Defining the Barriers of Inclusive Environments in the Workplace

Recognizing acts of exclusion can help companies surmount the challenges of developing an inclusive workplace, concludes a new report by Cowen Partners. Microaggressions and unconscious bias are among the most common obstacles to real progress.

April 29, 2022 – Diverse and inclusive environments in the workplace should provide a sense of normalcy for organizations’ operations. According to Cowen Partners Executive Search, the benefits of establishing a diverse and inclusive workplace should be obvious, and they can include (but are not limited to): supporting the concept of diversity of thought among teams, increasing productivity and retention. and creating cohesiveness among colleagues

“Sometimes, you have to determine the barriers to move forward prior to coming up with solutions, which is the case when organizations are determining ways on how to develop inclusive environments in the workplace,” said Linda Devonish-Mills, an advisor with Cowen Partners and author of the report. “It is essential for senior leaders of organizations to recognize acts of exclusion that may exist in their workplaces, as they are the strongest barriers to inclusive environments in the workplace. There is a psychological component when analyzing some acts of exclusion, such as microaggressions and unconscious bias.” Ms. Devonish-Mills offers some suggestions.

1. Microaggressions

Most people have the best intentions to have positive and encouraging conversations with colleagues but don’t use the right words to convey their message, according to Ms. Devonish-Mills. This is due to not understanding the power of words which usually results in the use of microaggressions.

“Microaggressions can be an indirect demeaning encounter towards a person usually from underrepresented groups, disguised as a compliment,” she said. “They can be received as hostile and derogatory, resulting in insults towards the target group. It is imperative to point out that microaggressions can be verbal or nonverbal.”

Ms. Devonish-Mills cites three types of microaggressions and also provides examples:

  • Microinsults – They are subtle acts which convey contempt and disrespect for someone. It can be hard to tell if a perpetrator of a microinsult is even aware what they’re doing is insulting.

Example of a microinsult – An African American female medical professional makes a presentation among colleagues at a hospital where she works about statistics on the treatment of COVID-19 patients. One of her colleagues approached her after the presentation with a comment: “That was a great presentation. You speak so eloquently.” The comment can be perceived as a compliment if it is a statement shared with colleagues from various backgrounds that make great presentations. However, it seems to be a common comment towards professional people of color which is embraced by that group as an insult. It should not be a surprise for an African American female professional to present well based on their credentials.

  • Microinvalidations – Microinvalidations are when someone tells or implies to someone that their experiences of discrimination aren’t real. These microaggressions aren’t just covert, but completely hidden.

Example of a microinvalidation – An Asian American professor is asked about her origin by a student. When she replies, “I am from Kansas, the student’s response is, “No seriously, what country are you from?” implying that the professor cannot be a citizen of the U.S.

  • Microassault – Microassaults are the biggest and most explicitly violent type of microaggressions based on research conducted by Deral Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University.

They are obvious and usually deliberate and on purpose. Microassaults usually happen when the perpetrator is anonymous, and are being supported by peers around them. Perpetrators know they can get away with their comments. There’s no guesswork in determining if you were the victim of a microassault.

 Linda Devonish-Mills is a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) senior executive who has pioneered the DEI function within a national, global professional organization and as a consultant. Her leadership roles span over 15 years, culminating in the development of leadership landmarks for women, African – Americans, and Latinos. She is highly effective at articulating the vision and uniting coalitions to build a unifying mission for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Example of a microassault – A Muslim student sits in a class where a professor makes Islamophobic comments during his lecture.

2. Unconscious Bias

Are you aware of your biases towards colleagues within your work environment, both personally and professionally? “Anybody that responds to that question with no is not ready to help their organization to create a bias free workplace as studies have revealed that we all have biases,” said Ms. Devonish-Mills. “The technical definition of unconscious bias is that it refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. It may be surprising that stereotypes are mentioned in the definition but play an integral role with its impact on our unconscious biases.”

The Great Resignation

What is the Great Resignation? How would it be possibly a barrier for organizations to develop diverse and inclusive environments? “The COVID-19 pandemic has played an integral role with people taking a hard look at their lives and careers in determining what is important to them,” said Ms. Devonish-Mills. “Organizations have been encouraging employees to return to the office. Companies that are requiring for employees to return to the office five days a week are risking the chance of losing diverse talent.”

Ms. Devonish says that there are many organizations that are:

  • Embracing a new normal work week that only requires employees coming to the office on average, two to three days/week.
  • Struggling with their positions on COVID-19 vaccination policies.

“It is a challenge between developing policies that ensure safety among employees but may give the perception of divisiveness as it relates to employees’ personal preference with vaccinations,” said Ms. Devonish-Mills.

Acts of Inclusion

Organizations can begin the journey with embracing acts of inclusion once they recognize and mitigate barriers to prevent the development of inclusive work environments, according to Ms. Devonish-Mills. She points to some inclusive practices that organizations can consider when developing inclusive work environments: For many years, diversity and inclusion were the only two concepts that were mentioned during conversations and training sessions when talking about organizations developing inclusive work environments. Currently, having such conversations are not considered to be holistic without mentioning the concepts of equity and belonging that bridge the gaps between diversity and inclusion.

“Diversity is the understanding and recognition of individual differences and identities. Inclusion is the act of being included within a group or structure while retaining one’s own unique identity,” said Ms. Devonish-Mills. “A great analogy between diversity and inclusion is that diversity is when you are invited to a party; and inclusion is when you are asked to dance.”

Ms. Devonish-Mills notes that the first step with understanding equity is that it is different from equality. “Equity focuses on fairness, constantly and consistently redistributing power. An example of belonging involves an organization that engages the full potential of employees. Innovation, views, beliefs, and values are integrated when there is a sense of belonging in a workplace,” she said.

Cultural Competence

It is common for employees to become familiar with their colleagues through their professional roles but may not know each other personally. It is an advantage for members of diverse teams to learn about different cultural backgrounds among their teammates, according to Ms. Devonish-Mills. There are many different ways to encourage employees to learn about each other’s cultural backgrounds.

Related: Evolving the Conversation Around Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

“One way is through formal training sessions,” she said. “The best type of training is conducting a session tailored to feedback from employees about their competency levels with cultural awareness. One effective assessment tool that is available for organizations to conduct such training is the intercultural development inventory (IDI) tool.”

The IDI tool is a psychometric instrument that assesses intercultural competence — the capability to shift cultural perspective and appropriately adapt behavior to cultural differences and commonalities. This 50-item questionnaire is available in 17 languages, can be accessed online and takes approximately 15 to 20 minutes to complete. After taking the assessment, Ms. Devonish-Mills says that the IDI generates:

  1. An individual profile report that outlines the individual’s capacity to shift perspectives and appropriately adapt behaviors
  2. An individual development plan (IDP) – a detailed blueprint for the individual to further develop their cultural competence.

Ms. Devonish-Mills notes that another way to bring employees together to increase cultural awareness among their peers is to host events based on a cultural calendar. For example, in honor of women’s history month, a panel discussion can take place among female employees of all levels within an organizational hierarchy to talk about challenges women face in the workplace and provide viable solutions to overcome those challenges.

Employee Resource Groups

“Employee resource groups are employer-recognized, employee-led groups that allow people with shared identities to build a community forum to discuss business and professional goals and share resources,” said Ms. Devonish-Mills. “The membership basis is typically formed by marginalized, or minority populations based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, parental status, and other defining characteristics. Although there are many benefits with developing employee resource groups, such groups can be perceived as an act of exclusion if there are not groups within an organization that represent all underrepresented groups.”

Developing inclusive work environments is essential to organizations’ sustainability. “Employees will demonstrate loyalty to organizations that create safe spaces for their opinions to be heard and valued, along with equitable offerings of advancement opportunities,” Ms. Devonish-Mills said.

Cowen Partners’ clients are both small and large, publicly traded, pre-IPO, private, and non-profit organizations. Clients are typically $50 million to multi-billion-dollar revenue Fortune 1000 companies or have assets between $500 million to $15 billion. Placements span the entire C-suite and include VP and director-level leadership roles. Cowen Partners has placed hundreds of candidates in industries including technology, healthcare, manufacturing, retail, financial services, and private equity.

Related: What to Ask Yourself When Making a Diversity Hire

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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