I heard some staff don't feel welcome here - how can that be?

Dear Staff Don’t Feel Welcome,

It is disturbing to hear this. After the initial shock, your response may turn to anger. Did you think “How could they!?” Or perhaps spout knee-jerk reactions like “Well, let them leave then!”

When the dust settles, you start asking yourself, “What am I missing and what could I do differently?”

Photo by  Jon Tyson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

This experience of receiving tough feedback about your culture is common - even for leaders who feel they value everyone on their teams. How leaders respond to questions of inclusion—a sense of belonging at work—is vitally important for staff morale, workplace climate, AND the long-term success of their business.

I notice you didn’t describe who is feeling excluded. Perhaps you don’t know.

What would you guess? What are the assumptions you jump to? Could your younger staff be feeling undervalued? Are your employees of color not feeling welcome? Is there a gender bias? Could the disgruntled people on the survey be the ones who don’t speak up very much anyway?

Knowing where to begin feels daunting. 

There are complex, painful histories for underrepresented groups of people, and long-term legacies of oppression and power extending well beyond what can be solved by any one organization alone. The needed conversations and self-reflections are uncomfortable, and the work is not easy. But it can have great rewards.

Let’s walk through three steps together to explore your question further: 

1. Be curious to understand

By now your shock has subsided. As your emotions settle, realize this experience has uncovered a blind spot. Rather than be defensive, choose instead to get curious. Ask open-ended questions of yourself and those who alerted you including:

  • What do we/I do that might contribute to employees feeling unwelcome?

  • How much is our diversity (or lack thereof) at play?

  • What could we do to learn more about the underlying concerns brought forth (e.g., climate surveys, facilitated focus groups)

2. See diversity AS difference - of any kind

Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler, Founder of the Equity Project, says, “There is always diversity.” 

Ask any group of people to gather and as soon as more than one person walks in the room you will have a set of differences. From personal preferences to personality traits to matters of identity, each individual walks through the world in their unique way. That way of walking isn’t only affected by our visible differences, but also by things we can’t see. In a culture dominated by extroverts, for example, many introverts feel excluded too. No matter the type of differences, you can always work with those already existing in your workplace to be more welcoming and inclusive of diversity.

3. Learn universal skills of inclusion

Leading with a welcoming nature increases feelings of inclusion - and makes your organization more successful. To fully leverage the diversity you have, it’s crucial to learn how to create spaces where different voices feel safe to contribute their ideas. This then allows your team to utilize their strengths and bolster one another’s weaknesses. 

According to Harvard Business Review, Inclusive leaders* …

  • Ensure team members speak up and are heard

  • Make it safe to propose novel ideas

  • Promote healthy conflict, where diverse ideas are considered

  • Empower team members to make decisions

  • Take advice and implement feedback

  • Share credit for team success

What’s already working for you and your team in these areas? Where would you like to improve?

These are not simple tasks; they take skill and practice. Everyone impacts inclusion regardless of position, tenure, or industry. As a leader you set the expectations for how others demonstrate inclusion in your organization, embracing the contributions of diverse people and all perspectives.

If this approach to increase a sense of belonging in your workplace has you thinking, let’s talk about how to incorporate these ideas at your organization.


*Adapted from Harvard Business Review’s “Diversity doesn’t stick without inclusion” (2017)