Workplace inclusion: listen up leaders, managers, and colleagues

Black Lives Matter: it’s time to do some of the work.

Here are 3 evidence-based practical considerations for workplace inclusion that arguably aren’t so well known. These pointers have emerged from doctoral research looking at the career progression (or not) of marginalised staff, such as racially minoritised women.

First, some context: the upper echelons of organisations – regardless of sector and to a large extent, geography – are dominated by older white men. Further, there is overwhelming evidence indicating that this phenomenon is a result of discrimination. There’s also a truckload of evidence showing that diverse leadership significantly improves organisational performance. However, the lack of diversity at leadership levels is not just a business problem: it is a moral and legal one (Equality Act 2010), too.

Leaders and managers – as if the above isn’t enough – much evidence suggests you have a special role to play in workplace inclusion Colleagues, you too: your support is critical to marginalised individuals according to research. Examples of the kind of support required is outlined below. Most of it is a human to human thing, so mates, partners, this is transferable to you also.

  1. What’s in a name? The little and the big things matter when it comes to inclusion. A client once ended our work together following my mispronunciation of their name at a critical juncture in our conversation. And I would say I deserved it. It’s not all about getting it ‘right’ though: much respect – integral to inclusion – may be manifest in taking the trouble to ask ‘how is it pronounced?’. Regardless of whether someone always gets it right or not, I hazard that it leaves a warm and fuzzy feeling. A feeling akin to belonging, and ‘psychological safety’. Think of psychological safety and inclusion as best mates. It’s a bit of a love triangle – a good one – in fact: psychological safety also goes hand in hand with team performance, a landmark study in 1999 by Professor Amy Edmondson found.

    What’s in a name? Quite a bit.

  2. Hey line managers. You are a big deal for marginalised staff. Support from a line manager can be ‘make or break’ in terms of equality of promotion and retention opportunities. What does ‘support’ in this context mean? Some examples:

    i. Lean towards those staff who are different to you — even those you find ‘difficult’. We all gravitate toward those similar to us; be conscious of this as a manager. One aspect of this may be facilitating stretching opportunities for all those you manage.

    ii. Get OK with conflict – and for many of us this takes work, and maybe some professional help. Diversity breeds conflict as well as reward; it’s par for the course. If you tend to avoid conflict you probably won’t be able to help those staff who most need you.

    iii. Notice employees who may experience multiple dimensions of disadvantage. For example, racially minoritised women will often be contending with everyday racism and sexism. Moreover, the impacts tend to be more than the sum of these racialised and gendered parts. The anticipation of discrimination, for instance, will itself have adverse impacts.

  3. Know your stuff on the long-term physical and mental health impacts of discrimination. The evidence showcasing this is overwhelming, as Harvard’s Professor David Williams makes clear. For instance, on the physical front, it has been found that discrimination is adversely related to preclinical indicators of disease and health risk behaviours.

    Regarding mental health impacts, discrimination undermines an individual’s sense of self to the extent that it becomes a form of ‘symbolic violence’, to use the eminent scholar, Pierre Bourdieu’s, words. In other words, the accumulation of experiences of discrimination, and the internalisation of these, are known to ‘break’ people. Reports of anxiety, much diminished confidence and emotional disturbance are not surprising.

In sum, though this may sound bleak the point I’m trying to make is that there are many opportunities in the everyday humdrum of life to be that beaut of a line manager/colleague/mate who ‘gets’ it. The potential impact of this should not be underestimated; it may well support the creation of a leadership pool that reflects all of society, not just a few.

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