By now, many people of all ages and stages of their careers have come to understand and believe in the value of having inclusive workplaces. This is due in part to the fact that there is a large quantity of data coming out to support that which many of us have long advocated. But this is also partly a result of generational shifts in the workplace: as millennials come closer to constituting 50% of the workplace, their values—which for many include diversity and inclusion—come to have a greater pull on institutional priorities.In nearly every study that comes out, the data makes clear that companies that are diverse and inclusive have a better chance of beating out the competition than those who are lagging on DEI metrics. Winning that race, however, isn’t just about getting diverse talent in the door. It's about helping them feel welcomed, valued, respected, and heard—and you can't fake that part. Engaging millennials, diverse talent, and setting each unique employee up for success means that leadership models have to evolve from the outdated, one-size-fits-all model and into a holistic and inclusive approach. Enter inclusive leadership.
There is any number of reasons why companies need inclusive leadership to create inclusive workplaces—which are the key to innovation and winning competitive advantage in your industry—but here are a few of the most significant:
1. Only leadership can make finding and hiring diverse talent—a key step to creating inclusive workplaces—a priority.
In the 15 years I have been doing this work I, and my colleagues at Jennifer Brown Consulting often hear that organizations struggle to find diverse talent. While this may sound like a big hurdle, in practice, finding and hiring diverse talent may be significantly more accessible than one might think. For example, an organization may be able to look at their recruiting and hiring data only to discover that they are receiving applications from—but neglecting to interview—diverse candidates. There are several actions that organizations can take to reduce hiring bias, address personal and interpersonal bias, and scale these efforts to shape their workplace cultures. One such example is that organizations that don't already have diverse slates can, through even cursory Google searches, discover affinity groups of talent, to whom they can address recruiting efforts that broaden their applicant pool and deepen their mission for creating inclusion and belonging. But prioritizing these efforts—which may require a change in procedures or habits of recruiting teams—is only possible with leadership buy-in and support.
2. Employees look to leaders to gauge how much of themselves they can bring to work.
One of the biggest hurdles underrepresented employees face is whether they feel comfortable bringing their full selves to work. This can be signaled visually—like wearing one’s hair in a way that feels authentic—or it can take the form of something that needs to be verbally disclosed, as in the case of being out as a member of the LGBTQ+ community to colleagues. In these and other cases, feeling like one can bring oneself to work without fear of judgment or retribution is key to feeling appreciated and, in turn, being able to contribute fully. While this may seem like a no brainer—and like something we may hope our colleagues feel—the fact of the matter is that many people still cover by downplaying their differences. For example, nearly 50% of LGBTQ+ employees are closeted at work, and black women continue to express discomfort both in wearing their hair naturally at work and managing colleagues who feel compelled to touch their hair. In both and other cases, a person’s ability to feel like they are working in a place that respects them hinges on their interactions with their co-workers—so we all have a role to play.
Leaders can help make others feel more welcome to bring their full selves to work by setting an example through advocacy and allyship. As I often say, everyone has a diversity story, even if it is not an experience or part of your identity that people see immediately, or traditionally understand to be part of a diverse identity group. Understanding how your experience impacts your interactions in the workplace is the first step to creating an environment for others also to feel valued. Leaders who share their personal experiences and moments of awakening inspire others to feel like they can follow suit.
3. It’s up to leadership to make the most out of employee resource groups (ERGs), mentorship programs, and other inclusive workplace structures.
ERGs have historically functioned as affinity groups for people who have shared experiences or identities to come together in the workplace. They have proved to be vitally important for individuals to have a space at work where they don’t feel they have to hide, perform, or suppress parts of themselves. ERGs have come to play a critically important business function: by investing in ERGs—and thus in spaces of belonging—companies have created a situation in which employees can unlock their most creative thinking. This contributes to the overall health of the organization because it pays off—both in terms of strategy and in terms of culture. In short, when employees feel valued and safe, creativity and innovation inevitably flourish.
Mentorship programs have also long provided a way for employees who are earlier on in their career to benefit from the advice and support of a more senior leader. Today, however, reverse mentorship programs—which often pair junior and senior employees—help reimagine power dynamics and foster innovation within your organization by helping to diversify and strengthen the pipeline of ideas.
Using ERGs and mentorship programs in this way has myriad benefits across companies, from strengthening DEI strategy to growing innovation and reducing attrition. But they won’t function at all unless leadership commits to mentorship programs, champions their creation, investment, and deployment to these dynamic and inclusive ends.
4. Creating inclusive workplaces requires organizations to have tough conversations with thoughtful facilitators and contributors.
You aren’t truly leading if you’re not uncomfortable—and nowhere is this truer than in the case of inclusion. Admitting that we have unconscious biases is hard enough. But coming to terms with these unconscious biases without examining how those same biases may make our employees or colleagues feel is the hard work of inclusion that has the greatest impact on structural change. Having these tough conversations with ourselves and within trusted circles is the best—and only—way to be prepared for the conversations that must take place within organizations to address the systemic hurdles to creating inclusive workplaces.
5. You can’t have inclusive workplaces without inclusive leaders, because leaders set the tone for organizational culture.
This is the big one. How a leader acts towards their colleagues, employees, and superiors signals to everyone around them what is and is not sanctioned or supported in the workplace. A leader can have all the tough conversations with themselves that they want, but unless they champion initiatives in the workplace to make the company more inclusive, the organization won’t change—and the same is true in reverse in that they champion initiatives but neglect to speak or act in inclusive ways themselves.
Inclusive workplaces require inclusive leaders to set an example by taking a look in the mirror, having hard conversations, and helping others to do the same, as a workplace only functions as such if a majority of employees are on board. The payoff is huge when it comes to ROI—but the efficacy of the business case requires leaders who are willing to move the needle on inclusion.
Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, diversity and inclusion consultant, and author and the founder, president, and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting. Visit inclusiveleaderthebook.com today for more information about Jennifer Brown’s new book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader, and to take the Inclusive Leader Self-Assessment.