24 May 2024

Including everyone. Inclusivity in the organisation

Inkluzywność przynosi korzyści zarówno pracownikom, jak i firmie. Jak tworzyć różnorodne środowisko pracy i zadbać o DEI?

There is a lot of talk today about inclusivity in the context of shaping a modern work environment. According to Glassdoor, 67% of active and passive job seekers consider it important that an organisation employs a diverse workforce when evaluating an organisation and job offers. According to McKinsey and Company, companies with greater gender diversity show 15% higher financial results than national industry medians. But how do you introduce inclusivity into your organisation? What supports it, and what works against it? What should be kept in mind when opening up to inclusivity? It is certainly worth understanding it well first. Małgosia Kwiatkowska talks with Hania Wąż, a certified business trainer, coach, and crisis consultant.

Małgosia Kwiatkowska: When you think about inclusivity, what are the first associations that come to your mind? How would you define inclusivity?

Hania Wąż: In short, inclusivity means including. This approach aims to create an environment where all people are treated fairly, respected, and have equal opportunities to participate in various social spaces. But when you hear such a definition, you might quietly begin to suspect that it’s simply not possible, that it’s utopia. Certainly, every 100% is a utopia. Such a value does not occur in any social phenomenon. Because inclusivity is not a goal but a journey towards this highly desirable state, it’s about the choices we make along the way. Inclusivity is a journey, and on this journey, each of us is at a different stage, and every stage is okay. I’m talking about serious definitions, but let’s look at it from a more personal perspective. Imagine working or living in a group, family, or company where, regardless of who you are, what you believe, where you come from, who you consider yourself to be, your gender, appearance, social or economic status, age, your life or professional experience, you are considered a valuable person, your opinion is respected and taken into account, and your belonging to any particular group of people does not matter at all. Your value as a human being is always and undeniably high, as is the respect due to you in every situation. Imagine. Feel it. Do you feel it already? That’s inclusivity.

MK: I feel it, and I must admit that it is a very pleasant feeling. But before I lose myself in it, let me share one more reflection. From my perspective, it is important not to confuse inclusivity with pampering or favouritism. I have the impression that often, during discussions about inclusion, such concerns arise.

HW: Indeed, when we don’t fully understand what inclusivity is, the line between it and favouritism becomes thin. For example, in a situation where driven by the desire to create a more inclusive team, we grant one group greater rights because we see that this group has been overlooked so far. And although the intentions behind this decision are very good, it will nevertheless lead to the distortion of inclusivity towards favouritism. Favouritism is associated with a deep sense of injustice, while inclusivity is exactly the opposite.

When I talk about inclusivity in a team, I mean that every person who is part of it is equally valuable and respected. Let's emphasise this word – every. Here I will use a quote. During one of the coaching sessions, a conversation with my client, an operations director managing a large team, turned towards the most important, key values. I asked what the most important thing was for him when we talked about managing his people. He said: "Normality". I asked: "Each of us can understand this word differently. How do you understand normality?" He replied: "Exactly. Normality is when there is room for every normality". And this definition of inclusivity became my favourite.

MK: I feel like greeting the director because I also find his definition very accurate. But every normality – for me – also means openness to diversity. And this is another important concept that fits into the topic of our conversation. How does diversity relate to inclusivity?

HW: Diversity is a fact, inclusivity is an act – says Vernā Myers, an expert in the field of diversity and inclusivity. Diversity is a fact about us. Every child is born with unique neurological characteristics that affect their development after birth. These differences can concern many aspects, such as the pace of motor development, sensory perception, the pace of speech and language development, and other brain functions. Another factor shaping our neural connections is the environment in which we grow up, caregivers, nursery, kindergarten, colleagues, school, studies, work, and profession. It is easy to see in the face of these dynamics that we have no chance of remaining the same. Add to this ethnic and cultural diversity, which makes us communicate differently, perceive interpersonal and professional relationships differently, understand and implement phenomena such as motivation or engagement differently. Erin Meyer describes this fantastically in her book The Culture Map. Let's add gender and gender identity to this, or the roles we define in life, often beyond what social norms foresee. Today, norms established by social and psychological sciences are trying to keep up with what we define as "ours" and "right". And into this pot of diversity, let's throw in the diversity of abilities, age, sexual, socio-economic, educational diversity, diversity of work styles, communication styles, the list could go on. And how does diversity relate to inclusivity? At the doors leading to inclusivity stands the full awareness of the fact that we all see the world and realise ourselves differently, that diversity is everyone. We are too.

MK: Such a view of the world – acceptance of everyone – seems obvious to me. But how can we talk about inclusion when, in workplaces, we still so often encounter exclusion – discrimination based on age, gender, physical ability, mental health, sexism, but also bullying behaviours?

HW: First: speak up. Silence and inaction can be just as harmful as actively contributing to discrimination, exclusion, or bullying. Opening the space for conversation is already something very human. And from my experience, I know that sometimes a single word, a single sentence, can become the seed of change, a trigger that starts clearing the window. Openness to inclusion reminds me of cleaning windows. We start to see what is beyond the glass, that there is something different and just as important as our current world. Second: have conversations. From my experience in workshops and training, I know that the exchange of experiences and human stories are real gems. You can’t buy them in any bookstore. I sometimes see how, out of fear of losing our internal status quo – or out of fear of the discomfort of self-discovery – we resist inclusivity. But those same people, when their views, even if in opposition to others, are treated with respect and considered important, feel appreciated and satisfied. I see how, with amazement in their eyes, they stand up straighter, feel stronger. This shows that even if someone opposes inclusivity, they actually need it to maintain their resistance. Inclusivity is already part of their experience, but to understand this, they must travel a long and often bumpy road.

MK: This journey probably involves a certain, sometimes considerable, amount of discomfort.

HW: Any change causes destabilisation of the prevailing system, so if our current perspective is challenged, it must waver, and that’s not very pleasant. Not everyone is ready for that. Moreover, if until now we have committed, for example, discriminatory acts, or even just harbour discriminatory thoughts, the effect of realising this is very unpleasant. We like to think of ourselves as good people; it’s natural. Confronting the thought that until now we have excluded someone is simply painful. That’s why we need to speak and have conversations. Because it’s not easy and often involves denying beliefs that are the foundations of our sense of identity, of who we thought we were. But to achieve this, we need another person beside us. In silence, nothing will happen. In "together" much can happen.

MK: But do you believe that everyone is capable of change? Maybe we should start thinking that openness to inclusivity is our moral duty?

HW: Absolutely! I don’t even allow myself to believe otherwise. Looking realistically, however, I know that there will be people and organisations that will remain frozen, with a great reluctance to see that "diverse" does not mean "worse". There will also be people and organisations that, wanting to stay true to principles developed years ago, will not feel the need to change their perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t belong to the group of supporters of predatory inclusivity – that is, either everyone is good to everyone, or you’re a bad person. Because that also means exclusion. Inclusivity is a place even for non-inclusive people, those who decide more or less consciously not to go any further than where they are. It’s their right, and I respect it. Let’s listen to these people, learn how they see the world, try to look at their view from the window or their reluctance to look through it. Let’s talk, without imposing our opinions, let’s see each other. Urging everyone to be the same in inclusivity will again deny them the right to be who they are. I believe... I know that inclusivity is good. In every dimension. In this one too. I have witnessed many inclusive conversations with people who did not plan to see a perspective other than their own, who suddenly realised that there is another way, not worse in its difference. And the only thing I consider our moral duty is not to harm. I do not agree with that.

MK: And how to learn to see differences but not judge them?

HW: It’s a long journey, but if we start today, we will already be on it. To begin with, I suggest an exercise of asking yourself the question: "Who am I?" Write down ten roles, names, and traits that suit you. If you find 20 or 50, even better. Then complete the thought: "I am living proof that the stereotype that... is not true." Write down five sentences. The third step is to write down six lists of stereotypes about gender, age, nationality, orientation, religion, and wealth. Ask yourself which of them are yours, which you know from hearsay, repeat but ultimately disagree with, and which are not yours at all but surround you. The next step is to work with our stereotypes. Consider when you use them, in what circumstances, and what they "do" to the person they are directed at. Step five is to plan one micro-change: what will you do differently from tomorrow? How will you do it? What might hinder you? If something hinders you, what step will you take to get back on track? I would advise implementing one micro-change per week. If such frequency is too much for us, change it to 10, 14, 20 days. Do it so that the rhythm of changes suits us. It’s also important, from my perspective, to keep a change journal. Check off successes, and write down challenges. Congratulate yourself after the first month, after a quarter, after six months.

MK: And practise, because there are many reasons why it’s worth learning inclusivity. Can you say from your own experience what most convinces organisations to open up to inclusive leadership?

HW: One of the reasons is research that clearly shows that the productivity and efficiency of teams are directly correlated with the inclusivity of the workplace. We are talking about specific business results, such as increasing the organisation’s innovation, improving performance and financial results, increasing employee engagement and retention. It’s also a better understanding of customers and their needs. Employer branding or building a positive company image are other reasons why organisations are starting to be interested in DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging) issues. This acronym refers to building an organisational culture based on diversity, equity, inclusion, and a sense of belonging. Another reason is the natural diversity of the team, which meets employers when they reach for global solutions. With the implementation of remote working systems, we have reached a space of greater cultural, linguistic, and temporal diversity, in virtually every aspect.

MK: And does the increasing awareness among employees and the change in their requirements open organisations to the topic of inclusivity and diversity?

HW: Definitely yes. Social awareness of the right to one’s own identity, the right to one’s voice, to be respected is growing. The social understanding of aggression is changing; what used to be seen as shoving, yelling, and pushing, today we openly discuss passive aggression and microaggressions in workshops, which are whispered. We already know, as a society, that having different views, being of a different gender, having a different way of life or looking a certain way does not give anyone the right to use any form of aggression against us, even the most elegant form. Recently, during the summary of one of my workshops, I heard touching words from one of the participants. She said: "So it wasn’t just my imagination." The system of normalising behaviours based on a single correct truth, a specific appearance, one religion, or one viewpoint is becoming obsolete day by day. People expect changes, also from employers. And here’s a big nod to the millennial and Gen Z generations. Their representatives speak loudly and bluntly about wanting to work for people who respect inclusivity principles in the company. Although many people are uncomfortable with this, I believe that by listening to such voices, we can learn a lot.

MK: And I’d like to talk a bit more about building this respect. What does inclusive leadership entail? What do you think is the most important aspect? Who should be responsible for inclusion policies in an organisation?

HW: Inclusive leadership is, above all, about conscious leaders. Leaders who are aware of their own biases and strive to eliminate them, who are open to different perspectives and experiences, and who create an environment where everyone feels comfortable expressing their opinions and ideas. Ensuring equal opportunities for all team members. Moreover, at the team management level, helping team members develop their skills and achieve their goals. Providing coaching and mentoring. And finally, at the level of organisational responsibility, it’s about leaders holding themselves and others accountable for behaviours that contradict inclusive values. Inclusion policy in an organisation should be everyone's concern, but its main promoter and leader is the C-level. I see it this way: the entire management board of the organisation is involved in decision-making regarding actions aimed at promoting equality and diversity. Then the HR department monitors the effectiveness of the inclusion policy, develops training programmes, and provides support to employees on equality and diversity issues. Managers at various levels of the organisation play a key role in implementing the inclusion policy in daily work, in their teams, at every step. And finally, employees, at every level, implement and respect the inclusion policy in their organisation. This is the obvious course of action. But other departments, such as communication, employer branding, or marketing, also have a significant role in promoting inclusive actions and communication both internally and externally.

MK: What else is worth remembering when creating a work environment that is friendly to everyone?

HW: In response, I’ll start at the organisational level and move towards individual actions. At the organisational level, my favourite word in this field is empowerment. And again, I can’t find a nice equivalent in Polish. In practice, it means creating conditions conducive to the engagement of all employees, enabling them to perform at a higher level and develop professionally, equally, regardless of which group they belong to. This can be realised by shaping a culture of participation, by organising regular team meetings, such as town halls, where employees can share their ideas and concerns, and every voice is equally important and heard. This also includes development programmes available to all employees. Another essential element of inclusivity at the organisational level is setting clear organisational goals and expectations so that employees have clarity about what goals need to be achieved, and what behaviours are expected from everyone to the same extent. All this should be based on the anti-discrimination policy and equal opportunity policy in the workplace.

MK: And is it worth discussing a new way of recruitment?

HW: In the context of inclusivity, introducing recruitment practices that ensure fairness and equal opportunities for all candidates is of course essential. And this brings us to the HR space. In the companies I work with, I observe practices that level the playing field in terms of work-life balance, by enabling remote work, providing childcare, or introducing other facilities for parents. I must refer here to what I mentioned earlier: inclusivity must be discussed openly and transparently. Support will come from diversity and inclusion training for all employees or the establishment of Inclusion Buddies teams. This involves continuous education of the team, managers, and top executives in managing diversity and resolving conflicts. And finally, at the individual level, it’s about promoting and encouraging active listening, learning about the richness of perspectives, participating in diversity support programmes, and even considering such activities for promotion. There is a huge field for action here, and I know organisations where such actions are visible at every step.

MK: Inclusivity and attracting top specialists – I have encountered statements that these goals are contradictory. Isn’t this one of the myths about DEIB? Have you encountered others?

HW: I don’t see a contradiction, quite the opposite. Inclusivity is the reason why talents choose an employer, rather than leave them. A few years ago, when the topic of DEIB was quite new and misunderstood in Poland, I encountered the attitude that – I quote – it’s essentially about hiring some women, some men, and maybe someone not from Poland, to make the numbers look good on paper. With such an approach, indeed, statistical quantity takes the place of quality or talent. And yes, there are many such myths. If we base our understanding on the idea that DEIB is only about gender and race, we end up in the mentioned place – only looking at numbers, tables, and statistics. Another myth is the thinking that it’s about treating everyone the same, which is also untrue. Treating everyone the same is once again applying one measure to all, so it’s futile to seek inclusivity here. Equality means ensuring equal opportunities for everyone and treating them fairly, considering their individual needs and circumstances. Another myth is that having an internal DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) policy is enough. A DEI policy is a good start, but it’s not sufficient. It’s important to implement the strategy and ensure everyone follows it. It’s also crucial to create a culture where everyone feels comfortable and has the opportunity to report cases of discrimination or exclusion. I could go on for a long time because there are many misconceptions about inclusivity. It’s worth realising that these arise whenever something is not understood. And if we don’t understand something, we feel uneasy. This quickly leads to negative beliefs. In short: I’m glad we’re talking about it today.

MK: And there’s no conversation without skilful use of language. I’m wondering how important the language we use is in inclusion. What should it be like?

HW: Language is very important. Many studies and publications have presented guidelines on what is permissible and what should be avoided. Let's look at it from a purely human, less scientific perspective. We should use language that avoids stereotypes and biases. It’s good to consider what prejudices lie in our unconscious part. We often say things that can be classified as microaggressions. This is discrimination, but very hard to notice. These are small, subtle behaviours or comments that are offensive, discriminatory, or dehumanising to the person or group they refer to. Some of them resemble roots ingrained in our communication systems, such as the phrase: "You look young for your age." This is a form of microaggression, which, though said with good intentions to please someone, actually assumes that looking younger is better than looking one’s age, or that one should look a certain "young" way. Similarly, addressing a younger person as: "young man" or: "you're too young to understand." This is also age discrimination, as it assumes that the only valid qualities are experience and wisdom – which may not be true – and that they come with age – which also may not be true. Other microaggressions can relate to race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, origin, and every aspect of our identity. I don’t want to delve into the pitfalls of our language because there are specialists for that, but I have a dream that we will learn to notice and eliminate these microaggressions in our language. I believe we would see tremendous progress. The topic is still quite new in our market, so it’s worth talking about it at every opportunity. Years ago, when I dreamed of training in DEIB, it was hard to explain its basics, as this area was so far removed from what we knew about the world in our culture. Today, more and more people understand that it’s important. I predict that we will similarly assimilate the topic of inclusive language.

MK: This is something I wish for all of us, and I hope I will have the opportunity to discuss this topic with you again. Thank you very much for the meeting. And if any of you would like to learn more about inclusivity, I warmly invite you to Hania’s course "Employee-friendly company. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging – DEIB values in organisational culture”, starting in November. Organisations interested in participating are encouraged to contact us.

HW: Thank you for inviting me to discuss such an important issue for every organisation today. And finally, I would like to quote a fragment from Remigiusz Mróz’s latest book, Paderborn, where Nina says: "There is no norm (...). We are all different; no part of our world is black and white. Each is composed of a colourful mosaic, from which it is impossible to extract a single specific element and then consider it as a norm to which others should conform." And that’s how I’ll leave it here.

About the authors

Małgorzata Kwiatkowska

Małgorzata Kwiatkowska

Account Manager

Account Manager at ICAS Poland. A graduate in Polish philology from the University of Gdańsk with nearly fifteen years of experience in radio and journalism. She believes in the power of words and in dialogue that leads to understanding of others, as well as oneself. Addressing difficult topics requires courage, confronting one's own weaknesses and uncertainties - but it's worth doing. Expressing what we truly want and actively listening to others, building relationships through the exchange of thoughts, leads to personal growth, and development is one of the keys to fulfillment.
Hanna Wąż

Hanna Wąż

A business trainer, coach and crisis consultant

She has worked as a manager, project leader, director, and today she supports individuals, teams and organizations in over 20 countries around the world. She specializes in developing broadly understood proper communication in organizations and teams. She conducts lectures, workshops and training on diversity management, conducting difficult conversations, managing crisis situations, managing employees in crisis, from a broad perspective combining efficiency and productivity with the psychological safety of the team.