This past year has been the year of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for many organizations. As the country grappled with issues of inequity and systemic racism, many organizations looked within at their own exclusionary and inequitable practices and policies. They brought in consultants, heard from employees about their workplace experiences, made pledges to commit more resources and attention to DEI work, and put out statements in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Now the hard work begins – to actually change the culture, take meaningful action, and achieve DEI goals.

Leaders are being called on to carry through on these commitments and to create a more inclusive and equitable work environment. It can be easy to get caught up in drafting regular email messages about DEI goals and progress, building out a training curriculum focused on topics like unconscious bias, and managing hiring and retention numbers. These are all great steps to take, but in the end, it’s your actions as a leader that will have the greatest impact.

So, what does it mean to be an inclusive leader and what do you need to do? Here are a few recommendations:

To be an inclusive leader, do:

  • Engage more at all levels of your organization so that you hear the experiences of and have a greater understanding of all employees, including BIPOC and other underrepresented groups
  • Commit to mentor/sponsor employees who are not naturally taken under the wings of leaders in your organization and employees who are different from you – and see what you can learn from them and how they can potentially reverse mentor you
  • Require diverse hiring slates for openings and train hiring managers to identify biases in recruiting and interviewing practices
  • Speak up when you hear offensive and biased comments and jokes – no matter who says them – not to shame others but to educate and set clear principles and values
  • Push down decision making and idea generation to go deeper into the wealth of experience and knowledge inherent in your organization and include more diverse voices and perspectives in your work
  • Remain open to feedback and differing opinions – and when you find yourself getting defensive or closing off, step back, reflect, and try once again to be open
  • Apologize if you say or do something that unintentionally hurts or offends someone – and when they say, “that’s OK,” make it clear that you know that it is not
  • Admit that you are learning and growing – and open to ideas

And don’t:

  • Wait for training before taking action – yes, you may have things to learn and, even if you are uncomfortable, you can begin to demonstrate greater inclusiveness right away
  • Expect to get everything perfectly right – be gentle with yourself and determined to learn and change
  • Use the “we can’t find qualified candidates of color” excuse. It’s just not true.
  • Ask your employees to share their experiences of racism and sexism in order to increase others’ awareness
  • Get stuck in thinking your perspective or experience is the “right” perspective, even when you’re certain it is
  • Downplay or question someone’s lived experience nor compare it to your own
  • Excuse or ignore behavior that is exclusionary in any way

Creating a culture where all employees feel included and have a sense of belonging will be a competitive advantage for your organization. While training and policies are important, in the end, it comes down to individual leaders modeling the right behavior and holding other leaders and managers accountable for doing the same. It’s a positive cycle of growth and employee engagement.

How are you building more inclusive leadership for yourself and others?
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