Opinion: Inclusive Culture, Happy Workplace

Contributed by
26 Sep 2019

WHEN talking about inclusive workplace cultures, experts often refer to words like integration, visibility, representation, or belonging. But what do these concepts look like in practice? How does an inclusive culture manifest itself in the day to day life of an organisation?

There are a number of clues that can help organisations gauge how inclusive their culture is. A relatively straightforward indication of inclusivity is, of course, the composition of the organisation, especially of their senior management and executive leadership teams. If inclusivity is truly built into the DNA of an organisation, one should expect to see the diversity of the workforce reflecting at the very least that of the geographical area in which the business is operating.

So, given that (if we look at research from the World Health Organization), the global sex ratio is roughly 1:1, meaning there are close to 50% men and 50% women on this planet, one should expect the same gender split to be reflected at all levels of any given (inclusive) organisation. Building on the example of gender, an inclusive organisation would also embrace the fact that gender identity is not binary but a spectrum and that, depending on which study we look at, approximately between 0.6% and 1% of the population is transgender. Based on this, inclusive cultures would offer visibility to different gender identities and promote awareness, for example by offering a range of options on their internal forms going beyond M or F and allowing individuals to choose a definition that matches their gender identity.

Looking at other dimensions of diversity, another key indicator of an inclusive workplace culture is the level of disability confidence, and how effectively the organisation is taking steps to welcome and support individuals with different levels of physical and mental abilities. The presence of trained mental health first aiders is often a clue in this direction as it sends a strong signal that the organisation takes mental health as seriously as physical health and provides the same level of support.

One could continue with examples relating to ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation and many other dimensions, but what it really boils down to when it comes to defining inclusive cultures is simply the following:

Inclusive cultures make it easy for everyone to participate to the life of the organisation as fully as they wish to, so that they never feel overlooked, excluded or even discriminated against. In inclusive cultures all employees have equal chances to succeed and are all equally likely to report they are happy and proud to work in that organisation, with no significant variation based on their gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other aspect of their identity.

In fact ‘happiness’ (although subjective and dependent on each individual’s values and frame of reference) is a key concept that defines inclusive cultures, and organisations are increasingly incorporating it into their formal measures of success.

Companies like Adobe, Google, eBay, LinkedIn, Facebook and Salesforce have been conducting happiness surveys for years to find out what can help improve levels of staff engagement and satisfaction, and, unsurprisingly, are among the most sought-after places to work.

One might even say that it is also unsurprising that no law firms appear on this list (yet). The legal profession has for long been dominated by a relatively homogeneous group of well-educated white men and has depended on a relatively straightforward career progression system based on the quantity and quality of the work that partners assign to their associates based on their subjective assessment of who they think will be best for a particular piece of work. This system has led to the perpetuation of the same in-group as partners assign work to those associates they feel most familiar or comfortable with.

Changing this paradigm is probably one of the most urgent measures needed to create more inclusive cultures in the legal profession, and in law firms in particular. This is slowly starting to happen as firms are choosing to introduce more objective work allocation systems where a work allocation officer matches incoming work with the most suitable associate based on their existing skillset and availability as well as their career development aspirations and their interests.

In 2013 Dave Cook founded Mason & Cook, which has rapidly become a market leader in designing, implementing and embedding structured work allocation functions and processes for the legal sector both in the UK and internationally.

Dave told us that “by introducing work allocation structures firms have seen, positively, a major shift in the progression of a wider and more diverse pool of lawyers as this process allows them to ensure that opportunities are distributed evenly, both in terms of volume and content.”

Evidence clearly backs Dave’s statement, as firms who have adopted this approach for some time (including one of its early adopters, Ashurst) have seen it positively impact the progression of female lawyers into the partnership. A recent study by Aspirant Analytics also showed the positive impact work allocation had in relation to Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) lawyers, and found that, within the same firm, the areas that had adopted the process provided 24% higher access to client work for BAME lawyers than those that did not have the process in place.

We also asked Dave about the wider impact that work allocation systems have on creating inclusive cultures, and he confidently responded:

“The impact of introducing work allocation processes is felt on the ground, every day, by the lawyers they support. The distribution of work, and access to opportunities that support the individual career development of lawyers are critical to providing lawyers, from all backgrounds, with equal access to work to allow them to flourish.”

This is a very exciting prospect indeed, and we hope more and more firms will continue to adopt such work allocation systems. However, we are also conscious that a diverse talent pool needs to be in the organisation in the first place in order for it to thrive thanks to measures like work allocation.

Recruitment is therefore another vital area where there needs to be more focus on diversity. There are a number of tools available to the legal profession to increase diversity in recruitment, including blind CVs and contextual recruitment. Training for hiring managers is also key to equip them with the tools to minimise bias during the recruitment process. We will more fully explore inclusive recruitment practices in another article to be published soon, so keep an eye out for it.

The final key ingredient to create an inclusive culture has to be leadership. Inclusive leaders truly embrace the value of diversity and understand why inclusion not only makes business sense but will also create a better and more thriving workplace. To some extent, some people are naturally predisposed to being more inclusive of others, but inclusivity is certainly a skill that can be learnt and will definitely enrich the skillset of every leader.

One of the most effective ways to develop inclusivity skills is to step out of the in-group one is part of (which, in the case of senior leaders in the legal profession today is likely to be quite homogeneous) and interact with diverse groups to fully appreciate their experiences and identify effective ways to support each individual going beyond prejudices (bias) and stereotypes.

There are very strong affinity networks across the legal sector that can provide a great opportunity for leaders to engage in constructive conversations on how to create inclusive cultures.

Our advice to everyone reading this article, especially those in a position of leadership and senior management, is to make time to regularly participate in the initiatives organised by your LGBT+, BAME, religion, gender, age, carers, and other networks and groups. The insights you will gain will be transformational.

Top five tips to create an inclusive culture:

1) Set the tone from the top: develop inclusive leaders

2) Make your recruitment practices truly inclusive to attract a diverse talent pool

3) Regularly measure the diversity of your workforce and assess levels of staff engagement and happiness to identify any trends or correlations

4) Deliver training and introduce systems to minimise the impact of bias on work allocation, to ensure everyone has equal chances to secure meaningful work to build their career

5) Adequately resource your affinity networks and encourage wide participation, especially of senior managers and leaders