An inclusive culture - what it really means for today’s organisation

An essential read for HR and other leaders who need practical advice about this important subject. Like wellbeing, inclusion has to connect with every part of the employee experience and be entrenched in an organisational culture – it cannot be dealt with as a separate subject or ‘initiative’.

With 2020 highlighting so many complex diversity issues, diversity, equity and inclusion (DE+I) have to be a priority for every organisation in 2021. Taking positive action is made more complex by the massive rise in homeworking. The amount of change organisations are navigating has created a very real challenge in maintaining and evolving company culture, ensuring that everyone feels included. So, what does ‘an inclusive culture’ really mean? How can it be achieved in times of rapid change and when so many people are apart?

The business case

The changing workplace is causing organisations to examine their practices around DE+I. This is not just about recruitment and working positively to balance the make-up of the workforce with that of society. Nor is it solely about ensuring that everyone has a positive employee journey and the same opportunities to pursue the roles and responsibilities they aspire to. It’s also about uniting diversity of thought, of personalities and backgrounds under one united culture i.e., purpose, values and behaviours.

Aside from being the right thing to do, the business case is clear. According to McKinsey, for example, more gender and ethnic diversity in teams can drive profitability by 21%, and 33%, respectively. The World Bank are saying that gender equality in workplaces could aid the global economy to the tune of £120 trillion.


Before tackling this important subject, let’s get the terminology right.

Diversity refers to human differences, including, though not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical ability or attributes, religious or ethical values system, national origin, and political beliefs.

Equity refers to the promotion of fairness, justice, and impartiality within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems.

Inclusion is achieved when your organisation is truly inviting to all. Gallup’s definition resonates: “Inclusion has to be understood as very different from diversity because simply having a wide roster of demographic characteristics won’t make a difference to an organisation’s bottom line unless the people who fall into any one demographic feel welcomed. Inclusion refers to a cultural and environmental feeling of belonging.”

For its simplicity, we like diversity advocate Verna Myers’ phrase “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance”.

Hearts and minds

Creating a culture of inclusivity has to come from the top and the people within the organisation need to support the right path because they inherently believe and desire it to be the right thing to do. This is why telling people how to behave isn’t going to cut it. That would be another example of ticking a box , when what’s really needed is culture change.

Seemingly innocuous traditions and practices that are part of an organisation’s culture often inadvertently have the potential to alienate part of the workforce. Rome wasn’t built in a day though those organisations that are committed to creating an inclusive culture will seek to identify these practices and bring about change that will improve the work environment.

Here’s a simple example. You’re a small company with nice people in it. It’s become tradition to have drinks on a Friday afternoon. You even installed a beer tap in your kitchen. Occasionally these evenings spill over into the nearest bar and carry on into the early hours. These activities become part of the company’s ‘DNA’ and there are lots of stories recounted about them. In lockdown, these events turn into Zoom drinks. As you grow, people join the company who don’t drink, who prefer to be home on a Friday and so on. Activities intended to build teamwork and show appreciation are suddenly having the opposite effect on some people. So, you ask everyone whether they’d like to continue the get-togethers and how they’d like this to work to generate the stories of the future whilst including everyone. You discover that people would prefer to organise different events themselves rather than your ‘organised fun’, which many admit they felt obligated to attend. You provide a small budget, they introduce a diverse range of activities, making it clear that these are optional and it’s fine to duck out. You lose nothing and gain much.

For a more extreme example, watch this excellent Pixar short.

What this means for leaders

Creating and maintaining an inclusive workplace allows everyone to work towards their fullest potential, whatever aspirations they have. This is where digital tools can really help as progression is open to all and is driven by the individual, rather than people being ’moved around like chess pieces’ by whoever holds the power or shouts the loudest. This is just one reason as to why the top-down management style that needs to change is no longer going to cut it. Aside from the collapse of command and control, traditional hierarchies and silos, the pandemic has brought about a recalibration of the way people expect to be led and therefore how leadership will operate in the future. The virus has placed an emphasis on trust, resilience, the ability to listen, adapt and decide fast, on social conscience and on the ability to communicate clearly and simply, on employee care and empathy. It’s nothing new that some of these, perhaps, softer skills are required of today’s leader though many have, in the past, chosen to evade the issue.

Where to start

Seven ways to create an inclusive culture:

  1. It comes from the top: senior leadership must understand the value of an inclusive culture, be fully committed towards supporting and developing it and, critically, role model desired behaviours.
  2. Fact find: examine the status quo by analysing available data, facilitating surveys and focus groups, and via day to day interactions to find out what’s really happening and where change is needed.
  3. Focus on your culture first: clearly define purpose, values and behaviours, ensuring these touch every part of the employee journey and are inclusive throughout.
  4. Ensure leaders at all levels are fully on board: ready, willing and able to make this a priority. As with all successful change, they need to champion this – not just HR or the DE+I department. Accordingly, everyone can be listened to, respected and valued.
  5. Ensure dialogue is ongoing and open to quickly identify areas for improvement, and encourage people to be accountable for making and monitoring these changes – again digital tools will help.
  6. Authenticity: in the same way your culture must be authentic, constantly reinforce the fact that everyone should be able to be themselves, bringing their authentic selves to work and ensuring that they can access the resources and support they need.
  7. Monitor, measure and improve and evolve. Keep it simple and outcome focused.

If you need support or would like to share your experiences, please do get in touch...