Focus on Disability

Creating a Culture of Inclusion Requires Thoughtful Leadership, Respect and Education

Hiring diverse people is a half-step toward greater business success. Creating a culture of respect and inclusion is the other half and requires a specialized effort.
By Jeremiah Prince

Recruiting and hiring diverse people is important for many reasons, including the positive impact these processes have on business success. Being able to claim a diverse workforce is a source of pride, as evidenced by the annual corporate reports and websites heralding the workforce diversity statistics. Bringing minorities, including people with disabilities, and women on board is an achievement, but just as important is that they feel respected and included.

A culture of inclusion encourages people to bring their full selves to work – unique experiences, identities, perspectives and creativity. It also increases employee engagement and promotes respect, and the company benefits in a variety of ways that include innovation, higher retention rate, and improved employee relations. People with disabilities have life experiences that are unique in many ways compared to the life experiences of all others. Adding to the challenge is the fact the U.S. culture is still striving to change to fully embrace people with disabilities, rather than just talking about their inclusion.

The effort to develop a culture of inclusion requires a variety of approaches. They include educating leaders at all levels and in all units, celebrating employee differences, giving all employees opportunities and freedom to share new perspectives without fear, sharing employee engagement goals and measuring progress, and making other efforts like providing thoughtful feedback to employees.

Welcoming Employees Every Day
An inclusive workplace culture is one in which employees always feel welcomed and invited to share their authentic selves. One of the common insights that minorities and women have shared is that they do not feel like they can bring their all to work.

It is important for businesses to meet the requirements of the American Disabilities Act in terms of building, space and equipment accessibility. However, accessibility is frequently interpreted to refer to the ability to reach work space and perform job responsibilities. It does not address inclusion from a workplace culture perspective.

Unfortunately, the words "diversity" and "disability" evoke biases. It is important to understand that creating an inclusive workplace environment is not the responsibility of people with disabilities. Bias leads to people thinking along those lines – people with a "problem" should accommodate the "normal" employees.

Inclusion is a principle that is about much more than accommodation. A culture of inclusion is one in which leaders and employees know how to effectively communicate with a diverse range of people; do not treat people with disabilities with pity or make them feel self-conscious; and include them in business activities, events, and occasions, in addition to project teams.

Education is a Critical Strategy
Assuming support from the top, changing an organization's culture begins with the education of leaders. It is the managers and supervisors who have the power to change the culture through the way they manage.

Leaders create the experience for employees, implement D&I initiatives, and should be able to recognize unconscious bias in themselves and their staff. A leader needs to know how to be an active listener, give feedback, and encourage people to share different perspectives. The last skill is particularly important. A belief that people should conform stifles dialogue and discourages employees from feeling included. With appropriate development, managers and supervisors will pass on their knowledge of inclusion to their staff.

The content of the education process should address topics like using appropriate language and overcoming bias. A person has a "physical disability" or a "brain injury" instead of "crippled" or "brain damaged." This is just a beginning.

Of utmost importance to developing an inclusive culture is developing leaders who understand and become role models for inclusive behaviors. These behaviors range from ensuring people with disabilities have access to meeting space to encouraging them to fully participate by offering different points of views. Once again, accommodation is only one aspect and often where organizations stop.

Merck is a role model for developing an inclusive culture. Leaders must demonstrate they are committed to inclusivity. Development opportunities address the topics just discussed, but they also address real-life scenarios. Managers learn about the importance of feedback when different perspectives and ideas are offered. Encouraging and valuing new opinions is a key strategy for developing an inclusive workplace.

The Society for Human Resource Management offers other strategies that include creating an inclusion council, celebrating diversity, regularly conducting employee engagement and inclusion surveys, and setting time-bound goals and measuring progress.

Bringing the Full Self to Work
People with disabilities have many of the same challenges that other diverse people have.

One is being able to bring the full self to work. A person who must continually struggle to hide a disability or is uncomfortable expressing special needs is not going to feel comfortable sharing life experiences and viewpoints – the type of information that produces innovation for businesses. Developing a culture based on relationship building creates a supportive culture in which people help each other and are not afraid to ask for help.

Developing a culture based on relationship building creates a supportive culture in which people help each other and are not afraid to ask for help.
However, working with people with disabilities is not all about a feel-good "helping someone in need." Leaders should create a workplace environment that gives all employees, as humans, the resources they need to do their best work. Speaking of people with disabilities in particular, the spectacular results include outcomes like new products or product redesigns that open up new markets or enhanced community relations.

One aspect of changing a business culture is investing the appropriate resources, but just as important is changing mindsets to value diversity and inclusion. The corporate value system is the foundation of the corporate culture. From the top down, senior leaders must consistently reinforce inclusion and consistently address situations where those values are violated.

Consistency Every Day
Creating plenty of opportunities for diverse and non-diverse people to work together is always a good strategy. It is up to department or team leaders to ensure everyone participates and is not silenced by a non-inclusive culture.

The key aspect of change is consistency of inclusive behaviors. People must feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work.

If senior leaders are uncertain as to whether the business has an inclusive culture, then it probably does not. Changing a business culture requires the participation of everyone in the process.