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Creating an Inclusive Workplace

We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Throughout the years, people have debated whether the founding fathers really meant “all people” and not just “all men” when they declared their independence from England. Regardless of their intent, what has been evident for most of our country’s history is that anyone who is not a white, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual male has not been treated equally nor afforded the same rights as them, including in employment.

Although our country officially began in 1776, it wasn’t until almost 200 years later that federal laws began to be enacted to level the playing field in the workplace. A sampling of these laws include:

  • Equal Pay Act (1963) – prohibits sex-based wage discrimination between men and women in the same establishment who perform jobs that require substantially equal skill, effort, and responsibility under similar working conditions.
  • Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964) – prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, and sex.
  • Pregnancy Discrimination Act (1978) – prohibits discrimination based on pregnancy.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) – prohibits discrimination based on disabilities.
  • Title VII’s list of protected classes expanded (2020) – U.S. Supreme Court adds Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity as protected class. 

These laws prohibit discrimination, but they don’t necessarily prevent it from happening. Take a look at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website at or the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing website at for lists of lawsuits filed by the government against employers this year to get an idea of the discrimination that continues to take place in employment.

Discrimination is a way of excluding people from the workplace. However, allowing people to work doesn’t necessarily mean they feel included.

Have you ever felt excluded? I have. I was at a fundraiser, sitting at a table, and talking with two friends. Someone they know came up to the table, sat down, and proceeded to talk to my friends without acknowledging or making eye contact with me. My friends uncharacteristically did not introduce me to their acquaintance, and the three of them chatted away while I just sat there, feeling invisible. I left after a few minutes because the feeling of being excluded was so unsettling. 

I’m not alone in this feeling. Research has demonstrated that being left out like that has the same effect on our brains as being punched in the gut – it psychologically hurts. If that situation regularly happened to me at work, I would eventually leave the organization because of it.

In her article “What to Do When You Feel Left Out at Work,” Katie Heaney said, “workplace exclusion isn’t just about hurt feelings — it’s often also an indicator of an office’s equity” and included this quote by Jessica Methot, an associate professor of human resource management at Rutgers University: “We know that people typically get promoted through referrals and their informal friendship networks, so it’s not only about the emotional feeling of being excluded or alienated, even though that’s a really big issue.”

Because of the previously mentioned employment laws, most everyone gets to have a seat at the worktable. Unfortunately, diversity does not equal inclusion (cultural change catalyst Verna Myers explained, “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”). Therefore, people who are not in the majority group (white, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, male) are frequently left out of the conversation leaving them feeling invisible and alone. Here are some examples:

In an inclusive workplace, all employees feel welcomed, valued, integrated, and part of the team instead of feeling invisible and alone. Not surprisingly, it takes deliberate action to create this kind of environment. In her article “6 Steps for Building an Inclusive Workplace,” Kathy Gurchiek said these actions include:

1. Educating leaders about what inclusiveness is and why it’s important.

Because daily interactions are the most telling sign of whether a company is inclusive or not, everyone (or at least employees in a supervisory position) should receive training on how to be inclusive (for example, introducing yourself and making eye contact with everyone in a group when you’re talking).

While I’m not a fan of making people attend training they don’t want to attend, if it’s not mandatory, the people who really need it won’t show up. Also, people usually don’t change their behavior unless there are consequences for not doing so. So, supervisors especially need to be held accountable for demonstrating inclusive behavior.

2. Forming an Inclusion Council.

You’re probably thinking, “oh great, another committee.” Here’s the reason for this suggestion: you’ve got to have a dedicated group of people who really want an inclusive workplace to make it happen. The council should be as diverse as possible, with members not only representing different ethnicities, genders, etc. but also different levels, departments, and locations of the organization. The primary responsibility of the council is to review organizational feedback, troubleshoot challenges, and relay information to the organization’s leaders.

3. Celebrating differences.

“One of the most important ways to show employees that you respect their backgrounds and traditions is to invite them to share those in the workplace,” said Gurchiek. The sharing can be done through things like food, clothing, and holiday traditions.

4. Listening to employees.

Employee surveys and focus groups are great ways to discover how employees feel about issues like inclusiveness. While listening, it’s important not to get defensive. After listening, it’s important to do something with the information you’ve obtained.

5. Holding more-effective meetings.

There are a variety of ways to make meetings more inclusive, such as:

  • ​Distributing meeting material in advance so employees for whom English is a second language and introverted employees who like to process information before responding may be better prepared
  • Ensuring employees working from home have the technology they need to participate
  • Rotating meeting times to accommodate different time zones or shifts
  • Ensuring meeting dates don’t conflict with religious holidays
  • Ensuring employees are courteous to each other and don’t interrupt, have side conversations, or make rude remarks
  • Banning technology so employees aren’t distracted

6. Communicating goals and measuring progress.

Just like any other strategic initiative, it’s important to gather data about your company’s current level of inclusiveness, identify shortcomings, create quantifiable goals, and communicate progress on a regular basis.

Is all this work worth it? Research conducted by Deloitte Consulting that involved 245 global organizations and more than 70 client interviews revealed that organizations with inclusive cultures are twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets and six times more likely to anticipate change and respond effectively.

Why do inclusive organizations get these kinds of results? It’s simple – when people feel included, they perform better. As Alexis Herman, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, said, “Inclusion and fairness in the workplace…is not simply the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.”

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Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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