Photo by Markus Spiske | Unsplash

People, not policies: The role of the individual in driving inclusion in the workplace

Chibin Zhang
Published in
5 min readOct 13, 2021


As the saying goes, you can’t control what you can’t measure. In the context of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), the vast majority of measurements are focused on diversity. Inclusion, on the other hand, is difficult to define in a way that makes it measurable. So we find that most DEI initiatives are focused on increasing diversity, while much less is done to increase inclusion.

In our research, we have found that greater inclusion leads to both greater company performance and greater diversity. We developed a framework, the Categories of Inclusion, to show how any organization can measure its level of inclusion by focusing on experiences of exclusion, i.e., situations in which individuals feel excluded in the workplace. Specifically, besides asking for identity information, we anonymously collect experiences of exclusion from participating employees, asking them to identify one or more categories based on our framework (i.e., recognition, career opportunities, etc.) and the source of that experience. The typical sources are company policies, leadership, HR, direct managers, peers, reports and customers. The combination of these two pieces of information alone allows us to quickly understand where the greatest opportunities to drive inclusion are.

In the past year, we used this framework to conduct more than two dozen workshops across a wide range of companies and industries, collecting approximately 5,000 individual experiences from more than 1,500 participants across dozens of organizations, ranging from small startups to global corporations. While the results and recommendations from our Inclusion Assessments vary across different organizations, our findings make clear the power of measuring inclusion.

Notably, our research has revealed another key finding that seems to hold true for virtually every organization we have worked with: the vast majority of experiences of exclusion are attributed to people, not policies. Specifically, from the source breakdown, leadership was listed as one of the sources on 59% of all experiences of exclusion, while company policies were listed as one of the sources on only 10% of all experiences of exclusion.

Percentage of experiences by sources

We can see immediately from these findings that the way people behave with their colleagues has the most dramatic impact on the experiences — and therefore on the sense of inclusion — of their colleagues. We can also see that leadership and management are the biggest sources of experiences of exclusion. This gives significant credence to the phrase, “people quit their managers, not their jobs.”

When we dig deeper to explore the impact of someone’s personal traits on their experiences of exclusion with an organization, we found that people who identified as not being part of the normative majority reported a level of exclusion that is 40% higher than the level of exclusion reported by members of the majority segment. Taking another step further, we wanted to compare how much each source contributes to experiences of exclusion for majority and non-majority groups. Specifically, given that people (not policies) are the primary sources of experiences of exclusion, are there differences between majority and non-majority groups as to who is making them feel excluded?

The chart below shows the percentage of majority group individuals that cited a given source of exclusion at least once in pink (lighter shade) and for the non-majority group in red (darker shade). We can immediately see an interesting finding: although leadership as a whole is the most pervasive source of experiences of exclusion, there is virtually no difference between the percentage of people impacted by leadership for the majority segment (69%) and the non-majority segment (70%). In contrast, we see that direct managers are listed as the source of at least one experience of exclusion by 36% of respondents in the majority segment, but by 49% of respondents in the non-majority segment — a 13% difference. Similarly, peers are listed as the source of at least one experience of exclusion by 43% of respondents in the majority segment, but by 54% of respondents in the non-majority segment — an 11% difference.

Percentage of people that select each source

In other words, our data show that, while leadership is often seen as the most frequent source of experiences of exclusion for everyone in the organization, direct managers and peers tend to create more experiences of exclusion for their non-majority colleagues.

Taken together, our results show that people, not policies, are the primary sources of exclusion, and that direct managers and peers have a disproportionate impact on the experiences of their colleagues from non-majority groups. Analysis of the text from individual experiences of exclusion further supports our conclusion: many of the experiences of exclusion describe situations in which managers and peers behave in a disrespectful way toward women, people of color, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

These findings should remind us all that an organization is nothing but a collection of people, and that each person’s satisfaction in the workplace results from the accumulation of specific experiences, most of them resulting from interactions with colleagues. This means that each one of us can affect the experiences and satisfaction of the people with whom we interact regularly. We need to be mindful of the impact of our actions on others and understand that when it comes to inclusion, both the organization and the individual have an important role to play in ensuring an inclusive and equitable work environment.

A version of this article was published on Forbes by Paolo Gaudiano on September 7, 2021. Read it here.



Recommended from Medium