How to Build a More Inclusive Workplace Culture

rainbow "welcome" sign

Most social-impact spaces want to be diverse and inclusive. And many are taking active steps in that direction. Still, examining your organizational culture from within can be a challenge.

Though you may feel your workplace is welcoming to everyone, someone from outside the culture—especially someone from an underrepresented background—may have a different view. Even if they have a seat at the table, they may not believe their voice is heard and valued. Often, their perspectives are exactly the ones you need to move forward with your larger goals.

Assimilation vs. integration 

One important factor is the difference between assimilation and integration.

  • Assimilation is a process where minorities adapt to the dominant culture. An assimilated workplace may pretend to be “color blind.” New hires may be treated fairly and not fear discrimination. But they might feel pressure to go along with the rest of the group, even if they have different ideas. Or their role might be limited, keeping them from meeting their full potential.
  • Integration is a process where different perspectives can effectively combine. New hires can shape the culture, values, and future of the organization. A truly integrated workplace is harder to achieve, but it’s more successful in the long run.

How can you go beyond meeting diversity quotas and make sure every new hire feels they fully belong? True inclusiveness is an ongoing project, and it starts with asking some questions.

Who makes decisions?

Group leaders are generally the ones who model organizational values. These leaders could be the folks officially in charge, such as executive directors. Or they could be opinion leaders everyone trusts—with seniority in the workplace, for instance, or someone popular and respected.

If a handful of people seem to determine everything, it may be time to look at your organization’s leadership structure. Are others encouraged to speak up when they have an opinion, and do they have a way to do so? Are their perspectives given fair consideration? During all-staff meetings or smaller group meetings, does everyone get a chance to speak? And when a major organization-wide decision is made, can people ask questions and give feedback?

A truly inclusive workplace is one where healthy debate and dissent can happen. Otherwise your organization may fall into “groupthink,” where people agree with a decision simply because it’s the majority opinion. If people feel comfortable enough to disagree respectfully without the fear of being judged, your organization sends the message it honors all voices.

When you’re beginning a meeting, for example, the person or people in charge might set the tone by requesting all participants use the “step up/step back” technique. Those who tend to talk a lot can try to “step back” while those who rarely speak can practice “stepping up.” Or you could institute a “no interruption” rule where everyone gets to finish what they’re saying.

Where do candidates come from?

Diversity hiring quotas can be a starting point, especially if your workplace is pretty homogenous to begin with. But metrics don’t tell the whole story. A minority candidate may still feel isolated, especially if they’re only hired to reach out to a specific community rather than to share their broader expertise.

Hiring people based on employee referrals, for instance, is one way to vet trustworthy candidates. But this method isn’t perfect, since we tend to gravitate towards people who think like us.

It can be helpful to think about the public face of your organization. Websites, social media, and promotional materials are all part of this public image. Can diverse candidates see themselves reflected there? Consider the pictures you’re using, the articles you share on a social media page, and other factors.

Organizations looking to increase diversity may be tempted to hire a minority candidate simply because of their identity. While someone’s background is always part of what they bring to the organization, their expertise and potential matter even more. New hires should be confident they were brought on board because they were the right person for the job.

Let’s say an all-white staff hires a person of color to work with a specific ethnic population. If the staff only listens to their new colleague’s input on issues relating to that population, the colleague may feel pigeonholed and not truly part of the team. If their input is respected on all issues, they’re more likely to feel valued.

Making space for everyone

One definition of organizational culture is “the behavior you reward and punish.” In other words, certain mindsets and actions may be encouraged while others are discouraged. This may require you to ask yourself some questions about the way your organization operates:

  • What do work-related social events look like? Does social bonding take place? Are there any reasons someone might not feel welcome? (For example, is accessibility or childcare a setback to attendance? If events involve alcohol, do non-drinkers feel comfortable?)
  • Are there non-mandatory events people are still expected to participate in? Or are things are generally “done” a certain way without a clear rationale to back them up?
  • What metrics are assessed in performance reviews? How might these metrics reward certain behaviors and personalities (outside of job requirements)?
  • What are the demographics of the supervisory or executive staff? Could a minority candidate see themselves advancing professionally in the organization?
  • Are the mission, values, and vision of your organization clear?

This last question is crucial. Most nonprofit organizations have a written mission statement, and they look for people who are on board with this statement and its goals. So when you think about “cultural fit,” get back to the basics. Start by seeking candidates who can contribute to the organization’s purpose, not candidates who resemble the staff you already have.

Watch your language

Non-inclusive wording can be sneaky. The term “diverse groups” itself, for example, implies certain groups or candidates are outside the “normal” majority. It may also portray an “us vs. them” mentality, even if none of your staff feels this way.

Other common phrases can be tweaked to apply more broadly. The use of “parents” instead of “moms and dads” or “guests” instead of “ladies and gentlemen” is a good start to more gender-inclusive wording.

But some exclusive terms are more subtle. There may be some cultural colloquialisms or inside jokes your team frequently uses that you can’t expect everyone to know. While you don’t have to cut these out entirely, be aware of how you use this language, especially around new staff. And be prepared to explain what you’re talking about and keep everyone in the loop.

Ideally, an integrated workplace is an ongoing project with constant room for growth. As your organizational makeup changes over time, you’ll want to re-assess and make sure you’re always moving in the direction of inclusivity.

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Has your organization made changes to ensure everyone feels welcome? What changes have worked, and has any method been less effective than you hoped? 

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Amy Bergen is a writer based in Portland, Maine. She has experience in the social impact space in Baltimore, Maryland, the educational museum sphere in Columbus, Ohio, and the literary world of New York City.
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