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3 Ways You Can Foster Inclusion in the Workplace

Posted on August 2, 2018
Image of a rainbow of people standing in the shape of a heart

I had the opportunity to interview Jesse Krohn, the Associate Director, Education & Prevention in the Office of Equality and Diversity. She is also a Deputy Title IX Coordinator, which means she plays a key role in keeping the campus free from sexual violence and discrimination.

I met Jesse on my first day at Drexel, where we sat at the same table for our onboarding orientation meeting. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to watch her in action on many occasions – at a large round table discussion on allyship and LGBTQ+ topics, inclusion and diversity for leaders, and she spoke here at Goodwin on inclusion in a professional development session. What I like about Jesse, besides she’s just an awesome person, is that she takes the time to understand her audience and always provides simple pathways to achieve a goal. I’ve written a lot about communication and empathy and conflict, but I haven’t written much about inclusion, so I decided to interview Jesse to develop a roadmap for people to foster inclusion in their workplace.

Before I could pick Jesse’s brain about how to foster inclusion, I asked her to tell me what inclusion looks like. “When we think about inclusion, it’s often limited to race or gender. People don’t think about disability, especially invisible disabilities, or socioeconomic as differences. Everyone has something that is unique and special and everyone is looking to work and exist where what makes them special and unique will be an asset, not a detriment.” She is suggesting we change our mindset, open our eyes and minds to think more broadly about inclusion and difference and what it means.

Defining inclusion and recognizing it, is not enough. As working professionals, we have to understand the limitations that a lack of inclusion places on an organization and the people who work for that organization.

“There are inherent and instrumental values of inclusion,” Jesse pointed out. “Everyone is elevated with inclusion – it’s important, that’s an inherent value.”

This made sense, but I wasn’t sure what she meant by instrumental values of inclusion. “For example, if a company can’t navigate across cultures, it won’t be successful, it won’t attract the best talent, it will lose customers, and turnover costs will rise – this is the instrumental value.”

She pointed out that with social media, all it takes is one incident to take away “a lot of good work.” We then talked about Starbucks and Uber. “Uber keeps making mistakes,” she said. We both agreed that Starbucks has taken the right steps, but that the half day of training across the country was just a first step, and time will tell us if the company truly stands behind their promise to be more inclusive.

Given what companies like Starbucks have done, I asked, “What can we do, as individuals, to foster inclusion in the workplace?” As I expected, she came up with three simple, but powerful suggestions:

Listen Without Being Defensive

“We will bump up with differences and that can be hard, so really listening teaches the other person that you really want to listen and understand, which makes that person feel more welcome.”

This makes sense to me because it is one of the key tenants of empathy. We cannot put ourselves into another person’s shoes to understand their perspective, if we can’t listen to them.

Embrace Change

Jesse’s pointed out that over time everything changes, and when we are open-minded to change, we are better able to handle it. Speak to any HR professional and they will tell you change is constantly happening. Those who are open-minded to the changes whether it be gender neutral bathrooms, more cultural diversity, wider age spans, different paths to the C-Suite, etc., those who flow with the change, adapt accordingly, are not just more successful, I would argue, they are also likely happier.

Educate Ourselves About Difference

“Don’t place the burden on the person who already feels burdened by being misunderstood.”

Whether it is learning about a different culture, what it’s like to grow up on a farm, or issues transgender people face, learning more about those who are different from us, will help us to think differently, be more empathetic, and be more accepting. There are plenty of ways to educate yourself. HR departments usually offer opportunities, and there are books and articles, and podcasts, etc.

While it is important that we all do what we can to foster inclusion, in reality it must come from the top. “Setting the stage by being thoughtful and intentional about it is important because it permeates every aspect of an organization,” is Jesse’s advice for leadership.

Leaders need to be intentional about “Who they hire, how people are connected to mentors, opportunity for advancement, and opportunities to be visible.” Jesse pointed out that if the supervisor is the one who always attends the meetings, presents the information or sits on committees, then they are not allowing their employees to be visible by others (including leadership). She continued to explain that leaders who are not in a minority group, have a responsibility when participating at events to ask about inclusion and be an advocate by saying that men should ask, “Will there be women on the committee, I don’t want to participate if it will be composed of only men.”

She raises a good point that I feel is often overlooked – modeling is not just about how one interacts with others in the workplace, it is also about setting expectations outside the workplace. When a white male, especially a C-suite-level one, says he will not participate unless the panel or committee, etc. is more diverse, that speaks volumes.

My last question for Jesse focused on bystander intervention. I asked what happens when we encounter a co-worker who says something we find insulting and not inclusive about others.

“If you call the person out as a racist for a racist comment, they will shut down the minute you use that label.” She recommends a different approach respond with a question. “It helps them expand their thought process.”

I gave the example when a man casually says, When are we going to have a men’s day? She recommends that instead of responding with a gender-based response such as “Isn’t every day men’s day?” ask the following question, “Do you think men aren’t being celebrated and recognized for their achievement?” However, she warns us to be careful not to expend too much emotional labor to teach others if they are not willing to expend any emotional labor to learn. “My grandmother used to say, ‘You can’t pour from an empty jug.’”

For me, our conversation boiled down to one easy lesson, one we learned many years ago in the sandbox – treat others how you would like to be treated – no exceptions.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University
Posted in interpersonal-communications, leadership-management-skills