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ATD Blog

Three Key Ingredients to Building an Inclusive Workplace Culture

Monday, April 26, 2021
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The benefits of an inclusive workplace are no longer up for debate. Leaders must ensure all employees feel welcome and valued. It’s a fundamental human right and a basic expectation from the workforce today. In addition, organizations that prioritize inclusion have an employee retention rate five times higher than uninclusive organizations and increased productivity among employees. In fact, inclusive workplaces increase employee job satisfaction and their commitment to the company, according to Catalyst. Employees who feel like they belong at work have better morale and greater problem-solving capabilities.

However, not all diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts yield positive results. To drive meaningful action, organizations must focus on three key ingredients to create cultures of belonging.

Mentoring

The inclusive organization will understand that mentoring is the cornerstone of a culture of inclusion. Underrepresented employees face numerous challenges to career advancement and feeling like they belong. Mentoring can create tangible change for underrepresented employees through skill development and networking so that they are able to progress into leadership roles or gain increased responsibilities at the organization. There are many ways to incorporate inclusive mentoring formats into an organization.

  • Reverse mentoring programs partner tenured employees with newer, less experienced ones to ensure up-and-coming leaders can build relationships with senior ones.
  • Well-structured career mentoring programs build inclusion by exposing employees to stretch and advancement opportunities.
  • Mentoring circles connect employees across departments and functions to continue sharing knowledge or experiences. Employee resource groups are a great way to connect people with shared identities while other mentoring circles connect peers of different backgrounds.
  • Buddy programs pair new hires with seasoned employees to informally share knowledge and provide greater inclusion and integration across organizations. It can be a valuable way to acclimate new hires with company culture and norms.

All four are beneficial, especially in the virtual work environment where creating greater connections among employees is increasingly important. Organizations can create structured mentoring opportunities for inclusive onboarding and career development at various stages of the employee lifecycle.

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Sponsorship

Intentional sponsorship programs can help to build an inclusive workplace culture. Sponsorship refers to when a senior leader or member of management leverages their influence and platform to advocate for the career advancement of a junior employee within the organization. “While a mentor is someone who has knowledge and will share it with you, a sponsor is a person who has power and will use it for you,” wrote London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra.

However, equitable sponsorship doesn’t happen unintentionally. Research shows three-quarters of senior executives choose proteges of the same race and gender as them. That’s why organizations must organize formal sponsorship programs and planned opportunities for high-potential employees from underrepresented backgrounds to connect with senior leaders. These programs must be structured and equip both sponsor and protege, with actionable tools to make the most of the relationship. Sponsorship must also be linked to tangible outcomes in the protege’s career growth.

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Psychological Safety

Third, an inclusive workplace culture can only truly exist when there is psychological safety. In a psychologically safe team, employees feel they can speak up, contribute, and take risks without fear of threats to their status, identity, or employment. To create psychological safety, leaders must create speak up cultures in which employees, regardless of status or identity, are encouraged to contribute.

When leaders and organizations model vulnerability, normalize taking risks, or learn from failure, greater psychological safety is created. We all know great ideas can come from anywhere, but only when underrepresented employees feel psychologically safe will they take the interpersonal risk to share them. Building and maintaining psychological safety in the workplace enables employees to feel a greater sense of belonging and support.

Combining these three ingredients—mentoring programs, intentional sponsorship, and a psychologically safe environment—are central to building an inclusive workplace. Leaders, teams, employees, and organizations benefit when building inclusion is prioritized. It’s no longer a nice-to-have; it’s a must have in today’s workplace whether that be in the virtual office or in person.

About the Author

Ruchika Tulshyan is an award-winning inclusion strategist and keynote speaker. Through her company, Candour, she advises companies on diversity & inclusion strategy and communications.

Ruchika writes regularly for Harvard Business Review. A former journalist, she now is often quoted in media, including The New York Times and Bloomberg. She is also the inaugural Distinguished Professional-in-Residence for Seattle University. Ruchika was on the founding team of women-run-and-funded website, The Establishment.

In 2019, Ruchika was named to the Thinkers50 "On the Radar" list. She was also named to a list of Most Influential D&I leaders in 2019 and 2020.

She holds degrees from the London School of Economics and Columbia University. She is alumni of Young American Leaders Program at Harvard Business School.

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