Important new research from Catalyst, a non-profit focused on women and workplace inclusion, highlights how painful work can be for people who feel like “the other.” Despite all the effort employers put into making their companies more inclusive, it’s the feeling of being overlooked that employees tend to remember most. “If inclusion is the air we breathe, exclusion is suffocating,” says the report.
“The Day-to-Day Experiences of Workplace Inclusion and Exclusion” is filled with insights from employees at 42 mostly-large employers in five countries, collected in phases over a three-year period. It highlights in very stark terms the dilemma that leaders face when they try to design a more welcoming workplace.
“Part of the problem is that there is a great deal of confusion about what inclusion is,” says Dr. Dnika J. Travis, one of the three researchers who contributed to the report. But, there is no confusion about what it isn’t:
“People try to behave in a way that sometimes doesn’t feel natural. They try to be extremely happy or extremely friendly to Hispanics or extremely friendly to Black people…It feels that they are doing [this] because they are aware you are Hispanic, and they want to make sure that you don’t think they are racist or that they are discriminating [against] you because of that….. It makes me feel sometimes that I am part of a minority and not part of the whole [work] group…What I would really like to feel inside is just to be seen as normal and not to be seen as an Hispanic every time I step into a room.”
The cost of feeling excluded was cumulative, and ultimately, very painful. “Most people can easily recall the stories about feeling dismissed at work, and they build up over time,” said Travis. “Bottom line, when inclusion works, you don’t see it. But when you feel excluded, it’s all you feel.” The problem is that experiences of inclusion and exclusion often happen many times during the course of a workday. For women and people of color, that sense of feeling emotionally whipsawed becomes exhausting.
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The report identifies the “exclusionary events” that the interviewees found to be the most painful: tokenism, bias and stereotyping, and mixed messages related to flexible work arrangements and work-life balance. “These events tend to be small moments,” says Travis – like thoughtlessly leaving someone off an email chain, over-policing someone working from home, or being in a meeting when a person of color is ignored, and not saying anything. Because people either don’t recognize their own behavior or are unsure how to fix it if they do, they tend to do nothing. And that makes things worse.
The report details some remedies, but a good place to start is to ask why work matters to everyone. “Rooting out exclusionary behaviors requires developing a shared definition of inclusion,” says Travis. “Ask people why they get up and go to work,” she says. “What is their purpose for being there?” Establishing a language around shared purpose helps people connect with each other in ways that can transcend stereotypes.
And that makes the difficult conversations that inevitably must happen much easier. What works, says Travis, are real relationships. If something happens that you recognize as an “exclusionary event,” bring it up, even if you’re unsure what to say. “Take a breath,” says Travis. “Say, ‘hey, I saw that you seemed upset. Can we set up a time to talk about it? I think it would help me learn.’” Good conversations build authentic relationships over time. “When we can actually talk about these things, people feel included.”
Ellen McGirt is a senior editor at Fortune.