In late March, I was one of more than 1,300 diversity and inclusion practitioners attending the 30th annual Forum on Workplace Inclusion in Minneapolis, the largest gathering of its kind in the U.S.  Given the current climate of uncertainty since the election, I was particularly interested in the theme of the opening general session, Leading in a Time of Fear and Polarization.  The moderator, CNN political commentator Van Jones, began his remarks by saying, “The role of diversity and inclusion practitioners has never been more important than it is today.”  For those in the room, no truer words could have been uttered.

Over the last twelve months we witnessed firsthand how events like the Pulse Nightclub massacre and shifts in public policy weighed heavily on the minds of the people we worked with every day.   In fact, a survey conducted by The American Psychological Association in early January 2017 showed that more than half of Americans cited the current political climate as a significant source of stress, and two-thirds said they were stressed about the future of the country.

In an effort to ease this increased level of anxiety, some turned to Facebook and Twitter to vent while others chose to engage in discussions with co-workers.  In both cases, the dialogue often revolved around sensitive topics that previously were considered too controversial for casual water cooler conversations.  Not surprisingly, some of these exchanges were not conducted in a civil and respectful way, placing the responsibility of protecting the peace in the hands of managers who are often ill-equipped to respond effectively.

Poorly managed, these discourteous interactions not only can serve to dilute collegiality and but research shows it impacts the bottom line:

  • Productivity: According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 56% of employees say stress and anxiety most often impacts their workplace performance, as well as the quality of their work (50%) resulting in an average of up to 7 hours per week in lost productivity.  It is also reported that one in three absences are a direct result of anxiety and/or stress in the workplace.
  • Retention: Research conducted by Google found that employees on teams with more psychological safety were more likely to make use of their teammates’ ideas and less likely to leave the company.
  • Engagement: A 2017 report published by employee survey firm TINYpulse shows that collegial workplace environments make a difference in one’s engagement at work.  However, the data revealed only 24% of employees “feel strongly connected to their co-workers,” an 11% drop from the prior year.

Getting it right is further complicated by the unique dynamics of diverse workforces, where differing ideas and communications styles can be misunderstood resulting in unintended slights and insensitivities that lower employee engagement.  Studies show 60-80% of all difficulties in organizations come from strained relationships among employees.

This is where companies with a diversity and inclusion strategy have an advantage.  As part of their learning and development curriculum, they have gone beyond Diversity 101 and are building cultural competency through training focused on raising awareness about unconscious bias and improving skills to lead across difference.  The benefit of this approach is reinforced by research that shows companies with diversity as a component of their business strategy have a lower percentage of disengaged workers  compared to those that do not.

But, unless placing an emphasis on diversity alone is not a competitive differentiator unless you also foster an environment where everyone’s voice is welcome at the table.  As I discussed in my February 7th blog post, how you communicate and at what pace speaks volumes about the authenticity of your commitment – especially during these difficult times.

For those looking for guidance on how to achieve that goal, here are five tips to help create a culture of inclusion:

  1. Be proactive and acknowledge the fact that your employees may be feeling stressed:  Whether you like it or not, these conversations are already occurring.   Encourage managers to check-in with their teams even if they feel all is OK.  It will be comforting to your employees that their well-being is a priority especially at a time of so much uncertainty.
  2. Guide behavior via workplace policies:  When it comes to acceptable behavior in the workplace, make sure employees are aware of what’s expected by reminding them about workplace policies that guide conduct such as non-discrimination and anti-harassment.  These can be applied to discussions of a political nature as well.  This also includes defining what civility does and does not mean.  Clarifying these boundaries will help empower employees to hold each other accountable to maintain the peace by engaging them in the process.
  3. Reinforce values:  Your organization’s values are the fundamental beliefs and guiding principles that dictate behavior and action…and people pay attention to them.  Use them as a framework for goal setting and to help remain focused should the political discourse become a distraction.
  4. Leadership should set the example: Not only ‘talk the talk’, but ‘walk the walk’ because it speaks volumes.  When leaders model the behavior for others to follow, they demonstrate that their words have meaning which is especially impactful when they remain cool under pressure.
  5. Intervene when necessary: If you see a situation is getting out of hand, take control by pausing the conversation.  It is important to remind the individuals about relevant policies guiding behavior as well as to reinforce any values related to valuing diversity.  If you cannot find ways for them to work together productively, it may require involving human resources.

Placing a value on open communications while still ensuring respect for the individual will not only create a safe space for these challenging conversations but will lead to better quality relationships and minimize the impact to the bottom line.  If these are challenges you are experiencing, I invite you to contact me.