5 Ways HR Leaders Can Create a More Inclusive Environment

By Michelle Vitus

It’s impossible to read the news and not think about its implications for HR. From Hollywood to the tech sector, it’s clearly time to establish new norms for the workplace.

Creating an inclusive workplace is an obvious starting point, but also a gargantuan task. While some companies are endowed with in-house D&I experts and authentic buy-in from leaders throughout the organization, many companies are not. Most small-to-midsize companies, especially, tend to lack dedicated resources to invest in inclusivity. Nonetheless, there are meaningful ways that HR leaders in companies of all sizes can create healthier corporate cultures and build more inclusive workplaces without a big budget.

Whether we’re referring to traditional notions of diversity like gender, religion, or sexual orientation or broader notions of diversity like language proficiency, cultural or socioeconomic background or even neurodiversity and temperament, diverse teams function better. They are more customer-oriented, more innovative, make better decisions, and are more profitable.

Part of the benefit stems from employees feeling free to do their best work. Employees who consider work environments to be positive are more engaged, more loyal, and even healthier. Here are five steps every HR leader can take to create a more inclusive environment. 

1. Emphasize to employees that inclusion matters – and keep repeating the message. Aleah Warren, managing consultant at Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion strategy firm, says “If business leaders never talk about inclusion, employees will assume that they don’t care.” Saying inclusion matters in both written and spoken company communications lets employees know that it’s actually a priority.  C-level leaders should establish inclusion as a priority, and department leads and managers should reiterate the message with some regularity. It’s also a best practice to build inclusion into corporate values, as Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi did as part of his efforts to remake the company’s corporate culture.

2. Benchmark how you’re doing. An important second step is to survey your employees to benchmark how you’re doing and identify areas for improvement. At a bare minimum, you can create your own basic survey, asking questions like, “Do you feel like your voice is heard?” or “Do you feel like decision-making is fair?” A better option is to leverage a best-in-class Diversity & Inclusion survey, such as the one created by Culture Amp and Paradigm, or the survey developed by SurveyMonkey in conjunction with Stanford University researchers. According to Rebecca Cantieri, SurveyMonkey’s SVP of Human Resources, the company plans to make the survey available “as a benchmarkable template so all companies can measure this crucial component of organizational well-being.”

Looking at the results along demographic lines, you can see if certain groups are having a suboptimal experience at your company. And, looking at team-level data, you can see if certain leaders need more support. What gets measured gets improved.

3. Rethink meeting norms. Work with HRBPs and with business leaders to rethink and ultimately create new meeting norms. Consider advising against interrupting colleagues while they speak. When women are in the minority in their workplace, they are up to 33 percent more likely to get interrupted than are their male colleagues. Raising awareness of this phenomenon is a great first step in mitigating it. If the problem is particularly persistent, encourage managers to help women or minorities amplify messages and give credit to the ideas’ originator. Another good meeting norm, according to Warren, is to send out agendas ahead of time so employees who are timid about speaking in meetings, such as English language learners, junior employees or introverts, can collect and write down their thoughts ahead of time.

4. Use benefits to signal your company values. Part of creating an environment in which people can do their best work involves recognizing they have lives outside of work, Cantieri said. Consider, for example, the message that a weak maternity policy sends to working mothers. In contrast, companies that offer parental leave both to new fathers as well as to new mothers send the message that their companies value families. That message can lead directly to retention. According to Cantieri, after SurveyMonkey enacted a generous 16-week paid parental leave policy, 100% of mothers returned from their leaves, and several parents who had previously left the company or the workforce altogether re-joined the firm.

Helping employees support the causes they care about can be another powerful way to demonstrate a commitment to inclusion. Employee matching programs give employees the freedom to support the causes of their choice. Microsoft matches donations to non-profits up to $15,000 per employee per year; Pepsi and Apple match up to $10,000 per employee per year. Moreover, company volunteer programs give employees paid time off to volunteer. Salesforce offers seven paid days of volunteer time off (VTO) each year that can be used in whatever way employees choose — from volunteering at a school to building houses in remote parts of the world. The underlying message is that the company supports the causes that matter to their employees.

5. Design an inclusive recruiting process. Creating an inclusive work environment begins with attracting a diverse employee base. Candidates should be sourced through a variety of methods, job descriptions should be written in a gender-neutral tone, diversity should be mentioned on the career website, and diverse candidates who interview should have the opportunity to meet with a diverse group of employees. For example, if a female candidate only meets with male employees, she may assume that the entire department is male. Pat Wadors, Chief Talent Officer at ServiceNow, speaks about emphasizing inclusion during those key employee moments that matter. The entire recruiting experience and especially the on-site visits qualify among those moments. If the candidate doesn’t feel comfortable during the recruiting process, that will be his or her last engagement with the company.

Of course, this only scratches the surface. There’s so much more — from new employee onboarding to learning and development — that HR leaders can do to reframe business practices with an eye towards inclusivity. What’s most important is to begin taking action. Whether HR leaders work in a 10,000-person company or a 30-person one, these are powerful first steps they can take to help employees feel included, valued and productive. All progress begins with the first step.


A version of this article was previously published by HR People + Strategy.

Slate Advisers is a leadership and career coaching firm that seeks to unleash the potential of professionals in their leadership, careers, and lives through technology-enabled, personalized coaching. Our clients range from venture-backed startups to the Fortune 1000.


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