For diverse colleagues and employees, a typical day at the office can be a minefield of difficult encounters that leave them feeling isolated and excluded. Here’s how you can help.
If you are sitting comfortably within the majority group of your organisation, chances are that you are well-catered for. Even if you’re unaware of the fact, it’s likely that you feel included, well-represented at the senior level and comfortable with the company culture.
Under these circumstances you might be forgiven for being unaware of how your organisation is potentially alienating and excluding certain employees. Although your working day may be friction-free, navigating the office environment can be a minefield of difficult and awkward encounters for diverse employees. Without an inclusive culture, organisations will fail to unlock the benefits of a diverse workforce.
But this needn’t be the case. If your workplace can accommodate the majority, it can also accommodate the minorities.
Not sure how you can help? Start by cultivating your own awareness of how your actions might negatively impact some people in the team.
1. Check your language
The language you use to address your work colleagues can say a lot about how you value and perceive them.
It goes without saying that explicit racism, homophobia or ableism are intolerable but there are also some greyer areas. Take gendered language as an example. Whilst terms such as “chairman”, “businessman” and “mankind” are inarguably gendered, and should therefore be avoided, there is some disagreement over “guys” – is it gender neutral? Is “girls” condescending? Additionally, gendered language overlooks transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people – gone are the days when everyone identified as either male or female.
It’s also a good idea to do a mental audit on the colloquial sayings or idioms that have become ingrained in your everyday language. "Man up” and “like a girl” are examples of exclusive language. Similarly, don’t use insensitive hyperbole to refer to yourself (or anyone else, of course). If you’re not “OCD”, “blind” or “bi-polar”, you might want to cut these words from your vocabulary.
Ultimately, when it comes to language, the rule of thumb is to think carefully before you speak. And if in doubt about your language choices, don't be afraid to ask questions.
2. Don’t make assumptions
This is easier said than done. Making assumptions about other people is human nature, but you can train yourself to question and interrogate those assumptions and (ultimately) remove them from the workplace as far as possible. For example:
Don’t assume someone is less competent or less able to follow your instructions due to a perceived language barrier. If they’ve got the job, it’s likely they got it on merit and deserve to be treated in the same way as their peers.
Don’t assume that a colleague referring to their partner is heterosexual. Avoid putting a team member into a position where they have to clarify their sexuality for you.
Don’t assume that everyone is comfortable with your style of working, your preferred workplace environment or your communication style.
3. Create and embrace safe spaces
A lack of access to people from minority groups can make diverse employees feel further isolated and excluded, which is why networks, support groups and mentor programs are important. LGBT, women's, BAME and religious networks can provide a space for diverse employees to meet, share experiences, and build visibility within the organisation. It's particularly beneficial for younger employees to see a diverse representation of people in leadership positions.
Diversity networks often have ally programmes, which encourage anyone within the organisation to join and show their support for their organisation's diversity efforts. In joining these you are explicitly showing support for your diverse teammates.
4. Celebrate everyone
What might seem like a casual team social at the local pub could be an inaccessible event for some diverse members of your team. Researching venues to ensure they are accessible for people with disabilities and appropriate for everyone takes very little time but could mean the difference between someone feeling included or excluded.
Different events are important to different people. Accommodating, acknowledging and celebrating religions and cultures is a brilliant way to improve inclusion within your team. Make an effort to mark significant events whether it's religious holidays, International Women's Day or Gay Pride. These occasions give diverse employees a voice and the recognition they deserve.
5. Make it official
With attitudes slowly but surely changing for the better, it’s possible to imagine a future where workplace guidelines on Diversity and Inclusion will be unnecessary. But until that time, official policies to drive inclusion can go some way to filling the gaps.
You can make a difference by calling out inappropriate behaviour when you see or hear it. Failing to challenge such behaviour (or dismissing it as harmless banter) sends a message to diverse team members that they are not supported or protected in the workplace.
Organisations are increasingly offering training and support in Diversity and Inclusion, but it’s up to the individual to take advantage of it. If you have an opportunity to attend D&I training, take it. If you know your organisation is launching a new trans inclusion policy, read up about it. If you're a manager, make sure your team members are aware of the company policy and have access to resources such as diversity networks.
Don't underestimate the difference you can make to the everyday experience of your diverse teammates at the office.