How to build an inclusive workplace

In this article, Dr Meenakshi Sarkar, shares her views on how to create an inclusive workspace, by first understanding areas of social exclusion.

Dr Sarkar is Divisional Director International and Lecturer in the Work and Employment Relations Division.

Diversity management initiatives are on the rise but then so is social exclusion. With hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #StopIslamophobia trending on social media, the uncomfortable truth is that most of the systems and environments in our society have been built around the most privileged. The world is often designed for certain types of people, while ignoring others, and this is equally true of the workplace and business environments, which is where I have focused so much of my work life and research.

Women and ethnic minorities are still under-represented in boardrooms in the UK and in many countries around the world. This lack of inclusion is not necessarily the result of conscious decisions by those in positions of power but is the result of hundreds of years of systematic reinforcement. Understandably, businesses and governments around the world want to demonstrate that they’re addressing this. Although I would argue that most are not approaching this challenge systematically.

So, what are businesses doing about it? Organisations are quick to talk about embracing diversity, but all too often their actions boil down to meaningless targets, buzzwords or window-dressing. There is a sense that they want to be seen to be diverse, rather than really understanding what true inclusion means. I think of this as ‘cosmetic diversity’.

It is perfectly summed up in the way organisations may make real efforts to employ people from minority groups to meet diversity targets, but then give no consideration to the experience of those individuals once they start in the organisation, often leading, over time, to them voluntarily – or involuntarily – leaving the business. This does not create an inclusive environment, but merely the impression of a diverse organisation to outsiders.

So what should businesses do if they are really serious about inclusion? They need to look closely at the areas of social exclusion already occurring within their organisation and the structural factors present that are causing this.

Organisations need to look at inclusion from the inside out and find clever and creative ways of understanding their existing culture of exclusion. All too often business decisions and policies are made by those in a position of power, who have never fully understood the lived experience of the colleagues who are meant to benefit from such inclusion policies.

It might surprise you to hear that I believe it is also important to understand the views of those people in positions of privilege within an organisation – it’s not unusual for these groups to feel unfairly targeted or unsupported by inclusion initiatives. If we want true inclusion then we need to consider the views of everybody, or else we risk creating segregation in our organisations.

So the key message to leave you with is this: don’t think ‘how can we make our organisation diverse and inclusive?’ Instead think about what are the current policies, structures and decisions that are leading to people being excluded. Only through pulling apart the existing model can you really hope to create an inclusive organisation.

Watch Dr Sarkar’s recent alumni webinar here.