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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Five ways to create a workplace ‘infusion of inclusion’

IbyIMD+ Published 20 July 2023 in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion • 4 min read • Audio availableAudio available

Shelley Zalis, founder and CEO of The Female Quotient, offers advice on how leaders can show that they are serious about building more inclusive work environments.

In 2023, inclusion shouldn’t just be a buzzword or a fleeting trend. It has to be a necessity. Here’s the reality: the rules of the workplace were written by men, for men, over 100 years ago. Rather than continue to conform to an outdated status quo, we must urgently rewrite the rules. Companies need to evolve to make sure that we attract and retain our best talent.

Consider these stats. When employees believe that inclusion is a priority, the number of all employees who are happy increases by 31% and the number of both women and men who feel motivated increases by nearly 25%. When we infuse inclusion into our workplaces, everyone wins. Employees don’t just want to hear about inclusion. They want to experience it. Here are five steps that leaders can take to boost inclusion.

1. Create a culture of belonging

When I hire, I never look at a resume. It’s not about experience, education, or connections. Truly inclusive leaders break down barriers and level the playing field for all candidates to shine. I always say hire for passion and train for skill (unless you want to be a doctor, lawyer, or an accountant). I look for people who love what they do, see what’s possible, and have the tenacity to learn and keep growing. This is how you build collaborative teams and create a culture of belonging where everyone feels welcome to bring their whole selves to work. Verna Myers, the diversity consultant, put it well when she said: “Diversity is being asked to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”

2. ‘Soft’ skills are the new essential skills

The role of leadership is evolving. What was once about objective strategic planning and organizational operations has transformed into a more subjective role – one that requires greater humanity and emotional intelligence. Traditionally feminine leadership qualities – empathy, vulnerability, gratitude – are more important now than ever. Leaders need to be able to connect with their team members on a human level in order to build trust and create a supportive environment where everyone can thrive. Let’s shift the paradigm. These aren’t “soft” skills – they’re essential skills. If we want to create warm, welcoming workplaces, we should be prioritizing these skills by making them requirements and including them as part of profiles, job descriptions, and evaluations.

3. Embrace proximity-ship

It’s time we moved beyond the sponsorship model, which is filled with affinity bias barriers, as managers tend to advocate for and support individuals who look like them, sound like them, etc. Instead, we should evolve to what I like to call “proximity-ship”, where an organization focuses on “inreach” versus outreach. One thing we can all do as leaders is designate open blocks on our calendars for all team members to sign up for valuable one-on-one time. Or, better yet, let’s flip the funnel and empower our employees to decide who they want to see them – instead of the other way around. When it comes to success in the workplace, visibility is key. Let’s take the bias out of the equation and pull inclusion into employees’ hands.

Shelly Zalis
“Rather than focusing on our return on investment, let’s focus on a return on inclusion.”
Shelley Zalis, Founder and CEO of The Female Quotient  

4. Invest in people

Leadership is not about being in charge. It’s about taking care of those in your charge. Investing in people is the foundation for great transformation. People are our most valuable assets, yet we often don’t value them until they’re gone. Instead of holding exit interviews, which are purely reactionary, we should conduct “stay interviews” or “purpose interviews” as a proactive way to understand what our employees need. It’s important that employees feel as though someone inside the organization cares about them, routinely engages with them, and has their back. Direct managers are uniquely positioned to fulfill this role – but we must equip them with the proper training, strategies, and tools to keep their best talent engaged. People can and will leave when they feel excluded.

5. Measure what matters

Starting with the board of directors through to the C-suite and senior leadership, inclusion must be a key strategic pillar with specific investment and accountability attached. What this means is that leaders need to publicly share inclusion aspirations and associate robust metrics to track progress and organization-wide accountability for continuous improvement. We need to put inclusion expectations in our RFPs. And we need to develop equality KPIs for business performance. The board should also hold leadership accountable by tying compensation to inclusion outcomes. Rather than focusing on our return on investment, let’s focus on a return on inclusion.

As leaders, inclusion starts with each of us. It’s time to move from good intentions to intentional actions. That means boldly rewriting the rules of the workplace to create an infusion of inclusion.


Shelly Zalis

Shelley Zalis

Founder and CEO of The Female Quotient

A trailblazer for women in the workplace, Shelley Zalis is an internationally renowned entrepreneur, a pioneer for online research, a sought-after speaker, a well-known thought leader, and a devoted mentor. As founder and CEO of The Female Quotient, Zalis is in the business of equality™. Together with a growing global community of more than a million conscious leaders, she is on a mission to change the equation and close the gender gap. 


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