Organizations can hire for diversity, developing a workforce with a good mix of backgrounds, skills, cultures, and more. But the benefits of diversity are lost if employees don’t feel valued and heard in all their interactions at work. This is the inclusion side of the diversity and inclusion (D&I) coin.
McKinsey & Company defines inclusion as the degree to which individuals feel their authentic selves are welcomed at work, enabling them to contribute in a meaningful and deliberate manner. In a 2020 global survey, McKinsey found that many employees have considered organizations’ inclusiveness while making career decisions, yet nearly half of respondents don’t feel very included at their organizations.1
Among Canadian brokerages, research indicates there is room for improvement. In the 2022 Canadian Underwriter National Brokers Survey, sponsored by Sovereign Insurance, 26% of brokers say they feel disengaged at least sometimes as a result of experiencing some form of discrimination at work. In addition, nearly one quarter (24%) of brokers feel unseen—a sentiment that is higher among women than men (31% versus 17%).
Notably, brokers working in organizations with a fully diverse senior leadership team experience unfair, negative, or adverse treatment at about half the rate of those with no diversity in leadership (12% versus 23%).
While many organizations are committed to building inclusive workplaces, they may encounter roadblocks along the way. Here’s a look at three common barriers to inclusion and how business leaders can address them:
1. Microaggressions. One of the biggest barriers to employees feeling included is one of the least obvious: microaggressions. Microaggressions are defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to marginalized individuals and groups.”2
Some examples are: a white colleague asking a Black colleague if they can touch their hair, which is inappropriate and offensive;3 telling a co-worker with disabilities they’re “inspiring,” which assumes they can’t accomplish as much as their able-bodied peers; and asking someone where they’re really from, implying they don’t belong.4
These everyday slights may not be as overt as forms of discrimination like pay disparities and racial slurs, but they can add up to a lot of harm for employees. Experts say an accumulation of microaggressions can lead to low-self esteem, feelings of alienation, and mental health issues.5
How to address this barrier: Since many people don’t know they’re using microaggressions, creating awareness is the first step. Organizations can hold training sessions where employees learn about and discuss microaggressions at work. Not only can these sessions help raise awareness and minimize these behaviours, they can also inspire new policies that promote inclusiveness. It’s also recommended that employers have avenues that allow people to report incidences of microaggressions.6
2. Lack of diverse and inclusive leadership. A lack of relatable role models in senior positions has a significant impact on inclusion. If the leadership team is entirely from one gender or race, for example, people who don’t share those traits are less likely to feel at home in the workplace. 7
McKinsey’s survey data suggest that both the presence of diverse leaders at an organization and an organization’s focus on inclusive leadership (for example, leaders empowering others) are correlated with individuals feeling included. When respondents say leaders at their organizations are diverse, they are 1.5 times more likely to feel very included than peers from organizations without diverse leaders. And whether or not an organization has diverse leadership, leaders’ actions can nurture inclusion.8
See: Why leadership teams are critical to workplace D&I success
How to address this barrier: As McKinsey notes, increasing the share of diverse leaders starts with increasing and retaining the numbers of employees from underrepresented groups across the organization. Putting forward multiple candidates from underrepresented groups for leadership positions, succession planning, and sponsorship programs can all help organizations achieve diverse leadership.9
When it comes to inclusive leadership, self-awareness is key. Inclusive leaders are those who are aware of their own biases and actively seek and consider different perspectives in the workplace. They also ensure all team members are treated equitably, feel a sense of belonging and value, and have the support they need to reach their full potential.10
3. Bullying and harassment. An inclusive culture is one that is respectful, and so it simply does not exist if bullying and harassment occur in the workplace. While it’s easy to assume the shift to remote work cut down on these negative behaviours, employees don’t need to be in the office to experience bullying and harassment. In fact, the informal nature of digital communications can compound the risks, as many employees feel traditional rules don’t apply online. 11
According to experts, some of the most common complaints being reported by remote teams are: offensive or hostile language; intimidation or inappropriate comments on various communication channels; gender harassment and racial intimidation; and feelings of exclusion or being overlooked in virtual meetings. 12
How to address this barrier: Diversity and inclusion strategies go hand-in-hand with bullying and harassment prevention policies. The Government of Canada outlines a number of practices for organizations including: set an example by behaving ethically and responsibly at all times; do not take part in or be silent about behaviour that qualifies as harassment or inappropriate behaviour; watch out for insults or derogatory jokes, even those that appear to be friendly teasing; and ask employees if they’re facing situations that make them feel unfairly treated or uncomfortable.13
For remote workers, business leaders should also communicate that, even in an online environment, there is zero tolerance for bullying and harassment. They should also be clear about reporting processes and disciplinary measures.14
While we’ve only just scratched the surface, addressing these core barriers to inclusivity can help set a positive foundation to build upon. The next challenge is to develop a critical eye to identify more subtle barriers and to make a commitment to proactively foster an inclusive culture ongoing.
1,8, 9 McKinsey & Company, “Understanding organizational barriers to a more inclusive workplace,” July 23, 2020
2 Forbes, “Let’s talk about racial microaggressions in the workplace,” June 15, 2020
3 Diverse Educators, “Afro Hair: The Petting Microaggression,” Sept. 9, 2021
4 Business Insider, “What is a microaggression?” 14 things people think are fine to say at work – but are actually racist, sexist or offensive,” March 1, 2021
5 BBC, “How microaggressions cause lasting pain,” June 18, 2020
6 Forbes, “How good leadership can minimize microaggressions,” March 7, 2017
7 ASAE, “The top five barriers to inclusion and why you should avoid them,” Jan. 30. 2017
10 Center for Creative Leadership, “Inclusive leadership: Steps your organization should take to get it right,” Jan. 11, 2022
11, 14 Everfi, “What’s Top-of-Mind Today Regarding Diversity, Inclusion & Harassment in the Workplace?"
12 Monster, “Workplace bullying has gone remote.”
13 Government of Canada, “Preventing and Resolving Harassment in the Workplace: A Guide for Managers.”