Diversity and inclusion in the workplace have become growing focus areas for business leaders across industries. While Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) goals are gaining traction, a range of employee behaviours can cause workplace exclusion which may undermine companies’ DEI efforts. What is workplace exclusion, and how can we identify and address it?

The following article explains workplace exclusion and offers steps to address it before it happens.

Understanding exclusion and inclusion in the workplace

At Indeed, we define inclusion as the “actions and behaviours that create a culture in which employees feel valued, trusted and safe to be authentic”. In contrast, workplace exclusion can be viewed as actions and behaviours that make employees feel disrespected, overlooked, unvalued, or not wanted as part of their immediate team or wider organization.

Racism, discrimination, ostracization, and bullying are obvious exclusionary behaviours; however, the behaviours that lead to an individual feeling excluded can be more insidious.

Common exclusionary behaviours include:

  • Micro-aggressions such as tokenism, bias, and stereotyping
  • Not sharing information, resources, or opportunities with certain co-workers
  • "Forgetting" to include individuals in meeting invitations or email chains
  • Consistently overlooking or dismissing an individual’s ideas or suggestions
  • Social exclusion

Individual exclusionary incidents may seem minor, but when viewed as a whole, they can create a workplace that leaves valuable employees feeling as if they're not wanted or don't belong. Exclusionary incidents also disproportionately affect diverse employee groups and may work in direct opposition to the organization’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

How does workplace exclusion affect employees?

Workplace inclusion and exclusion can considerably impact multiple key performance indicators, notably collaboration and productivity. A recent study showed that employees who felt ostracized in the workplace demonstrated increased territorial behaviour, such as protecting ideas or limiting others’ access to work resources. Individuals express feelings of stress, depression, and self-esteem loss stemming from their workplace treatment.

Exclusion is the spark that begins a vicious cycle. The more an individual feels excluded, the more they are likely to act in territorial, anti-collaborative ways — which, in turn, further exacerbates stress, loneliness, and ostracism. 

Employees’ feelings of exclusion or lack of belonging significantly affect talent retention too. In Indeed and Glassdoor’s Hiring and Workplace Trends Report 2023, more than 1 in 10 job seekers indicated they were searching for a new job to find “more belonging [in the] workplace”. Companies have much to gain with a diverse workplace. Studies have shown that a diverse, inclusive environment can boost everything from innovation and collaboration to the company’s bottom line.

So how do we get there?

Addressing exclusion in the workplace

Even a diverse, inclusive working environment can have incidents of workplace exclusion. What’s important is how the organization responds.

A critical first step is to maintain a firm position against discrimination and bullying in the workplace. Workplace bullies often try to hide their actions from management and other leaders, so ensure your employees know that you take reports of exclusionary behaviour seriously.

In onboarding and at regular intervals, explain how the reporting process works and what steps you or your managers take to address reported incidents.

When considering whether exclusion is a challenge in your workplace:

  • Watch for a disconnect between DEI policy and lived workplace experiences. At many organizations’ level of DEI maturity, it’s not uncommon for there to be disconnects between formal company messaging and employees’ day-to-day experiences. Keep a pulse on how employees feel through formal feedback and informal conversations, as well as your observations.
  • Acknowledge and validate employees’ experiences with exclusion. When an incident occurs, managers often attempt to reiterate that exclusionary behaviour does not align with the company’s values; however, ensuring such statements don’t undermine the employee’s experience is crucial. Remember to recognize and affirm the painful nature of what the employee experienced before discussing remediation.
  • Re-assess how you build team culture. Team-building exercises can be great for morale — when employees don't feel left out. After-work events may leave working parents struggling to balance work and family expectations, while physically demanding events, such as a ropes course, could pose difficulties to those with mobility issues. Consider whether your chosen activities exclude some employees, and reach out for feedback on the type of activities your team finds welcoming, valuable, and rewarding.
  • Provide alternative ways to engage and interact. The choice not to participate is not the same as exclusion. An inclusive environment respects employees’ varied methods of doing their best work, meaning employees must be free to opt out or choose other engagement methods. For example, some neurodivergent employees may prefer to engage through text rather than in person or on video calls. Some introverted employees may dread large group meetings but come to life in smaller groups or one-on-one sessions. Acknowledge that these choices are valid, and ensure individuals can access the tools and communication systems they need to engage best and interact with their team.

Creating diversity and inclusion in the workplace also requires addressing the exclusion and related behaviours that can negatively affect office culture. While this can be challenging, the rewards are well worth the effort. By fostering an environment where all employees feel recognized, valued, and included, companies can make great strides toward their DEI goals and boost retention, productivity, and profitability.