Inclusive Leadership: 10 Steps to Creating an Inclusive Workplace

November 1, 2020 | By Tierney Bates

abstract group of people

TAGS: diversity and inclusion, journal, leadership,

NACE Journal, November 2020

For both higher education and employers, the fall season is upon us. As of this writing, it has been five months since the death of George Floyd, and we are heavily into programming and recruitment efforts. Institutions of higher education and organizations have written statements of support in solidarity for Black Lives Matter, mass hiring initiatives, and a commitment to anti-racism.

That is all good, but what most organizations should look to address is their own cultural landscape and homogenous culture. In fact, since racism is part of the very cultural fabric in which we live in the United States, it often goes unnoticed, ignored, or denied. Racism becomes much like the air we breathe…normal. Most folks have no reason to dare or even think about questioning that which is normal—that which is business as usual. Institutional racism is a powerful system of privilege and power based on race and, at one point, supported by law. Those powerful structures begin and are perpetuated by seemingly innocent, normal events and daily occurrences and interactions. Interestingly, there is a large body of research that clearly suggests that folks tend to hire and rehire folks who tend to act and look exactly themselves.1

This is an opportunity for organizations to assess their best practices, look intrinsically for growth, and build a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging within the work environment. In an evolving workforce and innovative society, a culture or work environment can no longer remain homogenous. Senior leaders should look to move beyond diversity to inclusion. Inequitable power structures, policies, and practices, and unconscious bias exist in many organizations, even with the best of intentions to create more diverse hiring pools.

Organizations must understand that they have conditions, cultures, practices, and environments rooted in white supremacy and sometimes lack authentic leadership to dismantle the climate and the inequitable structures. An organization should prioritize courage to speak, curiosity, and cultural intelligence, and enable the cultures within the organization to leverage their shared and lived experiences as actionable items. This includes understanding what words, meanings, and culture have an impact on employees who are Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Leadership should be bold, genuine, and reflective, with a strategy that includes professional development, financial commitment, and key performance indicators. Leaders must keep evolving their cultural landscape internally and externally to truly build an inclusive workplace. The need for this is more prevalent than ever before, as we now face a work environment that has five generations in the workforce, with five different views on the workplace and ideas.

As senior leaders and recruiters are heavily into the fall semester for recruitment and programming, I would like to offer 10 concrete ideas and practices that could positively impact creating an inclusive workplace and environment.

1. Start to build out an inclusive workplace model by getting a “read” on your culture from independent focus groups, a climate survey conducted among staff, and even town halls meetings, where staff can learn and contribute, without fear of retribution. The goal would be to learn if employees feel unsafe, unheard, and/or invisible. Do they have to mask themselves and assimilate? This will speak to your culture.

2. Look at executive leadership, mid-level managers, and your organization’s internal demographics. They should reflect the organization, the community you live in or belong to, your state, or national trends. If that is not the case, implement a plan to change or develop protocols and policies with true key performance indicators and accountability metrics. In line with national demographics, no workforce should be less than 30% to 35% people of color.

3. Celebrate and acknowledge religious and cultural practices. Example: Adopt Juneteenth as an organizational day off.

4. Foster a culture where every voice is heard, welcomed, and respected. How we treat the lowest ranking of staff is a reflection of the entire organization. Look at your entry-, mid-, and senior-level numbers. If everyone in the bottom is BIPOC or make up a significant percentage of it, you have a problem.

5. Build a multigenerational workforce. Learn from each other for the future. Provide employees with a pathway to promotion. Build a fellowship program for your employees of color to interact with and learn all facets of the organization and to meet with senior leaders.

6. Foster inclusive and diverse thinking. Use design thinking with staff to explore equity.

7. Reflect everyone’s needs and preferences at gatherings. For example, Black employees are often uncomfortable with (and will avoid) group or company potlucks from a cultural lens.

8. Look at all policies that can lead to superficial and discriminatory practices. For example, use Gender Decoder, Textio, or similar tools to idenitfy biased language on a job description. Look at hiring policies and performance evaluations. Consider how culturally competent your recruitment team is. Stay away from “fit” as a selection crtierion.

9. Ensure workspace is inclusive--from accessibility to gender neutral bathrooms, to artwork, to allowing for personalized office space and cultural celebrations of all backgrounds.

10. Personalize your 1:1 meetings and interactions: Do not just be about the business. People do not trust or care, unless you show them that you trust and care. They are an investment and human, not just a piece of the puzzle, and critical to all success.

An inclusive workplace model takes time, effort, changes, and even some reorganization among employees. (Let us not be like the CEO who claimed his organization could not find qualified Black employees. If the famous Beyoncé can find 24 Black trombone players, then any organization can find multiple Black/POC candidates to intern, employ, or be a board member). They say the most segregated day in America is on Sunday when folks go to church worship: Do you want your organization or higher education institution to have that same feeling of isolation? Start by building an inclusive workplace. It starts with career development professionals and employers looking within themselves. Otherwise, nothing changes.


1 Hughes, R. (2014). 10 Signs of Institutionalized Racism. Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Retrieved May 29, 2014, from

Tierney Bates, Ed.D., is assistant vice chancellor for special projects and interim executive director of university career services at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Previous roles include vice president of enrollment management and student affairs at Virginia Union University, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at North Carolina Central University, and director of the Cultural Center at the University of Louisville. He earned his doctorate in educational leadership and administration from Spalding University. He holds an M.B.A. from Bryan College and a master’s degree in higher education administration from the University of Akron, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in mass media communications.