Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Monday, 15 July 2019 10:25

Beyond Simply Managing Diversity: What is Inclusion and How is it Fostered?

Written by Daniel Nguyen and Katie Merlini, PhD

Beyond Simply

It is no surprise that diversity and inclusion (D&I or, now gaining popularity, I&D) programs are prevalent across organizations as the United States is becoming a more racially and ethnically diverse society. For instance, the U.S. Census Bureau’s projections indicate that by 2060, the U.S. will no longer have a single racial or ethnic majority. And while 2018 marked great strides with organizations acknowledging the need for diversity, the conversation has historically ended here at simply managing diversity. This frames diversity as another box to be checked, leaving much to be desired in ensuring the success and retention of diverse employees (e.g., Ferdman, 2014; Shore, Cleveland, & Sanchez, 2018).

With D&I programs, however, we’re moving beyond simply managing diversity by focusing on diversity’s necessary counterpart: inclusion. As Dolly Chugh, New York University Professor and author of The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias (2018), puts it, we can think of diversity like gateways. These gateways are the decision points such as selection, promotion, and compensation, and revolve around statistics rather than the people behind the numbers. Alternatively, Chugh describes inclusion as the pathways leading up to and beyond the gateways. These pathways are necessary for diverse organizational members to feel as if they can be successful. Without these pathways, members may face subtle or overt forms of discrimination, be excluded, or even feel as if they have to hide their true selves (including their unique and valuable perspectives) to feel like they belong (Ferdman, 2014). So, in order to move beyond the numbers game of diversity, it’s important that our conversations and efforts shift to inclusion. But, what exactly is inclusion?

What is Inclusion?

At its simplest, inclusion is about appreciating others for whom they really are. More specifically, inclusion entails the fulfillment of two needs of diverse organizational members: their need to belong and their need to feel valued for their unique attributes (Shore et al., 2011). Importantly, one need should not come at the expense of the other. Ultimately, members experience inclusion when they feel like they matter for whom they are and do not need to change in order to mean something or to feel as if they fit in with others in the organization.

When inclusion exists, beneficial outcomes, such as higher job performance and commitment, and less group conflict, have been found (for a review of studies, see Shore et al., 2018). Therefore, as HR professionals, we need to work on building the pathways in our organizations that facilitate inclusion and, in turn, create a better working environment for all our members. So, let’s discuss how to build those pathways.

Building Pathways: How is Inclusion Fostered?

One avenue through which organizations can foster inclusion is their leaders. Leaders play a large role in shaping how their organizational members perceive the workplace and can act as a window to an organization’s values. Inclusive leadership is an emerging style of leadership that encourages cohesion and value for uniqueness in diverse groups. Randel and colleagues (2018) characterized inclusive leadership by five main types of behavior, discussed next.

1. Supporting Group Members

In order to contribute to a group, its members must feel comfortable and able to do so. Leaders can facilitate this by expressing their support for the needs and opinions of the group, and act as a role model to show other group members how they should treat one another. Checking in on members and tending to their needs creates a sense of community in which its members feel like they belong.

2. Ensuring Justice & Equality

When trying to unite diverse groups, conflicts of interest may arise among different members that may result in impressions of disparity. Inclusive leaders seek to avoid allowing these impressions to form and instead demonstrate fair treatment and respect for all members. They consider how decisions could be unfair to any member, even unintentionally. To this end, inclusive leaders form and uphold policies supporting fairness among all members and work to reduce biases in their organizations. In doing so, leaders signal respect to their members, which further invites feelings of belongingness.

3. Facilitating Shared Decision Making

Members of the workplace are there to work and spend their time doing what they have been hired to do. Thus, it is important to employees to feel that their contributions are valued. Inclusive leaders recognize this and seek out each member’s perspectives before an important decision is made, which connects their contributions to the greater good. Seeking input and forming these connections from the individual to the collective group creates a sense of belongingness in its members and furthers inclusivity.

4. Encouraging Diverse Contributions

Paralleling their facilitation of shared decision making, inclusive leaders also encourage diverse contributions. In seeking out a member’s perspectives, an inclusive leader looks for the input that a certain employee is able to bring that the other members do not share. The challenges and experiences unique to employees provide skills and insights that are not otherwise accessible, and inclusive leaders draw this out from their members. In doing so, they specifically indicate that they value the member for who they are and develop their sense of self-worth beyond simply connecting them to the group.

5. Helping Members Fully Contribute

In diverse groups, there may be barriers that inhibit members’ ability to fully contribute. For example, some members may feel that their voice is not likely to be heard or understood correctly. Alternatively, other members may not be able to contribute in traditional ways due to various reasons (e.g., disabilities). Inclusive leaders work to reduce these barriers by filling in the disconnect to ensure the value of a member’s idea is carried to the group or by providing flexible alternatives for how work can be completed. By removing barriers, leaders signal how important the origins of a member and their ideas are to the organization.

Ultimately, HR professionals can take steps to facilitate inclusion in their organizations by training their leaders to engage in these behaviors and by engaging in the behaviors themselves (after all, we have to walk the talk!). In doing so, we can help develop the pathways that better support our diverse members and their success within our organizations.


Chugh, D. (2018). The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias. New York: HarperCollins.

Ferdman, B. M. (2014). The practice of inclusion in diverse organizations. In B. M. Ferdman, & B. R. Deane (Eds.), Diversity at work: The practice of inclusion (pp. 3–54). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Randel, A. E., Galvin, B. M., Shore, L. M., Ehrhart, K. H., Chung, B. G., Dean, M. A., & Kedharnath, U. (2018). Inclusive leadership: realizing positive outcomes through belongingness and being valued for uniqueness. Human Resource Management Review, 28, 190-203.

Shore, L. M., Cleveland, J. N., & Sanchez, D. (2018). Inclusive workplaces: A review and model. Human Resource Management Review, 28, 176-189.

Shore, L. M., Randel, A. E., Chung, B. G., Dean, M. A., Holcombe Ehrhart, K., & Singh, G. (2011). Inclusion and diversity in work groups: A review and model for future research. Journal of Management, 37, 1262-1289.

Vespa, J., Armstrong, D. M., & Medina, L. (2018). Demographic turning points for the United States: population projections for 2020 to 2060. US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, US Census Bureau.

Daniel Nguyen

Daniel Nguyen is an Industrial/ Organizational Psychology Ph.D. student at the Florida Institute of Technology. Through this, he broadly researches teams and diversity and inclusion (D&I) hoping to illuminate positive methods towards improving human relations in organizations. Daniel has presented three D&I related studies between the annual Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology conferences in 2018 and 2019 and aims to continue translating D&I research for practitioners in his future endeavors.

Katrina (“Katie”) Piccone Merlini, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in Industrial/ Organizational (I/O) Psychology and the Academic Chair of the Organizational Leadership MA program at Florida Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on leadership, diversity and inclusion, organizational culture and climate, and individual motivation and self-regulation. She is a member of South Brevard SHRM.