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What inclusion in the workplace is (and isn’t)

Anecdotes and actionable advice on things we can do (or not do) as leaders to build a truly inclusive culture, by Aditi Sharma Kalra.

As they say, diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance. In today's restless times, it would be lovely to find gestures and behaviours in the workplace that can make everyone feel included, heard and respected. So in this month's column, I pooled anecdotes and actionable advice on what are the things we can do (or not do) as leaders in order to build a truly inclusive culture.

In many companies, inclusion simply means having an equal employment policy tacked to the door or as a section in the staff policy dossier. But inclusion is so much more than the written word. It is the collective of actions, behaviours and gestures that make everyone, no matter what diversity they bring to the table, feel included as part of the bigger collective.

The Society for Human Resource Management defines inclusion as "the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organisation's success".

In a recent conversation, executive coach and life strategist Kevin Kan painted a picture of an inclusive workplace to complement this definition: "Inclusion is the creation of an environment for people to feel proud of who they are. Employees can bring their whole selves to work and be creative and productive. They don't have to hide anything. They just focus on collaboration and the output they are paid to do."

So what's the first step to building a truly inclusive workplace? It starts with education. "People need to understand what it means to be inclusive," Kan says. If he had his way, he would make training mandatory for all employees. "If you leave it as voluntary, then you are basically preaching to the converted (same old faces). You need everyone in attendance so that you can start having conversations to facilitate understanding which then leads to inclusive actions," he affirms.

Why not allow all employees to leave work early so that all employees can celebrate the ethnic or religious celebrations in the country?
- Executive coach and life strategist Kevin Kan

At material solutions company, Sibelco Asia, inclusion is about accepting people for who they are and valuing them as individuals by focusing on what they can contribute instead of their differences. "We demonstrate this by forming a cross-functional, mixed-gender representation of interviewers as part of our interview process to hire the best candidate suitable for the job regardless of his or her background," explains U-jin Lee, HR Vice-President of Asia.

This endeavour helps to avoid unconscious bias and ensure the hiring managers focus on hiring for skills and attributes required for the role in order to offer employees the best possible opportunities at work.

With the awareness and policy measures in place, the next step is the distinctive actions and behaviours that ensure people don’t feel left out.

Kan tackles the topic with an example: "In Southeast Asia, I see many offices have policies such as 'for employees celebrating Christmas or Chinese New Year or Hari Raya or Deepavali, you may leave work early on the eve of the public holiday' – a very politically correct way of saying only those 'races' or 'religions' can leave work early."

"Being inclusive means acting consistently for all employees. Why not allow all employees to leave work early so that all employees can celebrate the ethnic or religious celebrations in the country?" In Kan’s view, not only will this demonstrate an organisation's inclusive culture, but this will also foster employee engagement when employees makan together to celebrate the festivals in the office after the feasting at home.

Undoubtedly, we need to have an inclusive mindset before we have diversity, and I hope these ideas resonate well with you and your teams in fostering such an environment.

Photo / 123RF

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