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How do you create a truly inclusive environment?

Inclusive culture concept talentsmoothie
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We spoke to Raj Jones, Head of Diversity Equity and Inclusion at Sodexo, and John (name changed), Global Head of DEI in the retail sector. Thank you both for sharing your thinking so openly with us.

But what does it really mean to be included?

“Inclusion is about being able to be your authentic self, not feeling you have to put on an act to fit in; people care enough to make you feel welcome and want to take the time to get to know you and what you value. It’s also knowing that you are listened to and taken seriously.” Raj

“Everyone can be heard in a team environment and their opinion is taken on board when decisions are made. Inclusion feels safe, and that your voice, contributions and actions don’t come with judgement or consequences. Inclusion is the freedom to have good days and bad ones.” John

Think it over for a moment… what would your definition of inclusion be?

Why is inclusion so important?

We need to feel included.

What’s magical about the human race is despite there being eight billion of us – there are no two people the same – we all have our unique code. We each have our own experiences that shape our ideas, impact how we feel, think, view the world. Yet, despite this difference, we seem hard wired with a need to fit in, to feel similar, to find ‘people like us’.

When you meet someone new, you ask questions about them. Where are you from? What do you do? You search for the familiar ground… a place you both love to travel to, a mutual friend, a team you both support. Something to help form the basis of a connection, because when we feel understood by others who ‘get us’ we tend to feel most at ease. Conversely, and referred to as implicit bias, we have a tendency to be suspicious of people we perceive as strangers or to be “not like us”. The origins of this may be rooted early in our ancestry, when we competed against each other for precious resources like food and water. Now, we look for the similarities in people as familiarity gives us feelings of comfort and safety

In addition, from an early age, perhaps at school, we’ve known what’s it’s felt like to be included in something or left out. We become increasingly aware of groups that come together for different reasons and we gradually form our own stories around why we may or not have been picked or chosen to join them. We all have these stories. It’s part of life and growing up – we learn we can’t be everything to everyone – some people we don’t gel with. Some won’t like us or choose us, nor we them. So, over time, in our wider lives, we refine our choices; we can find our tribe and feel like we belong. When it comes to work, though, things get more complex. People’s opportunities to choose may be more constrained, so if we are to feel included, employers must create cultures that foster a sense of belongingness.

What happens when we don’t feel included at work?

Maslow includes ‘belonging’ among our ‘deficiency needs’; if these ‘D-needs’ are not met, we may feel more anxious or tense. There may be an impact on our wellness and therefore on our performance when we don’t feel included, no matter what level we are at in the organisation.

“As I’ve got more senior in my career, I certainly struggled with feeling that I belonged in working environments where diverse ethnic representation drops off and so I don’t have those role models, people that look like me. Feeling like you have to make a conscious effort to fit in and not having the psychological safety to speak out – it’s exhausting. It can foster imposter syndrome. When we don’t feel included, it can massively impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.” Raj

And when we do?

“Then everyone understands that everyone has their individual journey to employment in the workplace. They listen to each other and don’t make assumptions based on gender, race, ability, sexuality or gender identity. They will get to know each other as individuals and understand each other’s skills, how to get the best out of each other, and how to manage the not-so-great days together. Hopefully, workplaces with good inclusion will see better results as people will feel heard.” John

How can we foster inclusion in the workplace?

The starting point for creating an inclusive environment* is being clear about who is welcome, how diverse you ideally would like that group to be, and how you will ensure that all those people will feel part of ‘your gang’.

How will you attract and select them?
Ensure the best possible fit; demonstrate your Values*, showcase your role-models, help people select themselves in or out. The messages and actions you show when recruiting will determine your ability to attract a diverse talent pool. Given two work opportunities that appear broadly equal in material ways, the deciding factor for the applicant may be how familiar or comfortable they feel with the people they meet during the recruitment process. Remember, people are attracted to people like them. If they don’t meet people like them or, at least, sense that your team ‘gets them’ and values them in their diversity, they most likely won’t want to join you.

Once on board, how will you keep them?
The reality of your organisational culture and employee experience must absolutely mirror the experience you create through the recruitment process. Nothing can be only for show. If you don’t follow through on ‘the promise’, your diverse talent pool will likely disperse… people won’t feel they belong and they won’t stick around.

“As a business, be clear that inclusion is just as important as health and safety or hitting financial targets. It should be in business plans as a strategic priority and embedded in all people processes – attraction, selection, on-boarding, development, progression, talent management, off-boarding. Fostering inclusion allows organisations to fully reap the benefits of a diverse workforce. Diversity in itself is not enough; organisations may have achieved diverse representation but if the behaviours are poor people won’t feel they belong, can’t thrive, and therefore will not achieve their full potential and will likely leave.” Raj

Everyone is responsible

“Don’t put the burden on the under-represented groups to educate you; take charge of your own learning – e.g. join an employee network, do some volunteer work, read, follow thought leaders on social media etc. Listen – “We Don’t See Things As They Are, We See Them As We Are” – people’s lived experiences will vary vastly; take time to have these conversations and broaden your horizons.” Raj

“Use your Employee Opinion Surveys to hear from your people about inclusion and build change together. Remember, inclusion is everyone’s responsibility, and we all play a part in forming the environment we want to be a part of.” John

“We all have privileges, some more than others. Think about how we can use these to help, e.g. through mentoring and sponsorship, or by calling out inappropriate behaviour.” Raj

We can help ourselves, too

“What has made a difference is building a network of close confidantes that champion me and the work I do. Knowing you have a ‘trusted few’ makes a huge difference.” Raj

Consistent action becomes your culture

“Create a constant drumbeat of activity where people at all levels are talking about inclusion. It allows for richer conversations, and we all learn and grow, creating a more caring, fairer and equitable society. We do business in a good and purposeful way impacting the whole eco-system.” Raj

Role-model the behaviours that support inclusion. Make sure your policies and processes reflect them. Highlight them in your performance management and your KPIs. Talk about them. Celebrate them. Embed them. Eventually what you do will become who you are – an inclusive environment – everyone in your organisation, collectively, moving as one to the same rhythm.

*Included in our report Generation Z What They Want from Work (2022) are six questions to help you shape your Gen Z strategy. ‘How do you create a truly inclusive environment?’ is the fifth of these. The full report is free to download here. Or read our blog posts ‘How do you stand for something as an organisation?’ which tackled the first of the six questions, and  ‘How do you drive a culture based on Values?’ which considered the third.

Make even better connections with your people. We are talentsmoothie, organisational development consultants and the employee experience experts. We can help.

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