Inclusion in the workplace: What it means and why business should care

Executive MBA students
Students in the Denver Executive MBA program participate in Emperors and Enemies, a war games marketing strategy competition at Gyro in Denver.

Diversity in the workplace is increasing on a global scale, and studies show this can be good for business. When a company employs individuals from different backgrounds and with unique perspectives, it builds a team that reflects the diverse world in which we live.

A diverse workforce is better equipped to understand the needs of a wider range of consumers, including women, older adults, people of color, the disabled, and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Mounting evidence shows that diversity drives business innovation, cultural intelligence, and market share growth.

What is not good for business, however, is when those diverse voices, historically marginalized in the workplace, are ignored, talked over, and passed up for promotions time and again.

Lynn Shore portrait
Lynn Shore, Professor and Chair of the Management Department

According to Lynn Shore, Ph.D. (’85), Department of Management chair and professor in the College of Business, diversity in the workplace – without inclusion – is missed opportunity.

Throughout her career, Shore has been drawn to research diversity in the workplace. When she reviewed the existing literature in 2010, the term “inclusion” was often used but rarely defined consistently. “No one was clear about what it meant or how to make it happen,” said Shore, but it was clear there was room for improvement.

“Data continues to point to social exclusion and economic inequality in the workplace,” she said, despite legislation enacted to protect marginalized groups from discrimination.

As diversity advocate and activist Vern Myers explained it, “Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.”

According to research by Shore and her colleagues, the concept of inclusion is more than a simple two-step. It includes: 1) being heard and having an influence on decision making; 2) feeling safe and comfortable at work; and, 3) being given an equal opportunity to move up in the organization. Shore’s research shows that marginalized groups, such as women and people of color, are highly sensitive and responsive to actions of both exclusion and inclusion.

“Social exclusion in the workplace can have negative effects on psychological and physical health,” she said, whether it occurs as an overt form of discrimination or a more subtle micro-aggression, such as talking over someone or ignoring someone’s input.

Shore’s research also reveals that inclusion can have very positive outcomes for both the employee and the organization, but it has to come from the top. “In order for a leader to be inclusive, he or she needs to enhance experiences of being a valued insider by supporting all group members, ensuring justice and equity, and providing opportunities for shared decision-making.” When inclusion is authentic and systemic, organizations often see improved employee creativity, work engagement, performance, and retention.

The organization that fails to be inclusive risks losing good employees. Overlooked women who experience an uneven playing field, for example, may abandon their unfulfilling career path at one organization to find another workplace that is more inclusive.

More and more executives are seeing the value of inclusion and looking for ways to implement and measure inclusion strategies in organizations around the world.

Quantifying diversity is a relatively easy head count, but measuring exclusion is far more subjective, so Shore created a theoretical model that measures inclusion in a consistent way. Her model has been tested in Asia, Europe, and North America, and the data tells a compelling story.

“Feeling like you belong is important,” said Shore, “but feeling unique, or the ability to express who you really are, is equally important to workplace satisfaction.”

“My goal is to help organizations understand what inclusion is,” said Shore, “and how to develop teams that honor, respect, and advance unique voices.”