Many companies focus heavily on diversifying their workforce, enriching their culture with a fresh set of ideas and experiences.
However, SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, believes employers should now focus on inclusion. As he explained, inclusion operates as a “functional arm of diversity.”
“Inclusion makes room for healthy disagreement and says that, when expressed respectfully, differences of opinion serve to strengthen us collectively,” Taylor wrote in the Winter 2023 issue of SHRM’s HR Magazine. “And, perhaps most importantly, inclusion brings empathy into the equation, reminding us that we’re speaking with fellow human beings with real, lived experiences and emotions.”
Not only does inclusion support employees’ sense of belonging, it also has myriad business advantages. A 2022 study by SHRM and Gap International revealed that organizations that exercise inclusion are also more resilient than those that don’t.
With 2024 on the horizon, workplace and inclusion experts have offered recommendations for strengthening inclusion in the workplace.
1. Review Internal Policies and Best Practices
Shawnie Hawkins, SHRM-CP, senior director of the Human Rights Campaign’s workplace equality program, said every company should review their policies and processes to ensure inclusivity. Check health care offerings to make sure they support workers with mental health issues, institute a pronoun and chosen-name process, and revisit dress code and restroom policies.
2. Identify Existing Issues
Ella Washington, professor of practice at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, said organizations often want a solution without fully understanding the problem. She emphasized the importance of intimately exploring the “what” and “why” of the organization’s inclusion concerns to determine an approach that is tailored to fit employees’ needs. In many instances, speaking with employees at all levels can give HR a better understanding of where improvements must be made.
3. Collect Employee Self-Identification Data
You can’t create a culture of inclusion if you don’t know the unique needs of the workforce, Hawkins said. The self-identification process gives companies the tools to make their practices more inclusive while giving employees an opportunity to tell leaders where barriers may exist within policies and processes. In IBM’s self-ID process, newly self-identified LGBTQ+ employees receive information about company resources, such as employee groups, Slack channels and benefits policies.
4. Let Employees Have Input
Companies should want their culture to be informed by employees rather than created for them to accept, Washington said. She encouraged HR to foster opportunities for workers to participate in listening sessions that impact the organization, implement focus groups and advisory councils, or simply have an open inbox for suggestions. Not only does listening to employees’ ideas and concerns support inclusion efforts, it has also shown to improve retention rates.
5. Empower Employees to Take Ownership of Inclusion
Discussions around inclusion often center historically marginalized identities, Washington said, but HR should push employees to expand their understanding of inclusion. “It is not only managers and senior leaders who should be concerned about the inclusion of team members,” she explained. “Find opportunities to integrate inclusion as an element of collaboration.” HR should help everyone—whether the introverted workers or the hybrid members of the team—feel included.
6. Don’t Create Inclusion Strategies in a Silo
Beth Thomas, partner with global technology research and advisory firm ISG in Stamford, Conn., said HR professionals should build an inclusion strategy around their employees. “They are the ones determining if you are inclusive or not,” she explained. Conduct surveys and assess your employees regularly to ensure you are on the right track. “This is not a one-time event,” Thomas said. “It is an ongoing process.”
7. Standardize Curiosity and Discomfort
To create workplace inclusion for all, everyone must acknowledge and welcome that change can be an adjustment, Washington said. HR should prepare employees for new expectations or behaviors by allowing them to ask questions and providing them with transparency around why. “Explain why certain jokes or traditions may be exclusive and offer alternatives that bring people together rather than further divide them,” she added.
8. Provide a Safe Place for Everyone
Creating employee resource groups (ERGs) that are meaningful to your employees and providing the resources they need helps to reinforce inclusion and investment in their success, Thomas explained. Research shows that ERGs offer a sense of belonging that can help employees grow personally and professionally—particularly workers from underserved communities.
9. Imbed Inclusion into Your Culture
Thomas warned HR professionals against creating an inclusion strategy as part of a “checklist.” Instead, establish real metrics and measure success around these findings. How will you know if you are an inclusive workplace? “Talk about it all the time and include it in your overall company strategy, values, vision and mission statements,” Thomas said.
10. Solicit Support from Senior Leadership
Creating an inclusive workplace without buy-in from senior leadership can be difficult, Hawkins said. Leaders must model the behaviors they want to see, she said, adding, “It has to be a priority from the C-suite to the new hire at orientation that your workplace culture is safe and affirming for all.” HR can educate their leaders on the myriad business advantages of inclusion to help achieve leadership buy-in.