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Creating an inclusive and diverse workplace culture

Creating a workplace culture that is truly diverse and inclusive is one of the most important leadership challenges we face. It's not just about having the right policies in place – it's about creating a culture where every single person feels valued, heard, and respected. It's about fostering a sense of belonging for everyone, regardless of their background, experience, or identity.

And yet, many organisations struggle to make this a reality.

In this article, we explore some of the strategies and practical steps you can take to build an inclusive workplace culture that inspires and empowers everyone to bring their full selves to work.

5 mugs on a white background that are diverse colours, shapes and sizes. The image is a metaphor for belonging in a workplace setting.

In this article:

Establish a clear, unwavering commitment to inclusion

Diversity or inclusion? What comes first?

Prioritise psychological safety

Look at leadership

Celebrate and encourage diverse perspectives and ideas

Build diverse and representative teams

Review, reflect, act

Establish a clear, unwavering commitment to inclusion

At the heart of creating a truly inclusive workplace culture is a clear and unwavering commitment at all levels of the organisation. This starts with openly communicating the importance of creating an inclusive workplace - both internally to employees and volunteers, but also to stakeholders, partners, customers and beneficiaries - making it a central part of your organisation’s mission and values.

You can start by considering how your people policies, working practices and external communications set expectations around respectful and inclusive behaviours. You could also provide training and resources that help employees understand the value of inclusion, the risks of unconscious bias and the diverse experiences that exist beyond theirs. But true commitment means taking action and creating accountability. And one of the most impactful ways to do that is by measuring it.

Diversity or inclusion? What comes first?

When an organisation starts to think about its objectives in relation to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), often, the first question they ask is something like ‘how can we attract more diverse people to come and work for us?'

But I think there's a problem with that question.

By describing candidates as ‘diverse’, are we really being inclusive? Or are we simply attaching a label to anyone that happens to ‘not’ be white, heterosexual, neurotypical, male etc.?

Of course, the intentions are always positive, but by categorising candidates in this way, are they suggesting that people with experiences that aren't the same as theirs belong to another group? Because to me, this is quite different to saying that they want to create an inclusive culture that celebrates uniqueness, in an environment where everyone feels that they belong.

So maybe we need to focus on inclusion first. Instead of a target to increase the number of ‘diverse’ people on your payroll, try establishing a clear vision of a culture where everyone feels that they are valued and that they belong. Only by making inclusion a non-negotiable priority can organisations hope to reap the benefits of a diverse workforce.

Prioritise psychological safety

Really inclusive cultures usually come with really high levels of trust and psychological safety. That’s because when people feel that they can be themselves at work, they are also much more engaged and open to sharing their ideas and feedback freely - since they’re not worrying about downplaying or hiding parts of their identity.

We know that listening to the feedback and lived experience of employees is important, however, it’s rare that we’re truly able to do this because the people who don't feel like they belong are probably not speaking up in focus groups or answering your surveys. Instead, we end up listening to the same voices and lulling ourselves into a false sense of security.

Consider what you can learn from colleagues about the spaces that already exist in your organisation, where they feel completely comfortable and able to be their authentic selves. This could be within immediate teams, friendship groups, project groups, training workshops, and formal or even informal networks. Then, try and decode what makes those spaces so valuable. How can you use that knowledge to enhance and develop other safe spaces (without replacing what already exists)?

Look at leadership

It goes without saying that building a truly inclusive workplace means that managers and leaders need to take personal responsibility for making that happen, and their role in creating inclusive, psychologically safe teams is key. It’s therefore essential to prioritise developing important skills such as empathy for others, emotional intelligence, and an appreciation of individual needs and experience within your management and leadership teams.

Your culture is what you promote.

You could start by looking at your recruitment and promotion requirements for managers. Build these behaviours into the assessment process so that the managers you hire and promote are the ones that align to your vision, and make sure your leadership development programmes and succession plans focus on developing the same behaviours. They should also be talked about continuously in performance conversations, and role-modelled at the top.

Celebrate and encourage diverse perspectives and ideas

Encouraging collaboration and teamwork across the organisation, and beyond, is a great way to bring fresh perspectives to projects. When we work together, we can come up with solutions that wouldn't be possible with just one point of view, unlocking innovation, creativity, and learning.

Take this a step further by celebrating the diverse perspectives that are brought into those spaces. Encouraging colleagues to publicly show their gratitude and appreciation for others’ contributions during staff meetings or through a peer recognition scheme are simple but highly effective ways to demonstrate that everyone's ideas are valued - sending a strong message that diversity is an important part of your culture and your success.

Finally, show how much you value the unique talents and experiences that colleagues bring to your workplace by investing in their growth. Whether it’s through professional development opportunities, coaching and mentoring, or regular feedback and recognition, by providing the tools that will empower people to succeed, we show that we're committed to building an inclusive work culture where everyone feels valued and supported.

A great example of this is from one of our client organisations, who invested in a management development programme that every single member of their staff team participates in when they join the organisation. Not only does this help to embed the organisation's values and behaviours from day one, but it also means that everyone joining the organisation receives a clear message that their skills are important, and their potential is seen – regardless of their background and experience.

Build diverse and representative teams – especially at leadership level

A diverse workforce requires an inclusive workplace to thrive. But it’s hard to build an inclusive workplace if you have a tendency to recruit and promote people that are all the same.

So, we now find ourselves back to our diversity objective. But rather than focusing on labels, your inclusive approach to recruitment and promotion will be designed to ensure that every candidate is empowered to be their absolute best during any assessment process. This will lead to you being able to attract and hire lots of different people, from a variety of backgrounds, with diverse experiences and approaches – meaning more innovation, creativity, problem-solving and perspectives. Ensuring that your leadership roles represent diverse experiences, backgrounds and perspectives is likely to have a particularly significant impact on your ability to attract and retain more talented candidates with equally diverse experience in the future.

For each stage of your recruitment and selection process, ask yourself “who is most likely to engage/thrive at this stage?” and more importantly, “who isn’t?”. If you’re advertising on the same job boards, using the same application process, using the same criteria and the same interview questions, it’s likely you’ll keep getting the same candidates. Often a few simple changes such as reducing the number of criteria on a person specification, making your application process more accessible, and providing a name and email address of a team member that candidates can chat to about the role can have a huge impact.

Positive action also plays a key part in creating an inclusive and diverse workforce. This means offering additional support or adjustments to help minimise a disadvantage or barrier that an individual faces, related to a protected characteristic. This will look different in each organisation, and even for each individual, but if you want to create a truly inclusive candidate and employee experience, it’s important to consider this as part of your overall approach, as well as training managers to understand the benefits, principles and best practice.

Review, reflect, act

If you’ve taken the time to craft a clear message about your vision for an inclusive culture, set some clear objectives and implement some new initiatives to help you get there, it’s essential that you also make an effort to assess your progress.

Take regular temperature checks by getting as much information as you can, using a variety of different methods, in ways that encourage and support open, transparent feedback. This won’t always be easy, and means that leaders will need to be open to feedback, be prepared to listen intently, and demonstrate a real commitment to taking action.

Here are some examples of the areas you might want to focus on:

  • Belonging: Do people feel accepted and secure? Do they have positive relationships with others? Do they feel that their skills are valued and contribute to the strategy?

  • Voice: How comfortable do people feel about speaking up—from sharing opinions and ideas to having trickier conversations and raising concerns?

  • Diversity: Go beyond diversity metrics, and try to establish how people feel about working in your organisation, particularly those with protected characteristics.

  • Opportunities: What barriers do people face? Do people feel that they have equitable access to progression, feedback, 121s, development and resources?

  • Fairness: How do people feel about how they’re managed, what they’re paid, and how they’re listened to?

Measure each of these areas on a regular basis, reflect on what’s working and what isn’t, make adjustments to your people strategy and tell people what you're doing, why you're doing it, and how they can contribute.

As with any culture change, a guaranteed way to disengage everyone from what you're trying to achieve is to approach it from a place of criticism. It’s very easy to look at your culture, your processes and ways of working and create an action plan based on everything that’s wrong. Yes, there will be lots of things that you want people to stop or change or do differently, but communicating that in the right way is really important if you want to achieve collaborative and sustainable change.

Focus on the end goal – what will the culture feel like? What will be better? What will be the same? Why is that so important? What will it mean for individuals, customers, and the world? Then, appreciate where you’re at currently, and approach the action plan as a journey that you’ll all go on together, providing support and feedback as you progress.


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