Reconceptualising inclusion at work


Organisations and public policy face critical challenges of reconciling a rapidly changing labour market and increasing workforce diversity. There are also pressing issues related to skills gaps and mismatches, job turnover and retention, workplace flexibility and job design owing to the differing needs of workers across the life course. Solutions are often sought through organisational initiatives and policies designed to support the inclusion of specific categories of workers that, at the same time, may marginalise others.

Practitioner interest in inclusion has grown since the 1990s, with public policy, campaigners and shareholders pushing organisations to embrace equality, diversity and inclusion (Dobusch, 2014). At the same time, a tension has emerged within management practices, as diversity management has superseded group-based equality discourses: initiatives linked to single identity characteristic (e.g., gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity), mediated by social movements and campaigns, have become popular with both businesses (e.g., EDI kitemarks) and policymakers (Williams, Heery and Abbot, 2010). However, the distinctiveness of inclusion and the ways in which it can be used in conjunction with other anti-discrimination concepts remains opaque (Oswick and Noon, 2014).

While the literature on ‘the inclusive organisation’ is beginning to grow, inclusion at work remains conceptually underdeveloped, with its complexities and explanatory potential insufficiently explored (Adamson et al., forthcoming). Consequently, there is a pressing need to understand the wider and complex dynamics of inclusion, and how organisations and wider institutions can better facilitate inclusive practices at work.

The objective of this study is to explore how organisational practices in the UK and internationally can effectively respond to the intersectional complexities of workers’ experiences. It will do this by reconceptualising inclusion and exploring the experiences of individuals both in the labour market and those marginally attached (not currently in paid work, returners, potential returners, transitioning to retirement). As such, it aims to extend the concept beyond narrow protected characteristics established in equality law. While equality of opportunity and protected characteristics remain relevant organising principles for understanding social and economic inequalities, we will move beyond single categorical analyses in order to develop a more nuanced theoretical framework that better captures workplace dynamics and creates the conceptual tools that inform innovative inclusive practice.

Phase 1 aims to:

  1. explore emergent and contested interpretations of inclusion at work (inclusion as concept);
  2. provide empirical evidence of the dynamics of attempts to foster inclusion at work in a range of organisational and institutional settings in the UK (inclusion as practice); and
  3. review and evaluate existing measures and indicators of inclusion (inclusion as outcome).

We expect this project to have implications for legislative interventions and organisational practices in developing an understanding of what constitutes inclusion and establishing criteria to evaluate the success and impact at the level of organisations.