What Is an Inclusive Workplace? Definition, Best Practices, and Tools


“An inclusive workplace is defined as a work environment that makes every employee feel valued while also acknowledging their differences and how these differences contribute to the organization’s culture and business outcomes. An inclusive workplace is characterized by affirmative action, wherein any impact of bias/discrimination/unequal opportunity is negated.”

Fig 1. The definition of an inclusive workplace

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What Is an Inclusive Workplace?

An inclusive workplace is defined as a work environment that makes every employee feel valued while also acknowledging their differences and how these differences contribute to the organization’s culture and business outcomes. An inclusive workplace is characterized by affirmative action, wherein any impact of bias/discrimination/unequal opportunity is negated.

As you can see from this definition, an inclusive workplace celebrates diversity and its role in the organizational fabric. These companies do not pretend that everyone enjoys an equal footing or a level playing field. Instead, they acknowledge differences and systemic differentiation, taking responsibility to offer equal opportunities to all.

As a result, inclusive workplaces often see proactive action towards diversity and inclusion from investors and senior leaders.

It is often believed that an inclusive workplace is one where everyone receives the same treatment. The expectations from an Ivy League graduate are the same as that of a more experienced worker from a disadvantaged city. But this could lead to inherent inequity, holding back employees from reaching their full potential.

Despite moves toward diversity and inclusion, studies suggest that we still have quite a significant way to go.

Glassdoor polledOpens a new window 5,200+ employees across four countries to understand how inclusive workplaces really are. Over one-third said that they have witnessed or experienced ageism, 33% have faced gender discrimination, and 30% have seen or experienced racism. Further, 24% reported LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace.

To address this and ensure that every employee has an equal opportunity at your company, without discrimination, you need to build an inclusive workplace. Let’s explore what this means.

Key Benefits of Merit-Based Inclusion at the Workplace

Most companies that claim to be diverse and inclusive follow a merit-based policy. For instance, if you head to the U.K.’s Royal Family websiteOpens a new window , the diversity and inclusion page states that their recruitment is “based purely on merit.” Similarly, Zurich Insurance Group (an EU corporate giant) also followsOpens a new window a merit-based approach.

Merit-based inclusion means that a company evaluates employees and candidates on the quality of work, skill levels, experience, and other strictly professional traits. Sometimes education may be included in the assessment, though its effectiveness in evaluating a candidate’s potential is currently being questioned. Characteristics like gender, age, race, or even language don’t enter the decision-making process.

How is this helpful?

1. You implement inclusivity from the get-go

Merit-based hiring ensures that there is no discrimination from the first day that an employee/candidate interacts with your company. This makes it much easier to build a diverse and inclusive workforce in later stages.

For example, let’s take the case of gender bias in the workplaceOpens a new window . A company that has hired 50% of women candidates is more likely to have an equitable candidate pool for later promotions and succession planning than a company with only a 20% women workforce composition at the front lines. Simply put, merit-based hiring strengthens your diversity policies, which are then followed from the grassroots to the top ranks, spread across the employee lifecycle.

2. It brings in high-quality talent, without any favoritism

This is probably the most significant benefit of merit-based inclusion. It prevents employees from hiring those with personalities and backgrounds similar to their own if they don’t meet a specific merit profile. In the short run, it means that you always select the best possible candidates from the bunch – based on interviews, assessments, past work, and other screening parameters, preferably using technology that prevents unconscious bias from creeping into the screening process.

Over time, this leads to an increase in your cognitive diversity. As qualified and intelligent individuals from various walks of life enter the workforce, you can gain from their diverse perspectives on innovation and problem-solving.

3. It fosters a culture of high performance

Merit-based inclusion isn’t limited to hiring alone. It must guide all employee development decisions, including performance managementOpens a new window , cross-trainingOpens a new window , and succession plans. When employees know that it is only their on-ground merit that matters, they are more likely to affirm this by focusing on work and performance to get ahead. Distractions like office politics or favoritism are overlooked, as employees are aware of the single-most-important evaluation criteria – their performance.

4. You strengthen transparency around workforce decisions

For large companies, merit-based inclusion can go a long way in strengthening transparency and ethical compliance. You have clear insights into the decision-making process – which parameters were used to evaluate candidates and why the final decision was taken. And this applies to internal hiring as well.

With merit-based inclusion, you can be confident about the ethical nature of workforce decisions, keeping detailed records of every evaluation and decision-making process. In the long term, this could even aid in audits and compliance, giving you transparent data around inclusive actions in the workplace.

But despite these benefits of merit-based inclusion, there are a couple of caveats to consider.

Considerations for Implementing Merit-Based Inclusion

Merit acts as an active plumb line for assessing candidate fitment for a role. However, systemic discrimination could indirectly impact someone’s merit profiles – and this should be considered when making people decisions. That’s why it is crucial to keep the following factors in mind when implementing merit-based inclusion in the workplace:

1. Pay attention to equity, not only equality

Equity means that you acknowledge and act on the diverse needs of your workforce instead of painting everyone in broad strokes. Does the new intern come from a disadvantaged background? Perhaps they could gain from additional learning benefits. Do your employees with disabilities find it challenging to make the commute? Maybe an equity-friendly remote working policy is in order. Equity levels the playing field, making every employee feel included and valued.

2. Protect against unconscious bias

Unconscious bias can get in the way of actioning merit-based inclusion, even if it is there in theory. Some decision-makers may be hardwired to perceive merit in a certain way, favoring a particular demographic of candidates/employees. For example, unconscious bias against older workers in the tech industry is a major problem. You can protect against this through training sessionsOpens a new window and tactics such as blind hiring or using specific diversity tech designed for talent acquisitionOpens a new window .

3. Place equal value on potential and performance

Let’s say that a person from a top-tier U.S. university has worked in a Fortune 100 for two years and now wants to join your company. Another candidate has a similar scope of experience, but they have an equivalent degree from a foreign school. One could argue that the first candidate has displayed better performance – but does this necessarily mean greater potential for the job at hand? To address this, it is important to give equal weightage to performance and potential, conducting detailed interviews to assess personality, individual motivations, and interests.

With the right checks and balances, merit-based inclusion can help to build an equitable workplace for your employees, giving them a launchpad for meaningful career progression.

Learn More: Toxic Work Culture: 8 Signs for Detection and Steps for ImprovementOpens a new window

7 Best Practices for Workplace Inclusivity

Let’s now look at a blueprint for building an inclusive workplace in 2020. Here are some of the essential best practices to follow:

Fig 2. Best practices for workplace inclusivity

1. Create recruitment marketing campaigns

You can design recruitment marketing campaigns that position inclusivity as part of your employee value proposition. Clearly mention that your company welcomes candidates from all walks of life, laying specific stress on those with a history of incarceration Opens a new window or former veterans, as these candidates might find it difficult to find gainful employment. You could even launch a veteran hiringOpens a new window drive to bring in an element of affirmative action in your recruitment campaign.

2. Publish an annual report on your diversity and inclusion measures

Companies like Google, Facebook, and other Fortune 500s already publish a dedicated annual report to share diversity and inclusion data publicly. In some regions, this is mandated by law – for instance, companies doing business in the U.K. must report wage equality/gaps. But even if this isn’t the case in your region, it is a good idea to monitor internal data/metrics on inclusivity to understand progress in the right direction. Making this data publicly available will earn trust in your corporate brand.

3. Bring in equitable candidate pools both internally and externally

Research suggests that candidate pools with a skewed gender composition lead to discriminatory decision making. To correct this, you can make it mandatory for all talent pools – external candidates at the time of hiring, employees up for promotion, internal talent for succession plans, etc. – to have a 50–50 representation. This should also factor representation of ethnic minorities, diverse age groups, and other underrepresented employee groups as per your region’s population demographic profile, as well as follow merit-based selection.

4. Establish a mechanism for reporting non-inclusive behavior

Without a system of enforcement, your efforts towards workplace inclusivity may likely fall flat. The first step for enforcing inclusive workplace policies is providing a mechanism to report noncompliant behavior. Employees should be able to talk about any harassment or discriminatory act that they witness without any fear of repercussions or breach of confidentiality. You could even have an internal task force in place to provide a speedy resolution.

5. Appoint minority and employees from disadvantaged backgrounds to leadership

Appointing minority groups to leadership roles has a massive impact on a company’s overall diversity footprint. Studies have repeatedly found that women in leadership lead to a more diverse and inclusive workplace, making this a critical best practice to follow. In addition to merit-based inclusion, you can highlight the stories of these employees, their perspectives, and experiences in a sensitive manner, inspiring others with a similar experience to progress up the ladder.

6. Provide culture training right at the time of employee onboarding

When training new employeesOpens a new window , inclusivity and respecting one’s peers should be an essential item on your checklist. By making this a part of the onboardingOpens a new window process, you can ensure that employees are familiar with your company’s inclusive culture, workplace policies, and behavioral ethics from day one. Also, training enables greater accountability – once recruits are trained on inclusive behavior and culture, they can be held accountable for any policy breach later.

7. Put your money where your mouth is

In addition to outlining and enforcing policies on workplace inclusivity, it is vital for companies to actually invest on a regular basis. Take a leaf out of Salesforce’s playbook. Between 2015 and 2019, the company spentOpens a new window $10.3 million so that men and women received the same pay for the same work. Investment in inclusivity can take many forms – like Salesforce’s upward adjustment of women’s salary, hiring specialized consultants to coach leaders on inclusivity, and purchasing tools that strengthen inclusivity in the workplace.

Learn More: 5 Best Practices to Achieve Pay Equity in Your OrganizationOpens a new window

Tools You Need to Build an Inclusive Workplace in 2020

If you’re looking to take proactive steps and embrace diversity and inclusion, make sure you have the following technologies in your HR toolkit:

1. A harassment reporting platform

It allows employees to report unethical behavior, complete with witness information, timestamps, and other data. Take a look at SpotOpens a new window , an AI chatbot that employees can use to report corporate policy violations.

2. A pay audit and certification tool

It analyzes your compensation levels to detect wage gaps, recommending corrective action, and furnishing a certification when you reach a specific threshold. SameWorksOpens a new window is a useful tool here, streamlining the audit and certification process.

3. Bias-free recruitment software

It enables merit-based, data-driven hiring that eliminates the risk of bias. Consider AppliedOpens a new window , a powerful platform that lets you write inclusive job descriptions, review candidates via a blind hiring approach, and offer an inclusive candidate experienceOpens a new window .

4. An inclusive employee engagement tool

It makes it easier to conduct employee engagement surveysOpens a new window that specifically study employee response to your company’s current inclusivity levels and ongoing practices. ClusjionOpens a new window is a unique platform in this space, letting you study workplace behavior and take measures that build inclusive employee engagementOpens a new window .

Learn More: 20 Essential Employee Engagement Survey Questions for Your 2020 QuestionnaireOpens a new window

Over to You

There you have it! Workplace inclusivity can seem complex, but it is easy to implement once you are aware of its three tenets – respecting each employee, celebrating individual differences, and enforcing inclusivity through real action. As the world demands greater diversity, inclusivity, and equity, go beyond the constraints of age-old bias and prejudice, evaluating your people assets based on merit, potential, and basic human goodness.

What steps have you taken to build an inclusive workplace at your organization? Tell us on FacebookOpens a new window , LinkedInOpens a new window , or TwitterOpens a new window . We would love to hear your views!