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The Ability People

How can workplaces enforce both diversity and inclusion?

Picture of a cartoon with a big variety of people with different colour skin, gender and disability

Diversity and inclusion are typically prescribed in the workplace as a singular practice, as opposed to two separate considerations. The main consequence of this is that too often, one is applied without the other. As increased diversity in the workplace offers a more visible marker of success, it’s no surprise that companies opt to diversify their workplace through proactive hiring, with little care for inclusion practices. This careless implementation of diversity without inclusion can result in a number of issues. Just earlier this month, top FTSE companies were criticised for their ‘one and done’ approach to diversity and inclusion, which has fuelled feelings of tokenism among minority workers. If companies continue to hire individuals who visibly increase the workplace’s diversity levels, but fail to implement adequate inclusion policies, they reap the benefits on paper only.

The first hurdle to overcome is the assumption that diversity and inclusion are the same thing. In fact, diversity is concerned with achieving a varied workforce which is representative of wider society. This can be achieved by hiring women, people of colour, religious, LGBTQ+ and disabled employees, who all bring vital skills and insights to any workplace. Inclusion on the other hand is concerned with the practices enforced to make the workplace more inclusive of these individuals. For example, it would be no use to hire a devout Muslim woman without the inclusion of a prayer room. Or to hire a wheelchair user without adequate wheelchair accessibility features in the workplace. Real change is impossible if employers only see diversity and inclusion as one.

However, it is important to note that inclusion goes beyond just physical accessibility. The attitudes within the workplace must also be inclusive to ensure no worker is left feeling like a box checked. Taking the extra step in educating the workplace about the different beliefs and needs of those they employ would result in a more understanding workforce that values its employees and their differences. There are also many structural changes employers can make. For instance, using the previous examples, an employer could make their work socials more inclusive to those of other religions by foregoing the occasional happy hour social for a non-drinking activity. And for a disabled employee, inclusive practice could be offering flexible working hours and the ability to work from home where needed. These actions, derived from a heightened understanding of others, go far in achieving an authentically inclusive workplace. Inclusion is also vital in  maintaining and increasing diversity levels as employees from marginalised groups won’t stay if they are internally excluded.

Furthermore, there is evidence that enforcing diversity without inclusion can impact employee mental health. The Harvard Business Review reported last month about employees with ‘invisible’ disabilities opting not to disclose them so as not to feel like a burden, which can result in anxiety and isolation. It’s this idea that difference is a drawback that needs to change. Businesses need to create a work environment which actively accepts and works through difference, understanding that normal is a construct which limits creativity and potential. Our co-founder Liz Johnson spoke to the Metro earlier this month to outline how to create an inclusive environment for disabled people, highlighting how even small changes in language can make a colossal difference. Pushing for inclusion in one area, such as disability, helps create a culture shift and acceptance which benefits other marginalised groups too.

However, our attitude to diversity needs rethinking too. People ultimately don’t want to be defined by their disability or any other feature of their identity. Doing so can run the risk of tokenism in the workplace, where employees are valued only for their ability to diversify the team. What needs to occur is a balance between embracing the differences amongst staff and pigeonholing an employee. This balance will allow for all staff to be included as a valued part of the workforce, and not simply a token. This shift in positive attitudes towards diversity and inclusion can also lead the way to improvements throughout the business.

Overall, careless implementation of diversity and inclusion practices in the workplace has a detrimental effect on the workforce as a whole. Whilst there is a focus on increasing diversity levels across all sectors, workplaces must not fall victim to implementing a ‘one and done’ approach, or placing too much focus on physical accessibility. For diversity to be beneficial, it must go hand in hand with inclusion and workplaces must enforce a culture which both embraces and understands the differences of its employees. At TAP, it is our ambition is to support companies and leaders to ‘live’ inclusion and not simply prescribe it when needed. Only then is it possible to create a culture where equality is no longer talked about but has become ‘business as usual.’