By Jennifer Brown
Each time I sit down with an executive who has decided to lead their company through the process of being more inclusive, I hear that executive articulate the same problem: They don’t know where to begin.
This feeling is common in positions of leadership. While diversity used to be seen as a “problem to solve” that lived in HR, it is now broadly understood as a core component of business practice that creates quantifiable value firm-wide. Creating cultures of belonging where everyone can succeed seems like something we all want to believe we’re doing already, which makes the leadership aspect all the more critical here: As leaders, we have to do a lot of individual work ourselves to become more inclusive thinkers before we can become more inclusive leaders.
As the responsibility for making progress in this arena has shifted from HR departments to core business operations, so too has the conversation shifted from one about diversity—which is about representation—to one about inclusion—which is about ensuring people are welcomed, valued, respected and heard. As we do a better job of being inclusive in our own actions and words, we have a better shot at creating more inclusive workplaces where people can bring their whole selves to work, be more creative problem solvers, and contribute to a generally healthier workplace culture.
I often remind folks that everyone has a diversity story; not all forms of diversity are visible. This is also true when it comes to disability— a facet of the diversity conversation that we don’t talk about enough. A common misconception when it comes to this topic is that making space for employees with disabilities in the workplace is not just costly, but disproportionately so, relative to making space for other kinds of diversity in the workplace. Yet recent research by Accenture exists to the contrary: 59 percent of the accommodations needed by employees with disabilities cost a company $0, while other non-zero accommodations cost, on average, $500 per employee.
Not monthly—in total. The pay-off is huge: people with disabilities have to be creative to find solutions that allow them to accomplish the same tasks as their able-bodied peers, which leads to greater innate problem-solving.
Combine that with giving those employees the sense that they are valued enough to have their needs met, and you’ll have one powerhouse employee on your hands. As with other forms of diversity, creating workplaces where all employees on the broad spectrum of diverse ability can succeed is deeply intertwined with fostering a workplace culture where people feel like they can bring their whole selves to work. According to a 2019 report from Deloitte, 61 percent of the workforce “covers” or makes a distinct effort to disguise a part of themselves they feel would be stigmatized hinder their professional development.
Those who engage in this behavior do not see themselves reflected in the organization around them and feel that their belonging is tenuous or contingent—a pernicious problem that extends beyond the individual to have a negative impact on workplace culture overall. By creating workplaces where people feel they don’t have to cover, we help them feel like they can contribute the full breadth of their energy and creativity.
This doesn’t just impact our internal culture and organizational health—it also impacts our bottom lines. Even simple vocabulary shifts may be of use: In my line of work, we’re speaking not in terms of accommodating a broad range of diverse abilities—both visible, and invisible—but rather in terms of enabling and empowering them.
Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, diversity and inclusion consultant, and author. Her work in talent management, human capital, and intersectional theory has redefined the boundaries of talent potential and company culture. Her latest book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive, is a simple, accessible and intuitive guide to becoming a more inclusive leader and provides a step-by step guide for anyone ready to do their part at work.