Creating Inclusive Environments

Posted May 30, 2024 | Leadership |
Creating Inclusive Environments

Additional authors: Tanny Carmona, Jordan Jessup, and Montserrat Sanz Mondragon

In today’s changing environment, stakeholders are demanding more than just financial results from organizations. They’re increasing the pressure on CEOs to encourage strong ethical behaviors in their organizations, address social problems, and take a stance on current events. The worldwide increase of social injustice, both inside and outside organizations, demands that CEOs establish cultures and processes that are inclusive of all people.

Inclusivity is not a new concept, but organizations have struggled to integrate existing findings due to the challenges leaders face as their organizations become more diverse in perspectives, backgrounds, and demographics. Top leaders can be highly influential in shaping the outcomes of their organizations in this area, with firms such as Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, Aerie, Crayola, Gap, and Nike paving the way for others to embrace more inclusive environments.

Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, which includes Fenty Skin and Savage X Fenty, is an exceptional model, having provided inclusive environments before consumers began demanding diverse options (instead of making do with what was available). Fenty seeks individuals of various shapes, sizes, gender identities, races, and abilities to join the company and appear in its marketing. The company’s products include gender-neutral clothing in a wide range of sizes and styles and a foundation line in a large range of skin tones and undertones.

Singer Robyn Rihanna Fenty, Fenty’s founder, has been vocal about the brand’s message, stating in an interview with the Associated Press:

We don’t believe in division. We do not believe in excluding anyone. That has been our message from day one and it’s not going to change now because everyone is having that realization.

Inclusion is rooted so deeply in the Fenty brand that its marketing focuses on ensuring individuals from all walks of life know they are seen. Sandy Saputo, former marketing director of Kendo Brands, which includes Fenty, explained in an interview on the podcast Think with Google:

The best way to break through with inclusive marketing is to share authentic stories that are rooted in culture and are emotionally meaningful to the consumers you serve.

What Is an Inclusive Environment? 

It can be difficult to nail down exactly what an inclusive environment is. In part, our sense of inclusion depends on what we experience with our leaders, peers, and team members. We can probably all agree that inclusion is not a one-size-fits-all approach — what one person considers acceptable, others may not.

Before we go further, we must note the difference between diversity and inclusion. HR expert Neelie Verlinden explains that workplace diversity refers to a workforce made up of people representing different ages, cultures, geographical locations, abilities, disabilities, religions, and sexual orientations. She notes that true workforce diversity extends beyond these social categories to include everything that makes individual employees unique from one another.

Put simply, diversity is the what and inclusion is the how. Diversity in an organization refers to differences in age, gender, ethnicity, education, and so forth, and occurs by the very nature of gathering different people together. Inclusion refers to the removal of obstacles such that all individuals in the company are treated fairly and respectfully while providing equal opportunity, leading to advancement and organizational success. Diversity and inclusion work together to create organizational success.

Research conducted by Renate Ortlieb et al. describes inclusive organizations as an ideal entity where social minorities feel valued, unique, and have a sense of belonging. Additional research conducted by Beth Chung et al. finds there is a need to understand under which conditions inclusive practices and values are most likely to be beneficial. Armed with this information, CEOs and managers will be able to prioritize the values and practices that best benefit the conditions of their organization or department.

Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, frequently noted that due to the war for talent, PepsiCo prioritized creating an inclusive environment. In the company’s 2014 annual report, she wrote:

Our proud legacy of diversity and inclusion continues to this day. It is our strength. Indeed, PepsiCo’s focus on a diverse and inclusive workforce has only heightened in recent years, as the war for talent among leading, global companies has escalated.

PepsiCo committed to attracting the best talent available and found that becoming an inclusive organization made that goal more achievable. Individuals want to feel a sense of belonging and safety in being unique, and this is one reason inclusion has become a critical factor of employee retention.

Inclusive environments require CEOs and managers to go beyond valuing and appreciating all groups. Leadership can prioritize creating a climate in which diverse members have the opportunity to be themselves, are treated as insiders, and can learn from the differences of other team members based on the conditions of their organization.

Leaders like Lenora Billings-Harris, president and CEO of UbuntuGlobal, engage in techniques that create psychologically safe environments to reap the benefits of innovation:

Diversity, inclusion, respect, and fairness are concepts that make some people reluctant to discuss them. I work hard to create a safe, nonjudgmental, and uplifting environment that makes exploring sensitive topics a positive journey for all…. All programs, processes, and resources reflect my belief that we are all more effective, productive, and innovative when we honor and value our own uniqueness while at the same time valuing and respecting the differences of others.

Clearly, organizational leaders are seeing the benefits of having their organizations recognized for inclusivity and the practices that build such climates. As other organizations see this, it seems likely that they will follow suit, creating a snowball effect and setting standards for all companies to follow.

[For more from the authors on this topic, see: “The Intersection of CEO Humility & Inclusive Environments.”]

About The Author
Tiffany Maldonado
Tiffany Maldonado is Assistant Professor in the Department of Management, Marketing, and Information Systems, College of Business Administration, Sam Houston State University, where she is also Assistant Director of the Center for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Business Education. Her research focuses on strategic leadership, with a particular emphasis on a holistic model of leadership in which all aspects of the leader are… Read More