Inclusion: There is no other way

How many times have you been excluded from a meeting at work or kept out of an important conversation after being invited? Most of us have faced this in our careers.

Several years ago, as a public affairs assistant, I was invited to a lunch meeting. People talked about the weather, ate sandwiches, munched fries and gulped their Cokes as I sat on a corner with a blank stare- my lunch was missing!

My Eastern frame of mind said, “the guest always comes first,” but an insular, highly individualistic Western culture had the concept of “yes, I got mine!”

I felt bad being ignored for lunch, but more disappointment came later when I was asked to leave the meeting because they had to discuss something “important.” The last I knew they were talking about broken sewers and water bills!  

As a low-level employee, I felt okay for being denied lunch. However, I was hurt when I was asked to leave a meeting after being invited. Most often, individuals who “exclude” you don’t feel much about what they’ve done as this is normal corporate practice.

In her national bestseller, Inclusify, Stefanie Johnson, PhD, tells us how she was denied entry to a faculty meeting at work as she was an assistant professor and not a hallowed tenured faculty member. Like me, Dr. Johnson felt really bad even though one of her coworkers later apologized.

The perception of lower status is demoralizing and dehumanizing at the same time. These incidents leave deep scars in the minds of employees. Who would have thought I would bring this up two decades later?

The “excluders” won’t feel guilty as they follow corporate norms and miss the human element, a reason why most businesses fail to build an inclusive culture. The roots of this problem can be traced to long-standing societal class wars, prejudice, ignorance and denial.

Unfortunately, the systemic practice of exclusion often impacts individuals in lower level jobs, women, persons of color or LGBTQ individuals.

The practice of exclusion is well-documented in corporate America and goes back to the country’s colonial legacy where hierarchies, silos and Old Boy’s Clubs were born and little has changed. Pulitzer winner Viet Thanh Nguyen sums this up in an essay in Time magazine where she says: “The U.S. is an example of a successful project of colonization, only we do not call colonization by that name here. Instead, we call successful colonization “the American Dream.”

It’s a sham to say that there is no data supporting the lack of an inclusive culture in global workplaces. In fact, there is too much of it! A recent report from Accenture titled “Getting to equal 2020: The hidden value of culture makers,” shows the disconnect between what leaders and employees think in terms of how they create empowering environments. Accenture’s survey found that 68% (two-thirds) of leaders felt that they created empowering environments but only 36% (one-third) of employees thought they were doing it. The study added that 20% of employees felt they were not included within the organization. However, this was 10 times higher than what their leaders believed (0.2%).

There are no easy solutions to this problem as changing mindsets and values take a long time. However, we can consider each employee as a unique individual with a unique story, background and culture. When we respect people for who they are and not what they look like or where they come from or what their economic strata is, we become fairly decent human beings. That’s something we all can aspire for- just be fairly decent.

Meanwhile, corporate America must end its short-term, reactive approach to social injustice. We do not need more trainings in implicit bias, glossy inclusion statements or the lure of investments in underserved communities. We do not need more walls painted in inner city neighborhoods without understanding what’s going on behind those walls- steep poverty, unemployment and inequalities. The addition of volunteer hours to social responsibility metrics and inclusion of minorities in advertisements won’t do much.

Instead of creating more “diversity posters,” make leaders accountable. As Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry says “It starts with you.” How many corporate CEO’s can take that pledge?

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author and not the author’s organization or other groups or individuals.