Inclusion? It's about culture.

Updated: Oct 15

Culture is comprised of your company's policies, processes, and practices. The policies are the laws and rules that govern your business; these are often codified in the employee handbook. Processes include how you do things, like training, techniques, equipment, and the like. Your processes may be your company's market differentiator. Your practices are simply the real way people act.

A company's culture is experienced as "the way we do things around here." It's hard to pinpoint, but you know what it is. The culture is not what you say it is. The culture is what you do.

A company's culture is misaligned if, for instance, the laws say this but your training supports that. Or your rules say do it this way but, nevermind, your people do it that way. Think of Wells Fargo opening credit cards in people's names without their knowledge or consent. Clearly, this was against the law and it certainly wasn't a part of Wells Fargo's onboarding and training, but it was very definitely the real way their employees conducted business.

These days, it's almost de rigueur for companies to strive for inclusive cultures. But what does that mean, really? It means, the way we do things around here is inclusive. Inclusion is a tricky concept and the application of inclusion is even harder. The opposite of inclusion is exclusion, which is easier to fathom. Think of an exclusive nightclub or resort. Only the privileged few are allowed in. And we all understand what it means to be the kid who is picked last. Whether justified or not, we know what it means.


Many workplaces have both a feeling of and an infrastructure that supports exclusivity. You know the right people, you went to the right schools, you play the right golf courses ... you're in! In this environment, it has nothing to do with your ability to do the job and everything to do with your ability to "play the game." 


Fundamental to inclusion is value and respect. You see, all employees--regardless of what their job is or their title, how much they get paid, or how much education is required to do their job--all employees want to do inspiring work and they want to be valued and respected while doing that work.


Let's look at Regular Joe Company.* This is one that espouses an inclusive culture that values and respects all of its employees. But is it?


Because, again, culture isn't what you say it is. It's how you act.  

A senior manager at Regular Joe has a big office with a big TV hanging on the wall. His channel of choice is Fox News and it plays all day long. It's not that Fox News shouldn't be allowed because it's offensive to some people. If Fox News is on in someone's private office or they're listening with headphones, that's fine. It's when it's in the public space that it becomes a problem ... because other people are forced to listen to it whether they want to or not. They can't get away from it.


There was a kerfuffle at Regular Joe Company on the day the senior manager demanded the receptionist, who was on her lunch break in the conference room, turn off MSNBC. It is rumored that he said, "I pay the bills around here. And I said turn it off."


There are a couple of things to unpack here:


First, the receptionist, or any employee who doesn't have a private office, must be afforded a little more latitude when seeking a place to watch the news during a break.


Next, when MSNBC was on in the conference room, it matters whether the door was open or closed. It matters what the volume was. If it was so loud that others were distracted by it or people were forced to listen when they didn't want to, yes, it should at least be turned down.


Was the demand to turn off MSNBC because it was loud and distracting or was it because the senior manager didn't want that particular channel on at all? Is it because he's Team Fox News and is fundamentally disgusted by MSNBC? Would the Cartoon Network or soap operas have been OK? 

The comment to the effect of, "Turn it off. Because I said so. I pay the bills around here," is condescending and paternalistic. It harkens to, "As long as you live under my roof, my rules apply." The senior manager is not the dad here. And the receptionist (or whoever) is not the child. This is a workplace and they are work colleagues.  Furthermore, this had nothing to do with who actually pays the bills. The senior manager was leveraging his real and implied power as (and I know you're going to hate this but...) a cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, white male. He is at the top of the food chain in this country and in this office. What is contained within his comment but left unspoken is--how dare you defy my will. Do as I say. And never question my authority again.

So when we go back to the inspiring/valued/respected thing, this senior manager violated the third of the three keys. Neither his comment nor his attitude was appropriately respectful. He was not showing respect. 

It's a false argument to say that he was offended by MSNBC so he was justified to defend himself with his comment. There is no place for a comment like his. Period.

This is a workplace. It's not the family room. And the relationship between people at work is as professional colleagues. Not family members. Not friends. Not buddies. We're professionals and colleagues. Further, everyone is responsible for inspiring, valuing & respecting. Depending on how high you are on the organization chart, you may have a greater burden to fulfill that.


You see, people have it backward. They think being at the top means they get to vomit all over the people below them. Nope. Being at the top means they must take extra care to protect the people below them from the vomit. They need to set the standard for collegiality. They need to demonstrate--through their actions--the values of the company.


Finally, and the thing that is probably most telling about this situation, is that the senior manager is allowed to act in this manner. His boss doesn't say anything to him about his actions. None of his peers call him out for this behavior. Even though it is undermining the culture and is making them all look bad as leaders of this supposedly inclusive organization.

Culture is the way we do things around here. So when there is someone at the top of the power structure who uses that power to demean, belittle, and bully people into submission, that's what the culture is: People at the top use their power to demean, belittle, and bully. 

Is Regular Joe Company going to be successful on its journey to implement any programs related to diversity, equity & inclusion?


What do you think???


*This is a fictitious name of a real company. As the great Bon Scott once sang, "The following is a true story. Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty."

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