Workplace

Creating a diverse, inclusive, and equitable Nicholas School means addressing cultural inclusion in the workplace, whether we’re in a meeting, writing a job description, or having coffee with a colleague. The resources below can help you create a more inclusive workplace.
Image of Grainger Hall

What is Culturally Inclusive Communication? Culturally Inclusive Communication allows us to use one element of the workplace environment, communication, to create a culture of inclusion. This means that we are using communication – a way of exchanging information – in a way that allows everyone, no matter their background, to feel they belong. 

Being a culturally inclusive communicator means being flexible, seeing how others are responding, and making adjustments. Remember, our goal is to create a space where everyone feels they belong, so the guidelines below might not always be appropriate.

Quick Tip. Be sure to pronounce your colleagues’ names correctly. Learn more about how to do that here.

What is Culturally Inclusive Communication? Culturally Inclusive Communication allows us to use one element of the workplace environment, communication, to create a culture of inclusion. This means that we are using communication – a way of exchanging information – in a way that allows everyone, no matter their background, to feel they belong. 

Being a culturally inclusive communicator means being flexible, seeing how others are responding, and making adjustments. Remember, our goal is to create a space where everyone feels they belong, so the guidelines below might not always be appropriate.

Why do we need culturally inclusive communication in the workplace? It’s the right thing to do. The golden rule – “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12) – is found across cultures. In Islam, it is expressed as “No one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.” In Taoism it is said that you should “regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain; and regard your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” The golden rule is part of the human compact and it is important in this context because nobody likes being excluded.

The second reason to embrace culturally inclusive communication is that we need it: Racism, colorism, discrimination, and prejudice in the American workplace and education system has resulted in a continued loss of agency for many workers. When people in power appropriate the agency of folks from non-dominant cultural backgrounds, both the workplace and education becomes exclusionary. Exclusionary practices lead to lower performance, including lower revenue, productivity, and problem-solving capabilities.

Image: peer-reviewed papers and headlines relating diversity to increased productivity

Finally, cultural differences really exist. We find different orientations to time, hierarchy, and commitment to others along international, regional (i.e., intra-American), religious, ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual-orientation continuums.


Culturally inclusive communication in the workplace

We can strive for culturally inclusive communication by (1) creating supportive environments through reflection, supporting difference and promoting participation and (2) enaging everyone through a focus on context, storytelling and centering marginalized voices.

Interested in learning more about these recommendations? Check out this video or continue reading.

Reflection

Mindful reflection is an active process in which we embrace curiosity and…

  • monitor our own thought processes and emotions
  • grapple with ambiguity
  • consider different perspectives
  • look closely
  • use metaphor and analogy
  • state overarching principles and themes

The benefits of reflection are manifold…

  • deepens learning
  • enhances critical thinking skills
  • increases creativity
  • improves retention
  • promotes transfer
  • reduces anxiety
  • increases feelings of well-being
  • improves social skills
  • boosts concentration
  • enhances emotional regulation

What questions can you ask?

  • Self-monitoring: How do you feel right now? What does this make you think about? How are your feelings influencing your thinking?
  • Ambiguity: What is unclear about this? Is this an either/or situation?
  • Different perspectives: How might someone from a different background see this? How will this be viewed in 10 years? 100? How might an “expert” see this? How might a community member see this? Can we approach this differently?
  • Look closely: What are the details of the situation? How might they be influencing outcomes? 
  • Metaphor & analogy: What does this remind you of? What other systems operate similarly? 
  • Overarching themes: What is the theme here? What values are at play? What are the common narratives around this topic?

If you’re working with colleagues or interacting with the public

  • Encourage people to participate in reflection-oriented workshops. 
  • Make time during meetings and presentations for mindful reflection.
  • Ask questions, both rhetorical and real.
Support Difference

Honor differences:

  • Add pronouns to your email signature & introduce yourself with them.
  • Record the way you pronounce your name and add to your email signature. 
  • Greet people by name.
  • Foreground land acknowledgements and diversity statements.
  • Provide opportunities for people to contemplate their core values.
  • Point out social power dynamics.
  • Use contemplative practices.
  • Emphasize “growth mindset” principles.

Encourage collaboration:

  • Co-write memos, reports, and beyond. 
  • Acknowledge that everyone has important contributions to make. 
  • Do quick go-arounds in meetings.
  • Develop leadership.
  • Create mentoring partnerships.
  • Co-develop person-centered professional goals.
  • Revise evaluations to incorporate metacognition and multi-directional feedback.
  • Designate a facilitator in meetings to promote positive group dynamics.

We can also support difference by using non-stigmatizing and bias-free language. Some terminology commonly used in the workplace and university settings can stigmatize staff, faculty, or students and reveal underlying bias. Much of this language has its origins in colonialization.

For example, using “pre-history” instead of “pre-contact” or “stakeholders” instead of “rights and title holders” can be offensive to indigenous people (Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc. 2017).  If you need more sample language, think about stakeholders as collaborators or contributors, community members, intended users, or organizational leaders (Robinson 2021). 

It is also important to remember that people are people first. They are not vulnerable or disabled people or groups, instead they are groups that have been disproportionately affects or groups that have been marginalized or people with disabilities (CDC Health Equity Style Guide 2020). Our objective is to maintain humanity in the language we use. You’ll notice that some of the figures in this article violate those rules, using the term “marginalized voices” instead of “voice of groups/people that have been marginalized.”

Promote Participation
Positive interaction and inclusion calms the amygdala.
  • Develop discussion guidelines and community agreements,
  • Give people time to think before, during, & after meetings and presentations,
    • Send agendas out in advance with key questions.
    • Pause during meetings to reflect and ask people to write down their thoughts.
    • After the meeting, ask people to send comments & send out next steps.
  • Practice active listening,
  • Ask open-ended questions,
  • Use communication forms in which people are comfortable,
  • Ensure everyone gets to share ideas, and
  • Utilize think-pair-share.
Provide Context

Research shows that context matters. To communicate effectively, we have to contextualize our work in reference to the cultures in which we’re embedded. We have to acknowledge that what we emphasize is a function of culture and our culture isn’t always fair.

If we don’t acknowledge this, we trigger the amygdala, we trigger social and emotional threats and people can’t engage fully.

Use Storytelling to Engage Others

Why storytelling?

  • Storytelling is a universal communications style.
  • Storytelling stimulates mirror neurons.
  • Storytelling is memorable.
  • Storytelling is critical for action.

How do we tell stories?

  • Make it stick. Simple. Concrete. Credible. Unexpected. Emotional.
  • Present the community context. Who is affected? Why do they care?
  • Provide a plot. Overcoming a challenge!
  • Use universal concepts. Love. Birth. Death. Joy, Family. Suffering. Change. Community. Power.
  • Connect tangibles with intangibles. 
  • Present non-polarizing values. Interconnectedness. Ingenuity. Protection. Stewardship.
  • Adopt a calm and friendly tone. Moderation is key. 

(Lopez 1986, 1989, Paris 2015, Tallmade 2011, Visser 2010)

Center Voices of Groups that have been Marginalized

Materials representing marginalized groups

  • Readings
  • Case studies
  • Journal Articles
  • Podcasts

Materials by authors from marginalized groups

  • Guest speakers
  • Academic work
  • Essays
  • Popular Media
  • Social Media
  • Podcasts/Videos

Materials provided by audience

  • What materials can participants bring and contribute? 
  • How can participant’s own experiences and cultures be brought into the discussion?
Centering marginalized voices with synthesis

Synthesis bring different ideas into a coherent whole. It gets to the heart of the matter, often including emotions and values. 

When do you use synthesis?

  • Groups are in conflict,
  • An individual is emotional or repeating themselves, or
  • With multicultural groups.

What can synthesis accomplish?

  • De-escalate and diffuse tension,
  • Help us ask better clarifying questions,
  • Bring us to understanding,
  • Draw out others, and
  • Reinforce marginalized voices.

How do you use synthesis?

  • “It sounds like…”
  • “I’m hearing that…”
  • “Are you saying…”
  • “If I’m understanding you (or the arc of the conversation) correctly…”

Note on terminology: there is no agreement on the proper terminology to use to describe those groups that have been historically and are currently excluded from conversations and power. We used the term marginalized here to show that one group has historically had and used power over other groups.