Strategic Insights into Creating an Inclusive Workforce | EAPA-SA

Inclusion is what connects people to an organisation, and it’s one of the core reasons they stay put. When diverse employees, each who are different from their colleagues, feel heard and are allowed to flourish, the organisation benefits from their engagement and skills.  

In an ideal world, diversity and inclusion (D&I) would be deeply ingrained into every organisation’s DNA, with employees instinctively knowing how to operate. However, in reality this is not so; and  D&I initiatives are still being treated by many leaders as a series of boxes to tick to make HR happy.  Hasty solutions are hatched to address perceived problem areas when they arise, without really understanding what is driving an organisation’s culture. 

Here are six practical strategies for creating an inclusive work environment:

1. Educate your leaders

Many organisations want a more inclusive culture, but the everyday behaviour of their managers creates a different impression. Organisations must first define and map the behaviours needed to deliver on an organisation’s D&I strategy, which leaders must then visibly model.  On a day-to-day basis it is management – especially middle management – who are on the front line with employees, and so that it is the experience they create that will make or break a D&I initiative.  Human Resources practitioners should not take for granted that management knows what is meant by being inclusive, and so management at every level should undergo training, especially in unconscious bias which occurs when individuals make judgements about people without realising they are doing it.  Employees need to see inclusive behaviour as a core competency. That means management should be held accountable for results in structuring meetings, allocating resources and using language that advances inclusion.

Many organisations want a more inclusive culture, but the everyday behaviour of their managers creates a different impression.

Research studies have found that inclusive leaders have six signature traits in common:

  • Visible commitment: They articulate authentic commitment to diversity, challenge the status quo, hold others accountable, and make diversity and inclusion a personal priority.
  • Humility: They are modest about capabilities, admit mistakes, and create the space for others to contribute.
  • Awareness of bias: They show awareness of personal blind spots, as well as flaws in the system, and work hard to ensure a meritocracy.
  • Curiosity about others: They demonstrate an open mindset and deep curiosity about others, listen without judgment, and seek with empathy to understand those around them.
  • Cultural intelligence: They are attentive to others’ cultures and adapt as required.
  • Effective collaboration: They empower others, pay attention to diversity of thinking and psychological safety, and focus on team cohesion.


Which is the most important trait for leaders?  Commitment is the most critical, because without it, the other five attributes can’t be fully developed.


2. Form an Inclusion Council

The onus for inclusiveness should not fall on the underrepresented members of your workforce, whether they are women, people of colour or members of other minority groups. Those individuals often don’t have the power or influence to bring about change. Consider forming a Council of eight to twelve dedicated and influential leaders who are one and two levels below the CEO. 

Inclusion councils should be as diverse as possible, representing not only different ethnicities and genders, but also different business functions and geographic locations.  They need to operate as a communication channel between all strata of employees and senior leadership. This includes advocating for inclusiveness in discussions with top executives when necessary. Each should be carefully selected for their passion and visible commitment to inclusion, and should be involved in goal-setting around hiring, retaining and advancing a diverse workforce as well as addressing any employee engagement problems among underrepresented employee groups. 

It is vital to have the right people involved on the D&I Council. The typical council member is a well connected, very well-respected, highly influential leader. As a group, the D&I Council should reflect a balanced representation of the business.

It is beneficial to incorporate the emphasis on diversity into the organisation’s mission and vision statements

3. Celebrate employee differences

For a start, it is beneficial to incorporate the emphasis on diversity into the organisation’s mission and vision statements and then to train all employees on cultural diversity and provide learning opportunities to improve communication and collaboration with people from different backgrounds.

One of the most effective ways to show employees that you respect their backgrounds and traditions is to invite them to share these in the workplace.  Examples of this are:

  • have a meditation or prayer room on the premises;
  • highlight holidays and special dates from all cultures represented in the workplace when creating company calendars and newsletters;
  • feature different cultures through diversity days; 
  • dedicate a bulletin board display to celebrating cultural diversity;
  • pay for membership into professional organizations that support employees from diverse backgrounds.

Where there are employees who are out on a limb, working different hours or at a separate location it may be beneficial to have enhanced HR presence dedicated to these more-isolated employees to avoid a silo culture from forming.   

There is a clear link between those organisations whose leaders actively listen to their workers and who have successfully created a culture of inclusion

4. Actively listen to employees 

Research shows that there is a clear link between those organisations whose leaders actively listen to their workers and who have successfully created a culture of inclusion. Active listening entails taking the time to engage with employees at multiple levels, both individual and organisational, on a regular and structured basis. 

For active listening to be successful, organisations must create a trusted environment in which staff members feel comfortable speaking up. This may well be off premises and take the form of a town council meeting where employees are encouraged to speak freely. Feedback must be followed up with a highly visible response and clear communication about the next steps. Most importantly, organisations should attempt to understand why people behave in certain ways in order to make reasonable and feasible changes to culture. When thinking about the culture you want – one that is authentic to your organisation while meeting the needs of your employees – it is helpful to conduct a comprehensive assessment of your organisation’s demographics and people processes and only then to develop specific strategies to promote inclusiveness.

Some of the arenas in which to practice active listening include:

  • Virtual focus groups, which are real-time, facilitated, online chat room discussions in which 40-70 anonymous participants (employees) take part in a structured conversation. Live polling and analytics spot trends and generate insights from the discussion. 
  • Peer-to-peer sharing, in which interactive groups share their challenges and work experiences, then offer feedback as a group.
  • Millennial boards, consisting of young, diverse professionals who discuss how to tackle the same issues facing their board of directors, including strategic, operational, and cultural challenges. 


5. Hold more effective meetings 

What is most impactful on a day-to-day basis is not what the CEO says, but rather the experiences employees have with the five or six people they work with every day.  Identify the key daily experiences almost every employee has where colleagues can have mutual impact.  Meetings are a prime example.  

Here are six ways in which to have meetings that are more inclusive:

  1. ​Distribute meeting materials and an agenda in advance. This is helpful for workers for whom English is a second language or for employees who prefer to be given time to process information before responding to it.
  2. Ensure you have the right technology for virtual meeting participants to have a meaningful experience. Welcome each person to the meeting, ask them questions and pause to be sure they are given the opportunity to take part in the conversation.
  3. Rotate meeting times if you have remote workers in different time zones.
  4. Give credit where it’s due. When someone is recognised for an idea that someone else put forward earlier in the meeting, point out who shared the idea originally.
  5. Be conscious of your communication style. Don’t assume you know more than others by explaining concepts they may already understand.
  6. Promote active debate while being courteous. If one colleague interrupts another, call attention to it to underscore the importance of letting everyone be heard.

Organisations should first benchmark their culture before they begin investing in it

6. Communicate goals and measure progress


Organisations should first benchmark their culture before they begin investing in it so that appropriate goals can be set and progress can be measured.  These goals should be communicated to employees at all levels of the organisation.

Here are three practical ways to ensure that an organisation is speaking the language of their stakeholders and actively practicing the business of inclusion: 

  1. Identify any shortcomings and measurable discrepancies around inclusiveness in your organisation. 
  2. Legitimise inclusion strategies with data-driven plans, and measure the results.  
  3. Establish a clear business case for how the company will benefit by having a more inclusive culture by asking: 
    • What are our inclusion goals?
    • What are the reasons for those goals?
    • How do we quantify inclusion? 
    • How will inclusion impact our mission, brand or bottom line?



Photo by cottonbro from Pexels 

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