Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Belonging

What to do when practicing inclusion requires exclusion

Last week was certainly one for the books. In the U.S., we saw record deaths from COVID-19, a flipped Senate, a certified new president, and an angry mob that stormed the Capitol (to put it mildly). Thousands of people died, and millions saw their beliefs crushed on the national stage, whether they were rooting for an alternative election outcome, or still clinging to a belief in civility. Undoubtedly, the majority of employees had strong reactions to the week’s events, putting employers in a difficult situation regarding how to respond to the compounding crises.

We talk a lot about inclusion, transparency, and encouraging employees to bring their whole selves to work on this blog. In an era characterized by such extreme polarization though, how can a workplace successfully uphold these ideals without completely contradicting themselves? How do you practice inclusion of everyone’s beliefs, be transparent about your own, and champion whole people when so many beliefs are directly predicated on exclusion? It’s a question we’ve been grappling with here at Workrowd recently, and we wanted to share our thoughts.

The double-bind of striving for inclusion in today’s day and age

Unfortunately, a significant number of Americans today espouse beliefs that are inherently exclusive. From overt racism to xenophobia to classism and beyond, much of our current civic life revolves around deeply held prejudices. While many protested against systemic injustice over the summer, we also saw large groups gather to protest against those people. Although many in that latter group will argue that their message is in fact not that Black lives don’t matter, but instead that ‘all lives matter’, by standing up in opposition to those fighting for the sanctity of Black and brown bodies, the implication is strong that some lives matter more than others.

Similarly, while they weren’t without prompting from the top, tens of thousands of people believed it was their responsibility to respond to the election outcome by physically harming those they deemed responsible. Within hours, we witnessed a surreal confluence of events, where Georgia elected two Democratic senators followed almost immediately by an insurrectionist uprising attempting to overtake the Capitol. Surely many workplaces have employees on both sides of the debate. With such divergent beliefs among your employee population, how can you respect everyone’s ideas? Moreover, what do you do when allowing people to bring their whole selves to work directly results in exclusion and/or outright harm to others?

Ways you can still champion inclusion for all when values differ

Ultimately, the only answer we’ve been able to come up with to the questions posed in the preceding paragraph is that you can’t. You cannot champion inclusion for all when some beliefs are inherently exclusive. In other words, everyone needs to collectively believe in inclusion while also maintaining their own beliefs that don’t contradict the top level ideal. This doesn’t mean that you can’t encourage people to share their opinions, but simply that the focus must be on inclusion first, unmitigated discussion of personal beliefs second. We’ve assembled a few tips to help you walk this tricky line:

  • Be clear about your goals. Constantly expressing your desire for everyone to feel included while also stating that everyone should feel free to bring their whole selves to work is contradictory and can create a stressful disconnect for employees. You don’t have to devalue the importance of authenticity, but ensure that it’s clear that your topmost objective is to build a workplace where people feel welcomed. This means that everyone must make an effort to meet their colleagues where they are, listen with an open mind, and educate themselves on different lived experiences. Prioritizing inclusion over the free share of ideas may seem counterproductive or counterintuitive, but enabling the flow of ideas that create a hostile work environment for some is far more damaging.
  • Offer trainings on how to be inclusive. As much as we want to believe that humans are inherently righteous and good, inclusion does not come naturally to us. Accordingly, it’s critical that you provide support, particularly for managers, in order to help everyone understand what you mean when you talk about inclusion. These cannot simply be one-off trainings, either; they should be held at least quarterly in order to keep everyone up-to-speed and continuously learning, rather than allowing them to simply revert to their baseline immediately after the once yearly session.
  • Make space for difficult conversations. As much as it pains us to say this, inclusive work environments won’t work for everyone. Ultimately. there will always be people who don’t want to break out of their comfort zone, champion others, or learn about lived experiences beside than their own. If you truly want to create an inclusive workplace, you have to be ready to call those people out early and often, before they poison those around them with their words and actions. Speak with them first, make clear the changes that need to occur, and if they refuse to make an effort or continue to violate basic principles of inclusion, you may end up having to cut ties. It might not feel very ‘inclusive’ but it ultimately is the only way to actually build real inclusion for the rest of your team.

There’s certainly still a lot to process after last week’s uproar, and there will undoubtedly be more changes to come, but we wanted to start to put some language around it while we’re still in the ether. Just like exclusion, inclusion comes at a cost, and it ironically may require excluding those who don’t agree. This can be a difficult paradox to sit with, but progress has never come easily, and some people who have historically been very comfortable will have to be made uncomfortable for the greater good.

If you could use some support in building safe spaces and stretching towards inclusion, especially across a distributed workforce, come check us out at We’d be happy to discuss how we’re navigating this contradiction internally, and learn more about any challenges you may be managing. Stay safe, everyone.