Conversations on developing greater inclusiveness at workplace today are centred heavily on changing the attitudes and ways of working of the groups that have majority representation in the workforce. That makes sense because the onus of inclusion cannot be on underrepresented groups that may not have the power or influence to bring about change.
But that does not mean that underrepresented groups need to sit around helplessly until the work environment changes substantially to make them feel included. There is plenty that they can do, in their own limited spheres of influence, to make themselves heard and even help their leaders make the workplace more inclusive for them.
Bolster your voice – The most obvious idea is to start or participate in employee resource groups. These are groups of employees with shared backgrounds or life stages that come together to support each other by sharing experiences and aiding in personal and professional development.
If your organisation doesn’t have one that meets your requirements already, it is not a bad idea to take initiative to build one. More likely than not, management would be happy to provide resources to help your group interact as it will help them understand more about your group and its needs.
An ERG is not the same as informal corridor conversations with employees of your background. It needs to have a formal structure to provide an effective forum for employees to come together and discuss issues and ways of supporting each other. It can also be a great way to brainstorm further on what actions the group can take to make the workplace more inclusive.
Question assumptions – At the root of all biases and misunderstandings are ill-founded assumptions. It is a human fallacy to jump to conclusions quickly, and we don’t always have the time or mind-space to think through our impressions in detail.
Question these assumptions, both those of others or your own. Ask clarifying questions to others when their behaviour does not seem inclusive to you. “Why do you say that?” or “Is this the reason why you think this way?” Are they operating out of biases or do they have other doubts in their mind? Provide clarifying information to help bust their assumptions and see the other sides of the story.
This is also a good way to test your own assumptions. Are you assuming that the other person is viewing you in a certain light, without checking with them on their actual opinions? Even if your assumptions get confirmed, you will gain more information and insights as a basis for further exploration.
Speak up when you see behaviours that exclude – It is dangerous to be a silent bystander to an act of exclusion. Silence often implies condoning. If you see someone behave in a way that excludes you or a colleague, call it out.
This need not be confrontational. Use your situational judgement to gauge how best to address it tactfully. You can speak in private to the person who acted that way, use humour to diffuse the tension while bringing the person’s attention to their behaviour, or be firm about stating openly that the behaviour was not okay. If you see your colleague at the receiving end of such behaviour, then check-in with them on how they are feeling and how you can support them. At the same time, you will also have to be open to feedback from others on your behaviours that may make feel them excluded.
Interact with different people – Workplace interactions often get limited to departments or colleagues who are physically seated close to you. It is a good idea to walk around and introduce yourself as well as initiate interactions with people from different areas across the organisation.
If this seems daunting to those who are more introverted, then you can also create planned forums to help diverse employees come together. This is the opposite of an ERG, where you are encouraging interactions with people from different backgrounds. Take time to talk about things outside of work in these interactions or forums. This is a great way to understand other people as individuals and build relationships that ease the flow of communication. Being inclusive is easier if we understand each other better and feel more connected with them.
Be a part of a mentoring relationship – Being in a mentoring relationship gives you the opportunity to influence another person’s thoughts and behaviours. It is a fantastic way to share experiences and learn each other’s viewpoints. Irrespective of the topic you choose to mentor someone on, there is always room for you to help them understand what behaviours, in the domain that they are working in, can help promote inclusion. Alternatively, as a mentee, you can take the lead in some reverse mentoring by helping your mentor understand what inclusion means to you.
Inclusiveness is a two-way street. While majority groups have a long way to go in terms of behaving in more inclusive manners at the workplace, it is also important that underrepresented groups get proactively involved in the dialogue so that they feel heard and are able to contribute positively.