. And, while they play an important role in setting the tone and articulating the priorities, the reality is that an inclusive workplace culture is too big a task for HR to take on alone, and it’s even too big a task to take on in partnership with the CEO alone (though getting C-level buy-in makes it much more achievable).
Beyond that, most small-to-midsize companies are too small to have diversity and inclusion (D&I) experts. In fact, some small companies only have one bandwidth-constrained HR person expected to handle everything from recruiting to compensation and benefits. D&I may feel like a nice-to-have in a laundry list of must-have priorities.
Whether a HR department is a team of 100 or a team of one, a truly inclusive workplace only comes about when business leaders, team leaders and individuals all contribute to the dynamic. Here are some initial steps that even resource-constrained HR leaders can take to empower the entire organization to make a difference.
Each team needs to understand that a healthy culture is a business necessity, not a nicety.
For some people, knowing that creating an inclusive environment is the right thing to do won’t be enough. They need to know how it directly impacts employee engagement and retention, which in turn impact the health of the business overall. Pat Wadors, chief talent officer at ServiceNow and former senior vice president of talent at LinkedIn, shares that “to get a highly engaged workforce that shares its best thinking and creates higher levels of innovation and output, team members need a sense of trust and need to know that they can participate equally and respectfully in a conversation.”
Aleah Warren, managing consultant at Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion strategy firm, adds that managers need to understand that inclusion is a retention issue. “If people don’t feel like they’re included and like they can speak up, they’re obviously going to be more likely to leave.”
Reams of research back up the business case for inclusion, such as this HBR article showing that positive work cultures lead to not only more engaged and more loyal employees, but even healthier employees who benefit from lower stress levels at work.
Anyone who runs a meeting can set a positive tone starting with giving everyone a chance to speak.
Once employees internalize the business value of feeling valued, HR leaders can give them some specific, tactical tools to move in the right direction. The easiest venue involves meetings. Many employees are surprised to learn that when women are the minority in a meeting, they’re less likely to speak up. And when they do speak, there’s a 33% greater chance that they’ll be interrupted than if they were men.
Warren warns that, “If your team prioritizes the loudest voice in the room or requires people to cut in to share their thoughts, you may be missing out on the ideas of many of your best team members who simply don’t operate that way.”
Work with business leaders to set meeting norms that let everyone contribute. They can ask those who haven’t spoken if they have anything to add, point out when someone is interrupted or another participant repeats an idea that someone has already shared, and amplify ideas that are overlooked. Changing meeting norms to encourage full participation is a powerful concept and is empowering to employees who may have seen biases at work but felt unable to mitigate them.
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Managers need to set the right tone for new employees from the start.
Encourage managers not only to let a candidate know why they are needed and how they fit into the unique fabric of the organization during the hiring process, but also to emphasize those points on employees’ first days and throughout their tenure. Managers should be present on the employee’s first day, invite them to lunch, introduce them not just to coworkers but also to people with shared interests. It’s also important that they continue to have conversations with employees about engagement and satisfaction so they know what’s working and what’s not.
Wadors has observed that feelings of isolation typically start early, “People will feel isolated within the first 30 to 60 days. It’s very hard to recover after that.” Through building inclusion into onboarding, managers can proactively help a new team member start strong.
Work with managers to add checks into who gets high-growth opportunities.
As a manager making lots of quick decisions, it’s easy to unintentionally and unconsciously favor certain members of the team for high-profile project assignments or even promotions.
Warren suggests that HR leaders work with managers to “check themselves” before making these decisions. At a bare minimum, managers should be able to articulate in writing why one team member is getting an opportunity over another. This will help hold the whole company more accountable to the ideal of giving everyone a chance to succeed.
We all want to feel that we belong, and when we don’t feel that way in a workplace, we’re less likely to create our best work and more likely to leave. HR leaders already know this, but it’s too big a cause for them to take on themselves. These simple practices can help HR leaders begin partnering across their organizations to create more inclusive, more productive and happier workplaces.