Breaking the chain of exclusionary workplace practices

Employers must avoid treating their workforce as one uniform group

For a long time, workforces have largely been treated as a unit rather than a collection of individuals, but this can lead to exclusionary workplace practices. Decisions made on behalf of teams – from cultural practices to time off for religious festivals – have often been biased towards the majority, with little room left for negotiation. These business leaders were often well-meaning, but recent events such as the ‘Great Resignation’ have shone a light on the importance of being agile and even creative in companies’ approaches to inclusion.

We know that happy people are productive. Recent research led by Professor Andrew Oswald, Dr Eugenio Proto and Dr Daniel Sgroi from the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick, found that happiness improved people’s productivity by 12%. Oswald observed how companies like Google invested more in employee support and saw employee satisfaction rise by 37%.

One of the roadblocks is often that managers and leaders can be inclined to make decisions on behalf of their workforces without any input from them. In this way, their decisions are informed by the inputs or outcomes they prefer from their own experiences. But, as we know, these preferences can differ dramatically across demographics such as age, gender and religion.

Here are four common exclusionary workplace practices – and how to fix them.

1. Accessibility issues

At the most basic level, workplaces themselves – whether physical or remote – can often be exclusionary. Even obvious impairments to access such as not having lifts or ramps to help those less or unable to walk can be missing from modern workplaces. Business leaders should also consider the less obvious, such as making sure that there are toilet facilities available for transgender people. A solution to this would be to have gender-neutral toilets. Other steps such as making sure any digital tools used by the company include translation features and are optimised for those with poorer eyesight can also open up roles to a wider pool of candidates.

2. Lack of communication

The age-old trap that managers often fall into is not thinking about their employees as individual people. Often there is no wider consultation on important decisions which means that even though their workforce is physically, mentally and circumstantially diverse, they employ a one-size-fits-all approach. This can manifest in many ways, even down to the placement of meetings that conflict with routine schedules including school runs or prayer times. In order to negate this, managers should open up discussions around matters which directly affect those who work for the company.

3. Remote working policies

The growth in popularity of practices such as hybrid working is symptomatic of the wider shift the workforce is experiencing towards greater autonomy and control over the way they work. However, blanket policies around remote working can undermine this autonomy. When implementing guidelines, business leaders should take into account the needs of individuals, making meaningful policies that help and not hinder those who benefit most from working in their own spaces. This is likely to result in companies having access to a much more diverse pool of talent.

For professionals actively seeking out employers who will allow them to work in the way that they can best achieve desired outcomes, feeling as though their manager is peering over their shoulder will be off-putting. Organisations need to foster cultures of trust where interventions are only made if employees are not meeting their agreed objectives, rather than to impose mandated ways of reaching them.

4. Social/culture practices

For many workplaces, culture is an important string to their bow and a way to ensure that employees remain happy and aligned with the company. However, in so many cases, social practices can be exclusionary. Take, for example, those who are invited to socials which occur almost exclusively in bars and restaurants who do not drink alcohol for personal or religious reasons. Or for the working parents who cannot make networking events that stretch well into the evening. By ensuring that a mixture of events is on offer on a range of different time schedules, each individual is likely to be able to find something they can, and would like to, attend, including them in extracurricular social activities and making them feel more included in the team.

Another consideration is around office closures and mandatory holidays. Deloitte has just introduced ‘flexible public holidays’ for its UK staff, allowing them to work during Christian festivals such as Christmas and Easter and take off days more meaningful to them, such as during Eid or during Pride Month. Spotify was way ahead of the curve, implementing this in 2017.

Also…think about generic personality tests/assumptions

Although not wholly grounded in science, managers have long attempted to better understand their employees through personality tests and stereotypical assumptions around tropes such as introvert/extrovert.

However, results such as these are really quite unlikely to give a full picture of the way people think and where their strengths and weaknesses lie. Managers should steer clear of these types of tools which do not take into account a huge number of factors and can give incorrect and unhelpful results.

Whilst it is true that steps in the right direction are being made, organisations must dedicate more time to ensuring that their workplaces are diverse and inclusive. Nearly every journey starts with open discussion and an acknowledgement that change might be incremental but it will be constant.

Michelle Meakin is Business Services Director of management consultancy firm, Agility in Mind.

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