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How Can You Make Your Workplace More Inclusive? Research Round-Up

How inclusive is your workplace? We round up the most recent management thinking and research expertise from business schools around the world and share their insights with you.
How inclusive is your workplace? We round up the most recent management thinking and research expertise from business schools around the world and share their insights with you
  • BlueSky Thinking takes a look at some of the recent research and insights focused around the topics of inclusivity in the workplace and how to be a supportive employer.
  • The research spans how inequality and discrimination can impact the hiring process and workplace culture, and how to combat this.
  • It’s clear that, for a lot of firms, creating an inclusive workplace is an ongoing process, but one that organisations are actively targeting.

There’s no doubt that the past few years have wrought significant change on our professional lives. From the unpredictable global events which have forever altered the fabric of how, where and when we work, to the introduction of technological innovations which have brought with them a plethora of skills and occupations that were unheard of even a few years ago.  

Adding to this the entrance of Gen Z into the professional arena and, with them, a heightened focus on how industry should behave. Whilst values such as diversity, equality and inclusion have long been a part of management speak, it seems that it is only in recent years that pressure has been placed upon institutions to practice what they preach.  

Beyond setting diversity quotas, widening the net in recruitment outreach and publicly recognising social movements and events such as PRIDE Month, International Women’s Day and Black History Month, organisations are being charged to act – adapting their management styles, working practices, adjusting their values and testing the limits of their flexibilities to ensure they are not missing out on the best the next generation has to offer.

And if satisfying demand from potential employees isn’t compelling enough for employers to get on board, the fact that companies which can effectively embed DEI policies in the workplace benefit from both happier staff and better performance certainly isn’t worth ignoring.

But change does not come easy, and can be hard to accomplish without a path to follow. In attempting to understand how the future of work might take shape and the skills and values that future leaders must adopt, it falls to business schools – the institutions responsible for shaping the minds of the next generation and home to those whose expertise are dedicated to such explorations to provide a route forward.

At BlueSky Thinking, we wanted to explore the wealth of research and thought leadership that universities and business schools have produced this month that contribute towards improving inclusivity in the hiring process and in the workplace.  

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at some of the thought-provoking ideas that are helping to make both the hiring process and workplace culture more inclusive.

Need some inspiration on how to make your workplace more inclusive? Read on…

Making the hiring process more inclusive

We often think of discrimination as an active decision, but a lot of the time employers are not going out of their way to avoid a diverse workforce. Discrimination, can be indirect; an unconscious bias.  

For example, employers may look to hire people similar to themselves with whom they share interests and personality traits, but these perceived similarities may – in reality – be because they share a similar background and social class.  

This is why companies have had to take steps to actively combat unconscious bias in the hiring process.

Blind Hiring

Blind hiring was initially introduced after the famous orchestra study, where symphony orchestras used a screen to cover people while they auditioned to help reduce discrimination. The study found that blind auditions increased the probability that a woman would be hired in the orchestra.

Since this study, blind hiring has been implemented in some organisations. Rather than setting up a physical screen, employers have instead been blocked from receiving potentially biasing information about a candidate until after their application has been reviewed.

Details such as names – which can communicate gender and/or race, college graduation years – to hide ageism and hobbies – which can be an indicator of social class are generally redacted, in order to reduce the possibility of employers consciously or unconsciously favouring people from certain groups.

However, recent research from Harvard Business School suggests that while blind hiring is generally effective, there are situations in which it might not help. For instance, employers in France were less likely to select applicants from minority social groups for interviews when applicants’ names were blinded versus when they were provided on materials.  

Another study in Germany found that for employers who were more likely to interview applicants from minority groups under a traditional process, meaning that blind hiring might actually be detrimental, leading to worse interview selection rates for applicants from minority groups.  

The key takeaway from this study is that blind hiring is not a one-size-fits-all solution. While it may work for some situations, the strategy is not necessarily effective in every industry, location or role. Instead, employers must consider the diversity of their strategies as well as their potential hires.

Discrimination in the hiring process

Individuals have documented a range of unfortunately all too common types of discrimination and bias in the hiring process, such as racial, religious, gender based and age based. But there are other, potentially lesser known, aspects of an individual’s identity that are discriminated against too.  

Recent research published by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business found that a false perception that people of lower socioeconomic status are less motivated in pursuing goals meant that these people are consequently offered fewer opportunities.  

This way of thinking, the researchers suggest, is because people assume that individuals from lower socioeconomic classes are too overwhelmed by their daily struggles to have the time and energy to think about their own goals and aspirations.  

The research, led by Professor Gráinne Fitzsimons, therefore found that people attribute goal-orientated qualities to wealthier, higher status people.  

“This is patronizing,” Fitzsimons said. “It underestimates the importance of goals to humans. The poor, like everyone else, care about their family, care about their health.”  

Fitzsimons agrees that removing bias from the recruitment process is essential, but acknowledges this can be difficult when it comes to socioeconomic class. While blind hiring techniques can be successful against some biases, blinding social class is trickier, and may lead to people not expressing their true identities in the workplace.  

Political discrimination is another potential bias that employers need to be aware of, says Chicago Booth. A recent study, led by Chicago Booth’s Emanuele Collonnelli, found that, in general, job candidates who shared the politics of a company’s owner were more likely to be hired at that company. These employees also stayed for five percent longer than those who didn’t share the same views.  

The researchers urge employers to check their bias when hiring.

Using AI to select applicants

As bias tends to be a human inclination, surely the problem might be solved by removing humans from the decision-making process? AI could be a useful tool to reduce hiring bias, according to Professors Joseph Pacelli and Jonas Heese at Harvard Business School.  

AI can be used to help managers see a fully rounded picture of an applicant before making the choice to hire or not.  

The professors give the example of Fama: a new AI tool that claims to help organisations avoid workplace misconduct and improve the quality of hire. By doing a deep dive on employees, the tech can help employers select candidates that will be successful in the role, helping to reduce bias.  

By offering online screening, the app claims that employers can review a candidate’s everyday behaviour specifically for instances of workplace misconduct, which is essential for ensuring a safe and inclusive workplace.  

But is this perhaps taking applicant sifting too far? As Professor Pacelli points out, “the difficulty with such technology is that people generally balk at the idea of a company monitoring behaviours not directly related to their work.”  

Another tool, Textio analyses the language used in job postings to ensure it is inclusive and attracting the right applicants. Instead of using terms like “driven by” which might appeal more to men, it suggests “inspired by” which may resonate more with women. It can also help employers avoid cliched language in job postings and flagging implications of a fixed mindset.  

By helping employers shape their job postings with more inclusive language, it may start to attract a wider, more diverse, group of top candidates to the job.  

The professors conclude that if AI is to be used in the hiring process, it’s essential that data and ethics come first.

Creating an inclusive environment in the workplace

Once we cross the bridge of overcoming bias in the hiring process, we must then consider any hurdles to inclusivity in the workplace itself.  

It can be difficult to know whether or not a company is inclusive before joining – and for some organisations this could be intentional. In a recent study this year, Columbia Business School found that less diverse companies are less likely to publicise their diversity numbers.  

Columbia Business School Professor, Thomas Bourveau, looked at the recent release of 3,000 government contractors’ EEO-1 forms: mandatory reports which break down gender and racial/ethnic composition of a company’s workforce by job category.  

The study found that companies which were lacking in both gender and racial diversity, especially among middle managers and executives, would withhold publicly disclosing their diversity, equity and inclusion practices.   

“It’s a positive thing that diversity, equity, and inclusion practices in the workforce are becoming more important to stakeholders,” said Bourveau, “but our findings show that most companies are way behind where they should be when it comes to managerial ranks.”  

A disclosure mandate requiring companies to publicly disclose these diversity reports would, he suggested, help to advance inclusivity and diversity in such environments.  

There are several other ways companies can help to advance diversity in the workplace…

Improving psychological safety

Creating an inclusive environment in the workplace means shaping this environment to support everyone.   Research from Harvard Business School has shown that diverse teams need a foundation of psychological safety to excel in the workplace, and everyone in a workplace needs to feel like they can pitch risky ideas and challenge the status quo without retaliation or judgement.  

A 2022 report from Black Women Thriving (BWT) highlighted that 66% of black women reported not feeling emotionally safe at work. Further research revealed that black women received nearly nine times as much feedback that was not actionable compared to white men under 40.  

Harvard Business School suggests that clear systems and accountability can create the foundations for true psychological safety. For example, black female employees want to trust that overarching standards will shield them from harm or trauma.  

The research says that organisations must set a consistent standard when it comes to the emotional and psychological safety of all historically excluded groups, most especially black women who are often at the edges of those margins.

Creating a positive company culture

Beyond protecting staff, increasing inclusivity and company culture is likely to have a positive impact on a company financially too. A study from Columbia University and Duke University found that 92% of CEOs and CFOs believe that improving their company’s culture would increase its value.

However, researchers at Harvard Business School found that, in a sample of 4,500, one in 25 colleagues feel like they aren’t respected, don’t belong or feel inferior at work.  

They discovered there were seven behaviours that would help businesses establish a culture of respect and support:

  1. Valuing diversity
  2. Staying in touch with individuals’ issues and concerns
  3. Building trust
  4. Resolving conflicts
  5. Balancing results with a concern for others
  6. Encouraging open discussion
  7. Giving honest feedback.

Donald Sull, a MIT Sloan senior lecturer said: “Culture matters. A good culture can help boost performance; a bad culture can really harm performance.”

MIT Sloan highlighted three surprising ways organisations can promote a more positive work culture:

  1. People analytics: The researchers used natural language processing on more than 1.3 million Glassdoor reviews to capture how an employee rates their company. This, they say, is a great way to better understand what matters to employees and how companies can change their work culture to be more positive.
  2. Layoffs: Layoffs can sometimes have a positive impact on company culture. They can open up vacancies, giving leaders an opportunity to hire people who reflect the organisation’s culture, or the culture they want to aspire to, the research found.
  3. Use in-person time to its full potential: Organisations and leaders need to be more mindful about framing on-site time as an opportunity to shape culture and social norms

Working towards gender equality in leadership

Although women account for just under half of the global workforce, only 27 percent of women are managers and leaders, according to TeamStage’s Women in the Workplace report.  

New research by IESE’s Marta Elvira and Isabel Villamor says that early promotion is vital to reducing the gender pay gap. On a study of 803 executives, the authors found that executives who had shown early promise and been promoted younger earned more than those who had followed a more typical timeline. And this “ageing” effect was stronger for women than men.  

The researchers suggest that leaders should be more aware of biases in task assignments and early promotion decisions, increasing the transparency of variable compensation and sticking to objective evaluation criteria. Mentorships and sponsorships may also help reduce this gender bias.  

Women’s networks can also help with this. Women’s networks aim to unite women from all different backgrounds, to share experiences, brainstorm initiatives and share their ideas in a welcoming and non-judgmental environment.  

However, these networks can only have limited success on their own. Despite recognising this, many women’s networks choose to operate individually, according to recent research by the Erasmus Centre for Women and Organisations (ECWO) at the Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM).  

“By working together, sharing information and arranging events with other organisations, women’s networks can help to create more inclusive work environments”, says ECWO’s Executive Director, Professor Hanneke Takkenberg.

Supporting LGBTQIA+ colleagues

As a dramatic spike in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and legislation occurs in countries around the world, LGBTQ+ employees and communities, civil rights advocates, and socially conscious consumers are looking to employers to take action.  

“Companies must embed pro-LGBTQ+ support in their organisation’s identity,” says Lily Zheng, diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist, consultant, and speaker.  

In a recent article published by the Harvard Business Review, Zheng outlines how organisations can show support for their LGBTQIA+ colleagues and allies in three key ways;

  1. Connect LGBTQ+ inclusion to your customer base, operations, and values
  2. Collaboratively design initiatives that benefit LGBTQ+ communities
  3. Take a purposeful stand and defend it.

“To preserve and strengthen the trust your employees, customers, and other constituents place in your organization, use this purpose- and value-driven approach as a litmus test to create, revisit, and revise your initiatives,” writes Zheng in the Harvard Business Review.

A long road ahead

While there is clearly a long way to go to achieve diversity, research can be an excellent tool to advise employers on the steps they need to take to tackle some of the underlying biases in the workplace.  

How do you think should employers be targeting workplace bias? Have your say in the comments below!

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