More than 1,000 employees of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed a letter calling for the agency to address “a pervasive and toxic culture of racial aggressions, bullying and marginalization” against Black employees. The letter pointed to a “lack of inclusion in the agency’s senior ranks” and “ongoing and recurring acts of racism and discrimination.”
Similar charges of lack of workplace inclusion have been leveled against Google, McDonald’s and Pinterest. And just recently, a Black senior-level manager at Amazon filed a lawsuit against the tech giant and two executives over alleged race and gender discrimination, as well as pay inequity.
It’s the latest example of alleged diversity and inclusion missteps by a major employer. A lack of inclusion in the workplace can take many forms: Ignoring certain people’s ideas during meetings, withholding resources — including information, promotion opportunities and equitable compensation — and excluding some colleagues from social events — lunches, dinners and happy hours — where business may happen.
As employees take their cues from leadership, a culture of lack of inclusion often begins at the top.
Not being included literally hurts. People process social exclusion like physical pain. After being rejected in an online game, study participants who took Tylenol, compared with a placebo group, reported lower hurt feelings and pain. And just like its physical effects, exclusion has real, tangible impacts on companies: low quality work, under-utilization of diverse talent, poorer employee satisfaction, burnout and turnover.
Yet diversity matters more than ever to companies. Markets are growing more diverse, both at home and abroad. Even companies that sell products only in the U.S. must better understand who their customers are and what they value. Additionally, millennial employees — who will make up 80% of the workforce by 2025 — are focused on employer values, preferring to work for companies that emphasize diversity and inclusion.
When workers are respected for their totality — their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disabilities — organizations will get the most from their employees. Diversity results in superior creative outcomes for teams. And research shows that boards of directors and top management also benefit from diversity.
So, with all benefits to businesses and employees from a culture of inclusion, why does workplace exclusion continue? The reason is evolutionary: Humans are hardwired to not be inclusive. Our empathy for others depends on whether they belong to our group. Brain studies show we actually feel more emotion when we observe suffering by members of our race. That means we care less when outgroup members get excluded.
However, we can still build a culture of inclusion.
CEOs and other company leaders must be open to change, learning to respect and welcome differences. For example, Salesforce.com Inc., led by CEO Marc Benioff, has earned a top score on the Disability Equality Index and was named a “Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion.” Salesforce has taken steps toward hiring inclusively and using accessible tools and technology. Companies must take concrete actions to ensure equity in all business processes, including hiring, retention, promotion and compensation. More than 1,300 CEOs have signed the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion Pledge to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
At the team and individual levels, empathy can be enhanced through exercises that involve someone else’s perspective. Research shows something as simple as listening to a radio drama or participating in an intergroup workshop can increase empathy for people who are different from us.
More organizations should work toward a culture of inclusion, and they need to realize it’s not going to be easy. It requires proactive leaders, the commitment of resources and a willingness to change organizational culture. However, these investments will pay dividends as inclusion is a win-win strategy for both the organization and its employees.
Raji Srinivasan is associate dean of diversity and inclusion at The University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business.