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5 Ways To Promote Inclusion In The Workplace

by Rebecca Symmank on October 19, 2021
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Employers are embracing the idea of authenticity and creating an environment where employees can “bring their whole self to work.” The underlying goal is to promote inclusion in the workplace, but the invitation can create confusion and double standards.

Some employees don’t feel the idea of being open and authentic applies to everyone; for instance, there’s an implication it’s OK to admit if you’re having a bad day, but employees who face real mental health challenges or discrimination at work might be reluctant to speak up.

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And employers sometimes enforce selective standards for what it means to be professional, especially in a remote environment. One example of this is saying there is no dress code, but singling out one employee for wearing a sweatshirt on a virtual meeting while others frequently wear T-shirts.

There are also different standards and expectations within a multi-generational workplace. For instance, Gen Z employees and Millennial typically use technology differently and have distinct communication habits that can sometimes clash with Baby Boomers or Gen Xers.

A mental health crisis in the making

National Institute of Mental Health Director Joshua Gordon wrote early this year about the lingering effects of COVID-19 on mental health, stressing that the long-term impact will outlive the pandemic itself.

Citing a CDC report that surveyed adults across the U.S., Gordon said the number of people who self-reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, started or increased substance abuse, reported stress-related symptoms, and had serious thoughts of suicide nearly doubled those rates reported pre-pandemic. According to the report:

  • 31% of respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression
  • 13% reported having started or increased substance use
  • 26% reported stress-related symptoms
  • 11% reported having serious thoughts of suicide in the past 30 days

People are just starting to process and work through various aspects of mental trauma influenced – if not caused by – the pandemic.

“It is crucial that we work together to apply evidence-based strategies to support the mental health needs of all Americans and to make these strategies broadly available, especially in vulnerable communities,” Gordon said.

The key is to develop policies beyond the scope of how we previously viewed employee mental health and inclusion in the workplace so every employee feels supported and is comfortable being open and honest about what matters to them.

Here are five strategies that can help you create a more inclusive workplace where every employee really does feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work.

Educate your leadership team and your employees to recognize bias

Training employees to recognize their own unconscious bias is the first step toward helping them recognize bias in others. While unconscious bias training will not solve the problem of inequality or lack of inclusion, it does help create a foundation to do so.

Organizational consulting company Korn Ferry describes unconscious bias training as a way to address how our minds are conditioned to act when we encounter people we perceive as different from us. Often, these perceived differences trigger learned thought patterns that can influence us to reject or misinterpret others’ words or actions. This can contribute to a lack of diversity and inclusion when it comes to hiring, training, or advancement within your organization.

As you introduce unconscious bias training, make sure to stretch beyond the scope of self-awareness to a more comprehensive view that implements inclusion in the workplace at a behavioral and structural level. Find a training partner or curriculum that will help your team recognize and mitigate bias in their own thoughts and actions. Find ways to remove bias from your company’s structure, such as in hiring practices or gathering team input.

Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory’s Human Resources Diversity and Inclusion Office released a sample inclusion and unconscious bias evaluation exercise where an employee could set inclusion and diversity goals, then list how they achieved that goal in a concrete way. Leaders can discuss these goals with employees during performance reviews.

A sample goal for recruiting and hiring was to serve as a role model to others and to behave in a way that actively supported the workplace’s principles, and promoted diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The employee met the goal by recognizing their role as a hiring manager and discussing with their selection committee potential areas for unconscious bias in the recruitment and hiring process, as well as debriefing after meetings to ensure transparency, fairness, and objectivity.

Improve employee experience

 

Set clear expectations

Rather than telling prospective employees to “bring their whole selves to work”, which is vague, be clear about what you expect of them in the hybrid workplace.

For example, have a clear dress code policy for what is acceptable in the office and on virtual meetings. The dress code for client meetings may include wearing business-casual tops, while the expectation for internal meetings may be more relaxed.

Your policies may need to extend to what is considered professional behavior during virtual meetings. For instance, if your company meetings take place during lunchtime for some employees, let them know it’s OK to eat during those meetings as long as they mute themselves.

The shift to more remote work means many of us are also being invited into our colleagues’ living rooms and meeting their spouses, children, and pets, possibly for the first time. Employees should feel comfortable expressing themselves and their surroundings in ways that are authentic but professional. This can be more challenging for Gen Z and Millennial employees in particular, who may not have a dedicated office space at home. A company-branded virtual background is a good alternative to showing an unmade bed and a pile of laundry on a client-facing meeting.

Back up your words with action

Promoting inclusion in the workplace means acknowledging many employees are struggling with mental health challenges. One in five Americans has a diagnosable mental illness, and the Center for Prevention and Health reports that mental illness and substance abuse issues cost employers between $79 billion and $105 billion annually.

Larger companies are literally putting their money behind their words by increasing investments in corporate wellness programs. The total budget for employee wellness programs averaged $6 million in 2021, an increase from a $4.9 million average budget as reported in 2020, according to the Society for Human Resources Management.

Wellbeing programs can include mindfulness and meditation classes or practice opportunities, yoga classes, free or low-cost counseling services, and even time off, if needed. Equip your leaders and employees to notice signs of mental health challenges.

Some common signs listed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness include:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired frequently
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist in objective reality)
  • Overuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes, such as frequent headaches or stomach pain
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance

Your employees should know what benefits are available to them through their insurance plans and employee assistance programs. Your leadership team should also feel comfortable having discussions about employee mental health.

“What the pandemic has required leaders now to acknowledge is that employee wellbeing is not a singular concern that can be crafted in a wellness plan,” said Sarah Sims, Director of Talent & Employee Experience at the Aspen Institute, during a recent roundtable discussion about employee wellbeing. “The answer lies in employee engagement. This requires managers to lead with compassion and be more of a coach instead of a boss.”

Give employees choices

Employees thrive when they are able to adjust their work needs to fit into their personal lives, such as having the freedom to work where and how they work best when possible with technology that makes it easy.

In the post-pandemic world, 73% of employees from a global survey want flexible remote work options to stay post-pandemic, according to Statista.  Implement the right technology to support employees and maintain their productivity in the hybrid workplace. The more employees are on the go and transitioning between workplaces, the more all of your hardware and software needs to be optimized for mobile use, with clean graphical user interfaces and ease of connectivity between devices.

In creating your policies, craft guidelines that promote a work/life balance. Rather than glorifying the hustle of 9-5, praising overtime, and viewing time as a sign of loyalty or productivity, look for ways to encourage productivity and efficiency so that employees have more time to enjoy the life they work so hard to provide for themselves and their families. Encourage vacation time, or create flex scheduling so employees are able to adjust their schedules to fit their life needs. Set goals that are focused on measurable outcomes, rather than how many different projects employees are taking on.

Maintain an open dialogue

Encourage employees to voice concerns by hosting executive office hours where anyone can book time with your leadership team, having smaller break-out sessions during larger company meetings, and sending out regular surveys. Employees should also know how to file a formal complaint without fear of retribution when they experience or witness unacceptable behavior, such as discrimination or sexual harassment.

Not everyone will be forthcoming with concerns.

That’s why it’s important for managers to have regular one-on-one discussions with employees and ask the right questions, said Michelle Dickinson, a wellbeing strategist and TEDx speaker, and Rachel Druckenmiller, CEO of UNMUTED, during the employee wellness roundtable.

Druckenmiller said a survey by employee engagement expert Josh Bersin found the most meaningful thing leaders can do to make employees feel cared for is to engage them in frequent conversations.

That includes asking questions like:

  • How have you adapted over the past year and a half, personally or professionally?
  • How are you really doing right now?
  • What tools do you have to cope?
  • How can I best support you right now?

She notes frequently checking in on employees is very different from checking up on them, which feels like micromanaging and leads to trust issues.

Above all, she said, employees want to be seen and heard, which requires more effort in a remote environment. When they feel like no one notices them or cares, they are more likely to act out or withdraw.

Promoting wellbeing and inclusion in the workplace requires a long-term commitment

Promoting inclusion in the workplace and employee wellbeing requires much more than a single initiative or a one-time discussion. It starts with the executive team taking proactive steps to cultivate a company culture that encourages every employee to work the way they work best and be open and honest about their concerns.

It means training managers and employees to recognize issues like unconscious bias and mental health challenges and being prepared to take action. And it requires leaders to take an active interest in employees’ lives outside of work.

For more insight and tips, watch a recording of our recent roundtable discussion

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