What is an inclusive workplace?

HR leaders are rightly focusing on Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace to ensure that they’re recruiting and retaining the right people – a diverse workforce also creates a competitive advantage and can boost innovation within the workplace.

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of National Inclusion Week, we explore what an inclusive workplace looks like and how you can enable one within your organisation.

Shows hands in different coloured jumpers all joined together

What is the difference between diversity and inclusion?

There’s an important distinction between diversity and inclusion, and HR leaders should invest time to understand the nuances and keep dialogues open.

Diversity refers to the demographic differences of a specific group. So, it may reference the 9 protected characteristics afforded to individuals under The Equality Act 2010. Specifically, these are:

Organisations should aspire to be representative of society and encourage a diverse workforce. Currently, 47% of the UK workforce are women, according to the ONS, which is broadly representative. However, disabled people are underrepresented; the employment rate of disabled people is 53% compared to 82% of non-disabled people, according to Scope.

Disabled people continue to be underrepresented in the UK workforce

Your diversity statistics may say that you’re bucking this national trend, but that doesn’t automatically mean that your workplace is inclusive (see below).

What is workplace inclusion?

Inclusion is rooted in equality, which means that all employees have equal rights and opportunities. Inclusive Employers, which is responsible for workplace inclusion week, defines inclusion as:

“The culture in which the mix of people can come to work, feel comfortable and confident to be themselves, and work in a way that suits them and delivers your business or service needs. Inclusion will ensure that everyone feels valued and, importantly, adds value.”

The culture in which the mix of people can come to work, feel comfortable and confident to be themselves, and work in a way that suits them

So, a diverse workforce may represent disabled people, but an inclusive organisation enables everyone to feel comfortable and confident and to bring their best, authentic selves to work.

CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, defines workplace inclusion at an individual and organisational level.

Meryl Evans CPACC, a leading voice in disability advocacy, describes the difference as follows: “What makes a good inclusive workplace is that employees have all the tools to thrive in their careers. Diversity is bringing in people. But it doesn’t mean they have the tools and support to thrive. True inclusion does,” Meryl Evans.

Now we know what good looks like, how can HR leaders enable it?

Authenticity: enabling self-disclosure in the workplace

Valuing the uniqueness of all employees demands a culture where individuals are “able to be authentic and “Feel like they can be themselves, regardless of whether they are different or share many similarities with their colleagues,” says CIPD in a report. Otherwise, “individuals could feel like they need to engage in ‘surface acting’ or cover their identities,” added CIPD.

Yet not all employees feel comfortable disclosing differences at work. A survey by Harvard Review, for example, found that

These invisible disabilities include depression and other mental health conditions. ADHD and diabetes (an example of a long-term condition).

Disclosing aspects of identity makes for a happier workforce, according to Harvard Review

According to the Harvard Review, disclosing aspects of identity makes for a happier workforce. For example, employees with disabilities who disclose to most people they interact with are more than twice as likely to feel regularly happy or content at work than employees with disabilities who have not disclosed to anyone (65% versus 27%). They are also less likely to regularly feel nervous or anxious (18% versus 40%) or isolated (8% versus 37%).

Make reasonable adjustments to empower disabled employees

Employers are legally required to make Reasonable Adjustments for disabled people. A ‘reasonable adjustment’ is “a change that must be made to remove or reduce a disadvantage related to an employee’s disability when doing their job,” according to Acas.

What is a reasonable adjustment?

An ergonomic keyboard with a mix of white and black keys. The letters are in different colours. A reasonable adjustment may include changes to the workplace, equipment or services or how things are done. Specifically, someone with arthritis may benefit from an ergonomic keyboard or mouse (equipment). Someone with autism may find noisy workplaces difficult and may benefit from headphones or a quiet area to work (workplace).

Another example is ensuring that information is available in an accessible format. Microsoft, for example, now includes an accessibility checker in programs such as Microsoft Word so you can check whether the document is accessible for visually-impaired and blind users.

Or you may need to offer flexibility in when and where people work. Some disabled people may wish to vary their core hours to avoid ravelling during the rush hour, while others may prefer to work from home. The shift to hybrid working has proved beneficial. Still, there’s also a growing body of evidence that says that reasonable adjustments may not yet have translated from the workplace to people’s home environments.

Many reasonable adjustments are affordable, such as buying an ergonomic mouse. However, employees can also apply for funding for reasonable adjustments through the government’s Access to Work Scheme, which could pay, for example, for a BSL interpreter for meetings.

ClearTalents enables employees to create up to three diversity profiles and offers hints and tips on how employers can make reasonable adjustments based on their needs.

Cultural change: feeling valued and included

Famously, Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

It’s a great description of how an inclusive workplace feels. A report by Deloitte found that the top three elements cited were:

The report said: “Diverse teams are absolutely important, but inclusion unleashes the power of diversity, fostering an organisational culture where everyone feels comfortable speaking up and being themselves. Today’s workforce is looking for organisations to go beyond addressing how inclusion looks but also addressing how inclusion feels.”

“Today’s workforce is looking for organisations to go beyond addressing how inclusion looks but also addressing how inclusion feels,” Deloitte.

Doing so requires cultural change. Deloitte says those changes start at the top and highlights the importance of senior leaders in reinforcing an inclusive culture. It’s a perspective gathering pace through movements such as The Valuable 500, which has signatories from the top 500 companies worldwide but is equally applicable to SMEs.

A genuinely inclusive workplace is one where inclusion is part of the culture rather than something separate from the HR or talent strategy.

What are the benefits of an inclusive workforce?

There are many benefits of an inclusive workplace. The CIPD says it is “linked to positive team outcomes, reduced absenteeism and enhanced job commitment, suggesting that inclusive behaviour allows individuals to work together effectively and creates a healthy environment for employees.”

You’re more likely to recruit top candidates if you’re inclusive. CIPD found that 80% of those surveyed said that inclusion is essential when choosing an employer. Conversely, 39% would consider leaving their employer for one that is more inclusive; 23% have already left.

A report by Forbes finds that inclusivity boosts innovation. It found that 48% of respondents strongly agree that a diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that drive innovation. “Multiple and varied voices have a wide range of experiences, and this can help generate new ideas about products and practices,” it said.

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