National Inclusion Week: Why is unity so difficult in the workplace?by
This is a question posed by many organisations during National Inclusion Week (27 September – 3 October 2021) and their attempts to answer it are often perceived as performative art by many of their employees. HRZone columnist Judith Germain looks at why unity has been so challenging and offers tips on how to build a more united workplace.
Many workplaces, despite their best efforts, are finding ‘unity’ in the workplace difficult. In fact, the more they try, the more disharmonious and divided the workplace becomes. Here are three mistakes I see my clients making when trying to bring unity:
1. Trying to address the wrong things for the wrong reasons
Unity is a journey that begins with diversity, passes through inclusion, and pauses at belonging before ending with true unity. However, Black and minority ethnic employees often find that their employers are stuck on this journey, measuring and supporting the wrong things.
Unity with constructive conflict can be the very thing that gives your company the competitive edge.
Let’s take a brief look at what these terms mean:
This is often viewed as a factual exercise and can lead to pride around having the ‘right’ data as well as a longing for the ease that quotas bring. To have diversity, in a literal sense, can be as meaningless as having a set number of ‘diverse’ individuals within the workplace (e.g. the number of women in a senior position, the number of Black and minority ethnic employees on the exec team, or the number of disabled employees).
The act of having ‘diversity’ does not in itself bring true diversity. For example, whilst the personal characteristics of the employees may be diverse, if they think the same way then diversity of thought is not achieved. Without diversity of thought the organisation cannot thrive.
Inclusion is often taken to mean that a company has an inclusive culture where all employees feel welcomed within the workplace. They are given opportunities to have their views heard and to have an impact on workplace cultures. Employers often feel that they are inclusive and welcoming, even though their Black and minority ethnic employees can feel like they do not belong. It is in this area of inclusion that employees may believe they are watching performative art and tokenism at play.
A sense of belonging is when an individual believes they can bring their whole self to work and not hide any aspect of their identity. For example, how many of your black female employees (especially those in management) feel comfortable to wear their natural hairstyles (afro) to work, with no concern that they will be viewed as less professional than their white colleagues?
Do not measure inclusion – strive for belongingness. Without traversing this Inclusive Unity Journey™ true unity in the workplace will be difficult to achieve and be accepted by all employees. All employers should look to enhance and enable belongingness as the first step towards real unity, providing the structural framework to support it.
2. Ignoring or dismissing employees lived experiences
There was an outpouring of grief, outrage and despair from the Black and minority ethnic community following the murder of George Floyd, which overspilled into UK workplaces. Employers were surprised by the depth of feeling displayed by members of their workforce who usually remained silent on their lived experience of everyday racism.
The post-traumatic stress experienced by the Black community at this time led to many people being unable to work for days, even weeks. And the stalled response from their employers left them considering the value of remaining at their current workplaces and their own intrinsic value. Especially whilst observing the speed that employers adapted to the Covid crisis, whilst bypassing their Black and minority ethnic employees’ own pain.
This was often made worse when their colleagues or employer refused to believe or acknowledge their trauma or asked them to educate the workplace. Often the Black employee’s lack of willingness to be vulnerable in the workplace was overlooked or ignored, and they were held responsible for initiating the change required to be undertaken by the organisation.
It wasn’t always safe for them to do so and could easily become a ‘career limiting experience’. Employees often expressed the opinion that it is hard to feel like you belong if you are only included when ‘black’ issues are being discussed.
3. Failure to recognise that unity often requires cultural change
Unity doesn’t take place by accident – it is something you have to plan. It requires the support of the senior team, acting in good faith and being prepared to do what is required to have a workplace that is supportive of inclusive leadership that leads to belongingness.
Once you recognise that culture change is necessary to bring forth unity you are able to ensure you consider the three aspects of the organisation that will need addressing:
Organisational – this will focus on vision and strategy
Team – this will focus on translating the vision and strategy into team responsibilities
Individual – this will focus on the individual’s concerns and aspects that affect them. For example, perceptions, fears, their role or behavioural changes
All good employers want unity that thrives on belonging, diversity of thinking and the ability to be authentically who you are in the workplace. It isn’t just good for employees, it’s good for customers and the bottom line.
Unity with constructive conflict can be the very thing that gives your company the competitive edge. Here are a few things to consider when you are taking the Inclusive Unity Journey™ and establishing a culture that allows unity to take hold and flourish:
Ensure that diversity of people, thought and ideas are considered in all aspects of working life (this encompasses the entire employee life cycle as well as how decisions are made)
The organisation has a structure and culture that enables inclusion to take place and ensures ‘managers of people’ are inclusive leaders
Build awareness and seek external support to enable change that considers the feelings and perceptions of all employees
Recognise that changing company culture takes time and settling for a quick fix without systemic change will ultimately lead to failure
Judith Germain is the leading authority on Maverick Leadership and Mavericks.
She is the author of The Maverick Paradox: The Secret Power Behind Successful Leaders, consultant, trainer, speaker and mentor. Judith is a...