Inclusion matters: why diversity is only part of the equation

An inclusive workplace is different from having a diverse workforce. Inclusion allows employees to bring their authentic selves to the workplace and reduces the prevalence of ‘code-switching’, writes Sylvia Oliveira, chair of BILTIR.

This decade has witnessed positive momentum toward increased diversity in the workforce. Top US universities have made great strides in expanding the diversity of their student bodies, providing companies with a broad, well-educated, hiring pool.

Companies in most industries, including insurance, have recognised the benefits of increasing diversity and inclusion (D&I) within their organisations and have started to actively diversify their workforce. Conferences like the Dive In Festivals and publications such as Intelligent Insurer’s D&I supplement continue to emphasise the importance of a diverse workforce.

However, the positive momentum seen among new hires and promotions to middle management grinds to a halt as one climbs up the corporate ladder into the C-suite and the boardroom. One very apparent example of groups for whom this is true is women of colour, who represent a growing portion of the workforce.

Educated and ambitious women of colour offer companies the opportunity to improve their profitability by adding innovation and aligning to their target markets. But a review of the executive teams and board members on most corporate websites will reveal a sea of white male faces. The proportion of female black or Latina CEOs of Fortune 500 companies is exactly zero percent.

Diversity is only half of the D&I picture. Harvard Business Publishing’s “Primer on D&I” defines inclusion as “a cultural and environmental feeling of belonging and sense of uniqueness. It represents the extent to which employees feel valued, respected, encouraged to fully participate, and able to be their authentic selves”.

Barasha Medhi, author and digital marketer at Vantage Circle, says: “I like to think about inclusion at the workplace as being similar to humility. Everyone wants to admit they have it, but in reality, they don’t.”

The author notes that in a recent Deloitte survey, 80 percent of employees consider inclusion as an essential factor in choosing an employer.

Medhi offers a helpful example of how having an inclusive workplace differs from having a diverse one. She suggests imagining you are hosting a dinner party. You invite guests who have all sorts of preferences and tolerances—vegetarian, sugar-free, pescatarian, gluten-free, keto diet, etc—a diverse range of food preferences.

If you serve the same meal to every guest, not everyone will be able to enjoy their dinner. If you vary the dishes for certain guests, then everyone can join in on the meal. Diversity is bringing guests with various tastes and palates to your table. Inclusion is making sure everyone at your table can enjoys the meal.

“Diversity improves the mix of employees, but inclusion makes sure everyone’s voice is heard.”
Sylvia Oliveira, BILTIR

Why inclusion is important

The benefits of diversity have been well-established, with McKinsey’s latest reports showing that companies with higher gender and racial diversity are 25+ percent more profitable than their more homogeneous peers. Diversity improves the mix of employees, but inclusion makes sure everyone’s voice is heard, everyone’s opinions are considered, and everyone’s value is evident.

According to Limeade Institute’s “Inclusion in Your Workplace” ebook, employees who feel included at work are 43 percent more committed to their company, six times more likely to be innovative, twice as likely to meet or surpass financial goals, 51 percent more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work, and typically intend to stay with their company three times longer.

Inclusion allows employees to bring their authentic selves to the workplace with the need for code-switching. The Harvard Business Review defines code-switching as “adjusting one’s style of speech, appearance, behaviour, and expression in ways that will optimise the comfort of others in exchange for fair treatment, quality service, and employment opportunities”.

Research shows that many minority women feel they must code-switch to be leaders in an organisation. Harvard Business Review found that 72 percent of black women, 53 percent of Latinas, and 52 percent of Asian women defined “executive presence” at their company as “conforming to traditionally white male standards”.

“Organisations should consider a tracking and reporting system to measure progress against D&I goals.”

Creating a more inclusive workplace

Powerhouse researchers McKinsey and Harvard Business Review suggest that certain factors create a more inclusive workspace. Inclusive leadership is key and leaders should create a safe environment for all. They need to ensure employees can speak up, be heard and feel welcome, and embrace the input of employees of varied backgrounds and expertise.

Leaders can help to foster collaboration among diverse staff, make sure they ask questions of all members of the team, act upon the advice of diverse employees, make sure they prize authenticity over conformity and code-switching, and be accessible to staff.

Accountability is also important to ensure inclusion is a core value of the organisation, not just a box-ticking exercise, and organisations should consider a tracking and reporting system to measure progress against D&I goals; some companies have even tied bonuses to D&I goals.

Meritocracy is another crucial element that can be supported with merit-based hiring and promotion practices, a high performance culture, and avoiding bias towards hiring people similar to oneself.

It can be supported by discouraging distractions such as office politics, increasing transparency of workforce decisions, and the disclosure of parameters used to evaluate and promote staff and explain decisions. Sponsorship is another key aspect, and should be more than just mentorship. Employees can be paired with experienced sponsors in a long-lasting relationship.

“All great changes are preceded by chaos,” according to author Deepak Chopra. Our industry has reacted quickly and adeptly to the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s hope leaders can use these transformative times to make meaningful strides towards meeting their D&I goals and initiatives.

Read more about BILTIR’s approach >>

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock / Perfect Lazybones

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