As many companies try to determine what their organizations will look like post-COVID, they also must face that they can’t return to “business as usual.” Employees are looking for more flexibility, more transparency, and most importantly, more focus on the “inclusion” part of diversity, equity, and inclusion as they return to the office. The racial unrest and social justice movements that took place nationwide throughout last summer have led to an increase in diversity initiatives at many businesses. However, the ability to fully create space for historically underrepresented workers has not kept pace with the number of people being recruited and hired.

More than ever, companies are seeking talent with different cultural backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences which, studies have shown, will help increase creativity, productivity, and the bottom line of organizations. On the other hand, after surviving 2020, employees are looking to be in environments where they feel comfortable, valued, and appreciated for the full spectrum of their humanity. In short, people are seeking authenticity and deeper meaning at the place where they spend most of their time.

Despite their best efforts, companies often find themselves at a loss for how to fully embrace the same people they sought. Inclusion has been defined as “folks with different identities feeling and/or being valued, leveraged, and welcomed within a given setting (e.g., your team, workplace, or industry).”

What many underrepresented people are finding, however, is that while companies are seeking more people of color, women, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQA+ community, they aren’t truly making space for their perspectives, identities, and contributions once they’re through the door.

Underrepresented employees often find themselves tokenized or asked to assimilate to the predominant culture in order to fit into an organization that is unprepared to welcome them wholly. In so doing, they’re stripped of any ability to show up at work authentically, contribute fully, or leverage the differences that make their voices unique.

What, then, can companies and employees do to cultivate environments that are true to the meaning of inclusion? Consider the following:

⦁ Psychological Safety

Businesses should ensure that they have measures in place that let employees know that they can be themselves in personally authentic ways, whether that means wearing their natural hair, talking openly about their sexual orientation, or speaking with colleagues in languages other than English. Leaders play an important role in setting the tone for their team when it comes to this. When people know they won’t risk their jobs by being themselves, they tend to be more engaged in and satisfied with their work.

⦁ Business Resource Groups

As companies look to expand the ranks of underrepresented employees, giving them space to connect with people who share their background, culture, history, or experiences is crucial to maintaining well-being and authenticity. When people have others who have been in a similar position, whom they can turn to for advice, mentoring, and networking, they’re able to grow professionally and personally. This can help in retaining employees over the long-term.

⦁ Recognize not all employees experience events in the same way

The events of the last year and a half have been trying for everyone, but several of them hit closer to home for some people. Organizations should have a communications plan in place to effectively respond to events company-wide in a timely manner. In addition, leaders should be given tools to learn how to have difficult conversations with their team members so that affected employees don’t feel alienated or unsupported. Often, people won’t feel comfortable talking about their true emotions around a tragic event because there’s no opening to do so on their team or within in the company. This steals opportunities for deeper engagement and learning for everyone and hinders the ability to create authenticity across teams.

Not everyone is ready to show up as their full, authentic, whole self at work. And that’s okay. Honoring where people are and their level of comfort is the key to creating true authenticity. As companies create meaningful ways to engage, show that different voices are important to the organization’s growth and success, and allow space for people to be themselves, those who may have been reluctant at first may find themselves feeling more willing to bring who they truly are to the office.

About the Author

Heather McClean is a Certified Diversity Professional and attorney who focuses on helping organizations build more diverse, equitable, and inclusive environments. Her work includes developing strategic diversity plans, facilitating challenging conversations, leading education sessions, and providing sensitivity editing for marketing and other communications. She currently works at W.W. Grainger as a DEI Program Manager, responsible for the company’s BeBrave Leadership Circles and other programs to help leaders view their work through a DEI lens.

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