Becoming an inclusive employer of the future

When employees feel safe to be themselves at work, productivity increases, retention improves and engagement levels rise, says Danielle Ingham

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Today's workplace is seeing a fundamental shift in the dynamic between employers and employees. Flexibility, authenticity and sustainability are all taking centre stage in the drive to attract and retain the best talent. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria are becoming important levers for employers that want to maximise their appeal and, now more than ever, employees are making their voices heard. Inclusion is a growing part of the ESG conversation and organisations that are looking to become employers of the future are discovering the value that an inclusive culture can offer.

Inclusion is usually mentioned in the same breath as equality and diversity, but has often been overlooked in favour of the other two, more measurable, objectives. Inclusion goes to the heart of employees' sense of belonging in the workplace; the feeling that they are being seen, heard and valued as individuals. Inclusion looks beyond supporting those with the typical protected characteristics that employers are familiar with from the Equality Act. It is more about removing barriers and helping employees feel safe to be themselves at work – neurodiversity, menopause, gender identity, fertility, caring responsibilities and social mobility are topics that simply would not have been discussed by employees in most workplaces until very recently.

The pandemic acted as a catalyst for greater inclusion; the array of personal circumstances and blurring of work and home life meant colleagues seeing each other through a different, more human, lens. An inclusive culture undoubtedly creates a more diverse and creative workplace, with employees feeling empowered to play to their strengths and work in a more personalised way. But what many employers have been surprised by is the 'bottom line' value that this shift in focus has brought: increased productivity, improved attendance, better retention rates, higher levels of engagement and an all-round happier workforce – who can say no to that?

The current cohort of employees (particularly Gen Z) are wise to the smoke and mirrors that can be created by clever recruitment, social media and marketing teams. Vague soundbites filtering down from senior management will no longer cut the mustard; employees are now expecting and demanding tangible action. When it comes to inclusion, doing the basics well is a great place to start:

Agility

Where employers can, offering a flexible and personalised approach to working location, hours and overall practices plays a vital role. The boost that agile working can bring to focus areas such as disability inclusion and support for working families should not be underestimated.

Policies, training and implementation

Having transparent and accessible equality, diversity and inclusion policies, with training in place to implement them, are essential building blocks. But these policies require regular and meaningful consultation, monitoring and appraisal to ensure they stay relevant and aligned with day-to-day working practices. It is not enough for employers to simply tick the box and move on to the next project.

Representation and positive action

To genuinely feel included and supported in the workplace, employees need to see themselves reflected in the organisation. Low-cost initiatives such as mentoring, shadowing, targeted training courses and positive action in recruitment can all help to identify pinch points and move organically towards a more inclusive environment.

Meaningful dialogue

Employees themselves are the ultimate benchmark for measuring inclusion. A huge part of enabling an inclusive culture is the ability to actively listen to staff. Those employers that keep talking to their employees about their lived experiences, what is important to them, what their challenges are and how they can best support them are those that will go the distance and deliver on their inclusivity goals. 

A truly inclusive culture cannot be built overnight and getting the balance right will be a challenge for businesses. Mistakes will be made, things will be tried that do not work and there will be many learning points along the way. But the potential rewards are well worth the time, energy and investment by employers to find out what works for their organisation and their employees. The employers that do get it right will gain a crucial advantage for success in today's fast-moving, employee-driven market.

Danielle Ingham is an employment partner at Trowers & Hamlins