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How to Create an Inclusive Workplace

Employees who feel comfortable and engaged make for a more productive and innovative workforce. Here’s how to make meaningful change in your company.
Large and modern office interiors | Source: Getty Images
  • Tamison O'Connor

LONDON, United Kingdom — When British-Nigerian fashion designer Tolu Coker landed a job at a prestigious fashion company, it was a dream come true. But once she started work, she quickly realised the day-to-day environment was a far cry from the diverse campaign imagery the brand would tout on Instagram.

“[I was] the only woman of colour in the whole workplace, and I actually left on the grounds of discrimination, which they completely denied even happened,” she says. “Now this is a conglomerate that within all their advertising aesthetically pushes a lot of inclusion — but in the workplace, it’s a very, very different matter.”

This experience led Coker to strike out on her own and start a business that celebrates diversity while practising inclusion — both internally and externally. Despite her namesake brand’s small size and limited financial resources, Coker makes an effort to hire interns from disadvantaged backgrounds and engage the local community.

Had her former employer been more diverse throughout the organisation, the culture may have been very different, Coker reflects. “I felt that if representation had been reflected in higher positions — board members, people within committees in human resources, people who have the power to make decisions — that could have gone very differently.”

There's a focus at companies on attracting diverse employees, but not enough focus on how to retain them.

Until recently, the demographic make-up of fashion's executive teams came under little scrutiny from the media and fashion consumers. But following missteps by some of the biggest names in fashion — from H&M to Victoria's Secret to Dolce & Gabbana — brands are realising that a lack of diversity within their own institutions isn't just an ethical issue; it can have a detrimental effect on the bottom line. Boosting the diversity of your workforce isn't enough though. Unless all employees feel comfortable, engaged and able to make their best contribution at work, the benefits won't necessarily come to the fore.

“There’s a focus at companies on attracting diverse employees, but not enough focus on how to retain them,” says JC Lapierre, strategy leader at CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, an organisation committed to advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, spearheaded by consulting firm PwC. “Hiring goals may boost diversity numbers, but this won’t automatically create an inclusive culture.”

Beyond the physical workspace, inclusion comes down to the culture of a company. The ultimate measure of success is how people feel on a day-to-day basis. That’s a much harder factor for a company to influence. BoF talked to experts, consultants and fashion companies that are making strides in fostering an inclusive workplace to understand how businesses can get started on their journey to true inclusion.

Inclusion involves everyone, not just minorities

This means businesses have to rally everyone around their diversity and inclusion efforts and not just rely on minorities to advance an inclusion cause. In a less diverse workplace, doing so can place an emotional burden on the shoulders of just a few employees.

“If you’ve always got to be the voice of the minority, that’s really challenging emotionally, because you’re still excluded or you’re polarised. And if that’s within your workspace, where you’re [spending] the majority of waking hours, it’s really stressful,” says Tamara Cincik, founder and chief executive of Fashion Roundtable, a British consultancy that is working on a policy paper around representation and inclusion within the fashion industry, which will propose and assess policy solutions to help implement positive change in the UK.

This is where allies play an important role in instigating change. An ally is someone who aligns themselves with a group to help advance its cause. Within a business, anyone can be an ally for diversity and inclusion: men can be allies for women, heterosexual employees can be allies for the LGBTQIA+ community, white employees can be allies for racial minority groups.

“They’re the ones who are normally in the majority, and they’re the ones we need to help step up, otherwise we won’t progress the agenda,” says Suki Sandhu, founder and chief executive of Involve, an organisation dedicated to advancing diversity and inclusion within businesses.

When defining diversity, think beyond gender, race and sexual orientation. Many diversity and inclusion initiatives focus around these groups, but there are many more that should be considered when thinking about inclusion in the workplace. Consider factors such as age, socio-economic background, body size, mental health and religion, as well as disability or veteran communities.

Pay attention to what the data says

When embarking on any diversity and inclusion workplace initiatives, it's important to first understand what a company is good at, identify where it is lacking and evaluate where efforts should be focused. This is difficult to do without the necessary data. It's also impossible to measure progress if a company doesn't know its starting point.

Collecting data on the make-up and sentiment of employees will help companies formulate an “inclusion roadmap” to help them assess where to spend resources that will add real business value, says Involve’s Sandhu. Copying what competitors are doing is not necessarily the right answer.

For example, a company might invest heavily in a women’s leadership programme. “But if they don’t have an issue with gender diversity and women already feel included, then why are they having a women’s leadership programme just because every other company is?” he says. “When it comes to inclusion, every company is unique, and so they need to understand where they are.”

Employee engagement surveys are one way to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. Add questions that ask directly and explicitly about inclusiveness.

Farfetch conducted a survey specifically asking staff what corporate diversity and inclusion looked like to them. The company has also partnered with an external company to conduct employee focus groups, and will use these insights to inform the next stage of its D&I strategy.

When it comes to inclusion, every company is unique, and so they need to understand where they are.

Companies can also look at the general engagement survey and compare the average scores across different minority groups, says Mark Kaplan, principal at the Dagoba Group. “You can [also] look at rates of progression: do men progress faster than women when you look at promotion rates, for example? And if so, why? What can you ascertain about why that’s happening?”

Consider publishing company data. This will hold the organisation accountable for meeting public targets. Ralph Lauren has been collecting employee demographic data for more than a decade. But two years ago, the company started publishing this data on its website. "One of the things we realised is that you get what you measure," says Ralph Lauren's Chief People Officer Roseann Lynch. "Once you start publishing [the data] it puts you in a position to prioritise your strategies against what your goals are and also action against them."

Set clear, measurable long- and short-term goals

Awareness is only a starting point. Without action and engagement, nothing will change. Education is important, but a diversity awareness campaign won't cut it.

Many fashion companies have introduced mandatory training sessions for employees. This year, Ralph Lauren rolled out Respect and Inclusion sessions, which cover unconscious bias training, company policy, education on what resources are available to employees and expected behaviour in the workplace. The training, which will happen on an annual basis going forward, is compulsory for everyone, from the board level to corporate management to those on the shop floor of Ralph Lauren stores.

“It’s geared towards consistent education over long periods of time,” says Lynch. “You just keep reinforcing it, because one time is just not enough.”

At an organisational level, companies should ensure policies are inclusive and unbiased, while the scope should not be limited to hiring practices. For example, Ralph Lauren’s company benefits consider employees that don’t identify as heterosexual or cisgender. The company offers adoption leave and assistance to LGBTQIA+ parents, while the company’s healthcare policy addresses the needs of transgender employees.

Illustration by Jun Cen for BoF

They should also be setting long- and short-term goals, says Mason Donovan, principal at the Dagoba Group. Short-term goals allow companies to see results along the way to meeting longer-term, bigger-picture objectives that take time to execute. Targets should be clearly defined, measurable and public within the organisation, to make sure the company can be held to account. They also need to be realistic.

“If you set these very unrealistic [targets] then you set up a trap saying what you did didn’t make a difference,” adds Donovan.

Consider carefully how these goals will be met, and allocate time, budget and any other necessary company resources accordingly. For example, if a long-term goal is to have equal gender representation on a company’s leadership team within four years, “it might be that you have to grow and create new positions — because you don’t have a high turnover — in order for that to happen,” he says.

Start at the top, but empower employees at all levels

First, focus on the wider leadership team, ensuring they have a comprehensive understanding of what diversity and inclusion means in the context of their business and that they are committed to implementing positive change.

At Farfetch, Chief Financial Officer Elliot Jordan and Chief Strategy Officer Stephanie Phair are sponsors of Farfetch's inclusion initiative Farfetch For All, championing it at the executive level. "It's absolutely essential to have the executive and senior leader sponsorship [because] the authenticity is critical," says Farfetch Chief People Officer Sian Keane. "People see right through things that aren't authentic."

Encourage employee-led initiatives, often known as employee resource groups (ERGs). These need to be set up and run as if they were any other part of the business: each group should have a mission, a business plan supporting that mission, a budget and measurable long- and short-term goals.

Every ERG should have an executive sponsor, says Sandhu. This should be an engaged and educated member of the leadership team who will represent the ERG at the executive level.“Executive sponsors play a really important role because they amplify the voice of the community at that level in the business to give them more influence and more help in what they’re trying to achieve,” he says.

Large global businesses need to consider staff beyond the company's main headquarters. For example, PVH Corp, which owns Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, has over 38,000 employees around the world. "We're a global company, so the definition of diversity and inclusion is totally different in Asia versus Europe versus Brazil," says Dave Kozel, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at PVH Corp. To ensure the company engages staff outside its New York headquarters, the company has both regional and global inclusion and diversity councils, as well as business resource groups that are organised and led by staff across locations.

Don’t forget about middle management. This segment can be easy to overlook in a large organisation, where the focus is often concentrated at a leadership level and the entry level, says June Sarpong, presenter, broadcaster and activist. “Diverse talent comes in at the bottom, but the retention doesn’t happen because when they get to the middle, the ceiling goes down on them,” she explains. “Any leader needs to really arm middle management with the data on why this needs to be done, and allow middle management to see themselves as change agents so that they’re able to come up with metrics that result in success.”

Evaluate the company’s physical workspace

Buildings need to be easily accessible to staff with disabilities and equipped to enable collaboration between employees. Consider how the design is optimised to benefit employee mental health and wellbeing.

These are metrics Nordstrom considered when it embarked on a project to optimise its HQ office environment. The starting point, though, was putting staff at the centre of the process. "We did a lot of work with our employees to get feedback on what about our space really helps them do their best work, and where there are limiting factors," says Christine Deputy, chief human resources officer at Nordstrom. "We can't assume what people need, but what we can do is create an environment that enables them to get what they need."

Today, much of its Seattle HQ has a mixture of open plan and common spaces where employees can gather and collaborate, and quiet spaces for contemplation, while bathrooms are gender neutral.

When it comes to accommodating employees with disabilities, ask staff directly what they require from their workplace. There are many different types of disability and each person will have different needs.

We can't assume what people need, but what we can do is create an environment that enables them to get what they need.

"Where change needs to come about is for companies to be explicit and ask what you require and 'how can we best provide for them?'" says Sinéad Burke, academic and disability rights activist. When advertising a new job, companies should also be explicit in the job specification about whether the role is within an accessible building, says Burke. This shows the company is already thinking about accommodating prospective employees who have a physical disability. "In my experience I haven't seen that within the fashion industry," she says.

Zero in on core values

In many ways, inclusivity comes down to empathy and respect. While a company can shape policy and enforce training, it’s much harder for it to influence the day-to-day interactions of individual employees.

When hiring new talent, a company should assess at interview stage whether a candidate will help foster the kind of culture it wants to build. It also needs to take a hard line when it comes to enforcing zero-tolerance policies around any kind of discrimination or inappropriate behaviour.

It’s important the executive team lead by example and help embed these values into the company culture at a high level.

“The people at the top of the organisation are the culture carriers,” says Involve’s Sandhu. “Everyone is looking up to their behaviour and their values. If they’re not behaving in the way that you want your culture to be, no one else will.”

This article appears in BoF’s latest special print edition.

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