In a recent interview with McKinsey’s Author Talks, leadership coach Sally Helgeson took on the topic of inclusion, particularly inclusive communication and gaining an accurate assessment of a workplace’s culture. In her most recent book, Rising Together: How We Can Bridge Divides and Create a More Inclusive Workplace, Helgesen expands on her long-standing call for workplace inclusion by sharing behavioral and communication tools to effectively connect across cultural barriers.

The Important Link Between Diversity and Inclusion

Helgesen believes that diversity is not a problem, but a given, and that diversity and inclusion, while often linked, are very different. Diversity describes the composition of the workforce – how many of this group, how many of that, how many of another. Inclusion is, Helgesen believes, “the only effective means of leading and managing diverse organizations.” If the goal of leadership is to lead a whole, aligned organization, then leaders run the risk of further alienating those who already do not feel included.

It is rare to find people in modern organizations who are overtly and consciously biased. Because privilege and bias are invisible to those who have them (to paraphrase Michael Kimmel), the vast majority of organizational leaders see themselves as inclusive and unbiased, and many wonder why people from historically marginalized groups don’t see them that way. As Helgesen says, people don’t react to others based on the thoughts in their heads, they react to perceived behaviors, how they feel treated, what others say, and what they do. For example, she says:

One of the ways that I assess whether an organization has an inclusive culture is one of the simplest possible methods: Does the largest possible percentage of people speak of the organization in terms of “we” or “they”? If it’s we, it’s probably inclusive, and if it’s they, which it often is, then despite all the mission statements extolling diversity and inclusive culture—it’s not an inclusive culture.

While that may sound simple, it is very often the case that those who are traditionally included see the organization as “we” and those who are traditionally marginalized or excluded see it as “they.”

While “triggers” have been criticized and satirized, Helgesen asserts that instances of exclusion or marginalization exist and cause reactions, which will persist if they are not addressed.

A big one is visibility. If we struggle with making ourselves visible, we can feel triggered by people who are skilled at it. We can draw back from them and make judgments about them. I hear this all the time. People say to me, “How can I gain recognition for my achievements without acting like that jerk down the hall?” Well, that “jerk down the hall,” in your phrasing, may have something to teach you, and you may want to adapt it.

Another instance, particularly in light of increasing diversity in the workplace, is proper pronunciation of names. Helgesen notes that one of the most common observations of younger people doing exit interviews was, “My boss never even learned how to say my name.” At the extreme, leaders and managers may give people with names that are hard for them to pronounce nicknames, without first asking the person to teach them how to pronounce their name or asking them if they have, or would mind, a nickname.


Helgesen’s points here are very well taken. Companies must shift from diversity to inclusion in their recruiting, hiring, and retention and make their commitment to inclusion in action, not just in words clear to candidates and employees alike. Given the complexity of this change, firms will need to recruit, interview, and screen in a whole new way. A relationship with a recruiting firm that understands and stands for the demands of this new world is likely to produce the best results. An effective recruiting partner will partner with the company to identify the right combination of skill and experience to find the top candidates and to convey to them what the hiring company stands for.


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