Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

How to Create Inclusive Workplaces

Lessons learned from a dialogue series bringing together business leaders and academics

Ann Skeet

geralt/Pixabay (cropped)

Ann Skeet is the senior director of leadership ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Before the George Floyd murder, the resurgence of Black Lives Matter, and the #MeToo movement, we held a series of conversations at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in the 2017-2018 academic year engaging people around inclusion and diversity, the Workplace Diversity Dialogues. By bringing together professionals who exemplified some of the best practices in ethical leadership and building healthy cultures, we identified practical, actionable ways to create more inclusive workplaces.

For the Business Leader

Dreambox CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson, was one of the participating leaders, sharing her belief that diversity and inclusion skills are necessary for building a sustainable business.

Woolley-Wilson contends that people are overwhelmed by the challenge of racism and sexism, worried about being labeled as racist or sexist, or bringing forward minority political perspectives. She believes they avoid talking about race, politics, or the gender gap, due to these concerns and fail to build the skills necessary to create a safe working environment.

Applying an approach Dreambox uses to build products to develop inclusion skills, Woolley-Wilson focuses on helping executives to get close to their employees, learn, iterate, and adapt, an agile methodology. Rather than “manage” diversity, she reframes it as finding opportunities in diversity; for better product innovation, higher employee retention rates, and building sustainable organizations.

  1. Leaders must do the work. Rather than asking the workforce to adapt to their environment, leaders need to do the adapting.
  2. A person with the best intentions will only act on them if they are supported by a community.
  3. Inclusive communities are built around beliefs.
  4. Beliefs should be informed by a contrarian point of view. Therefore, dialogue is essential; challenging topics must be discussed.
  5. Use customers as a compass. For diversity and inclusion, employees are the customer.
  6. Integrate your personal and professional self as a leader. Let people know what you care about, what you fear, what you get upset about.
  7. Evolve culture, rather than change it. Change brings with it recrimination and judgement. Evolution is forward looking.

Using Science

One of the Ethics Center’s beliefs is that people need sources of informed guidance on ethical dilemmas and decision making. We embodied this belief by collaborating with SODI, the Science and Diversity Inclusion Initiative.

At SODI, behavioral scientists partner with leaders in global corporations and institutions to break new ground in diversity and inclusion, translating research into practical action. Leaders can make better decisions informed by science. 

When the Ethics Center works with companies, we interact with executives who have been exposed to various diversity training programs and found them lacking in terms of effecting sustainable, measurable change. Using data-based findings restores confidence in leaders and their followers that making changes based on science will increase diversity and create more inclusive, anti-racist, and anti-sexist workplaces.

Closing the Gender Gap

SODI founders Jeff Flory and Kara Helander explored specific ways that companies close the gender gap: reducing competition, more thoughtfully considering assignments and advancement, and more intentionally signaling inclusion as a value in the hiring process. 

  1. Have these messages come from company leadership.
  2. Base pay on performance of a group or team rather than the individual.
  3. Lessen the amount of pay that relies on an individual’s performance relative to coworkers.
  4. De-emphasize the importance of competition between colleagues and, instead, focus on self-improvement and compare teams/pairs rather than individuals.
  5. Randomly assign low-promotability work tasks.
  6. Track who performs what task and then assign tasks more equitably across employees.
  7. Explicitly discuss this problem in the workplace by bringing attention to the task differential and asking employees to be aware of it when they volunteer or assign tasks.
  8. Explicitly emphasize diversity in job postings. Messaging can tie the value a company places on diversity to competitive advantage and productivity and/or show how diversity is part of the company’s overall culture.

Specific recommendations are summarized from their presentation, a follow-up conversation, and discussions held during their visit.

As part of our relationship with SODI, we sought additional resources relevant to this historic moment when so many companies are committing resources to developing anti-racist materials in particular and recommend the following science-based resources:

  1. Erika Hall, Emory University: Hall, A.V., Hall, E.V., & Perry, J.L. (2016). Black and blue: Exploring racial bias and law enforcement in the killings of unarmed Black male civilians. American Psychologist, 71(3), 175-186. 
  2. Denise Lewin Lloyd, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and the Vernon Zimmerman Faculty Fellow in the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign: Undermining diversity: Favoritism threat and its effect on advocacy for similar others:
  3. David Bjerk, Professor of Economics, Claremont McKenna College: 
    1. “The Differing Nature of Black-White Wage Inequality Across Occupational Sectors.” Journal of Human Resources 42(2): 398-434.
    2. “Glass Ceilings or Sticky Floors? Statistical Discrimination in a Dynamic Model of Promotion and Hiring,” The Economic Journal 118(July): 961-982.

The Real Business Value of Diversity

SODI also recommends the research of Kathy Phillips, professor of organizational character at Columbia Business School, who has done work to capture the real value of diversity.1 

In her research, Phillips found that there was an “illusion of homogeneity.” Homogenous groups were overly confident in their ability to arrive at a correct answer and less likely to do so. Conversely, diverse groups were more accurate in their ability—more confident when they had in fact found the correct answer and less confident when they had not. In other words, they were more in touch with their abilities.

Phillips has done research supporting that the value of diversity doesn’t come from the fact that people bring different perspectives. Rather, her work reveals that everyone changes their behavior in groups with social category differences. 

Phillips has done research on all kinds of differences, not just race. She has also tested it across generations and her findings still hold up.

Diversity affects cognitive processing. The mere presence of difference affects how much integrative complexity a group possesses—do you see how complex the problem is? 

When we are about to interact with someone different from ourselves in any way, we prepare more thoroughly, which translates into stronger performance, simply because we think about the issues more deeply. 

People work harder in diverse environments. But people don’t necessarily like it. It’s harder to think more, but it’s worth it in terms of outcomes reached. Because it is harder, many people resist diversity. We need to recognize that we are asking people to do something hard.

In the Board Room 

Black Rock Managing Director Michelle Edkins shared her firm’s decision to set targets for companies about diversity in the boardroom, during a that was prior to the introduction of California’s legislation regarding board diversity.

Black Rock thinks board diversity is an investment issue because the board is one of the most important parts of the company’s ecosystem in terms of long term thinking, delivering a long term strategy, and meeting high standards. 

Edkins contends, as SODI’s research highlights, that a diverse group makes better decisions. They have a harder time doing it, but the decision holds up better over time.

Leaders are role models for employees and reflect who can achieve success. Today’s talent pool is not homogenous, but leadership does not reflect this. Given the tight competition for talent, employees’ ability to envision a long term career in a company is a competitive issue investors care about. Diverse boards and diverse leadership go hand in hand.

Across the Political Spectrum

In this part of the series, we explored civil discourse at work. These sessions were led by Santa Clara University professors and Silicon Valley employers and participants in our long-standing Business Ethics Partners cohort. The topics covered are relevant now in light of the political response to COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Companies are more inclined now to create forums for dialogue on sensitive social issues. Employees appreciate, and expect, that companies will hear from employees on social issues and provide skills for talking about them. 

A strengths-based approach was recommended in each of the three in-depth workshops we held on Talking in the Workplace. At the company level, this means using common values and purpose to help employees ground their decision-making in ways that are consistent with a company’s culture. In addition to providing responses that might be helpful when faced with microaggressions in the workplace, we explored the development of moral competencies and the practice of balanced experiential inquiry. These competencies help solve problems or address issues in positive ways. 

  1. Emotional signaling: uses emotional cues to fuel moral awareness
  2. Reflective pause: self-imposed time-out for insight and deliberation, regardless of time constraints
  3. Self-regulation: managing desires that may run counter to internal and external demands
  4. Moral preparation: preconceived intention to act ethically, even before one faces an ethical challenge

In Government

In conversation with Ambassador Mary Ann Peters, former CEO of the Carter Center, former ambassador to Bangladesh, and a Santa Clara University alumna, we learned what diversity skills leaders in international diplomacy needed to succeed. Such skills are critical to the success of military and diplomatic leaders in international peacemaking, in order to create the inclusive institutions and conditions that will support change.

  1. Empathy: the ability to walk in another person’s shoes
  2. Protecting mavericks: air cover for the people who can drive change in institutions
  3. Dialogue skills: the ability to talk through dilemmas, to ask questions about ethical dilemmas, give leaders permission to ask questions rather than have all the answers
  4. Placing women into leadership positions: contributes to better peacekeeping outcomes
  5. Foresight: to anticipate the ethical issues that will arise during the work promoting women into positions of leadership 
  6. Using operating principles to guide the work: including failure as an acceptable risk

Ambassador Peters drew attention to the special needs of some of the world’s most vulnerable populations. She spoke about her commitment to telling the story of the human rights abuses suffered by women and also of the need for respect for the dignity of the poorest of the poor. These were some reasons she feels strongly that we need more women in government. This is certainly a perspective being reinforced by the less severe COVID outcomes for countries led by women.

Quoting President Jimmy Carter, Peters said, “I believe that the people in these villages are just as smart as I am, they are as ambitious as I am, and they love our children as much as I do. They just need a helping hand.”

Phillips, Kathy. (September 2017) Research Talk. SODI Convening, University of Chicago.


Jul 15, 2020

Subscribe to Our Blogs

* indicates required
Subscribe me to the following blogs: