Breaking Barriers & Building Bridges: 7 Steps to Building a More Inclusive Workplace

Breaking Barriers & Building Bridges: 7 Steps to Building a More Inclusive Workplace

Can you believe it was four years ago now that diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) was added as the eighth cooperative credit union principle? I don’t know about you, but it seems like it’s been longer than that, as our movement has always valued the unique differences and qualities of people in our communities. We are in the people business, after all!

And that’s not just true of our membership and our communities…it’s also true of our workplaces. As we continue to embrace DEI in new ways throughout our credit unions, we must attempt to break barriers of traditional mindsets and behaviors and, instead, build bridges for greater inclusivity. In doing so, we need to ask ourselves, what steps can we take to perceive and acknowledge the identities and beliefs of our colleagues through a DEI lens? The outcome of these simple actions will help us create workplaces that are welcoming to everyone.

Step 1: Address Unconscious Bias

Think back to psychology class for a moment. We’re all familiar with the conscious and subconscious mind, right? These are the two types of “thinking modes” we as people generally operate within.

However, even further underneath the conscious and the subconscious lives the unconscious. It might not seem apparent, but our unconscious mind is a critical aspect of DEI because it’s where our brains store information that we aren’t even aware of, and it’s where unconscious bias can dwell. Unconscious bias refers to biases (made up of beliefs, attitudes or behaviors) that we have no conscious control over. They tend to occur automatically and can be triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations. Without even realizing it, our unconscious bias can influence our own behavior toward others.

Unconscious bias can have a negative impact in the workplace. It can infiltrate recruitment practices, hiring decisions, job assignments, training opportunities, promotion choices and performance reviews. By being aware, though, credit unions can implement a variety of practices and policies to minimize unconscious bias. One way might be through training, where you can conduct sessions with your employees, and especially hiring managers, on these various biases so they have a deeper understanding of what they are and the impact they have. Another is showing your commitment to a diverse and inclusive culture. This commitment should be frequently communicated to your team from the C-suite down. Addressing unconscious bias is just one aspect of advancing DEI, but an overall strategy to build a more diverse and inclusive culture proves this is a permanent part of your credit union’s identity.

Step 2: Combat Microaggressions

You may have heard of microaggressions before. They are subtle interactions, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups. Often times, the person making the microaggression is not aware that their insensitive statements, questions or assumptions are insulting and hurtful to others. Just like unconscious bias, microaggressions are targeted at various aspects of who we are, like race, gender, sexuality or any other aspect of a person’s identity.

So, how can we combat microaggressions in our credit unions and create more inclusive, welcoming and hospitable workplaces? Consider implementing any (or all) of the following ideas within your workplace:

  • Raise awareness. Share what they are and set the expectation that they do not have a place at your credit union.
  • Be open. Welcome candid, authentic conversations where people can talk about tough subjects.
  • Say something. Always consider the environment and how saying something will make everyone feel. Sometimes, it’s best to say something in the moment that the microaggression happens. Other times, it’s better to wait and have a conversation privately about it.
  • Remember the difference between intent and impact. While the speaker may not have intended their comment to be offensive, we must acknowledge the impact of our statements. Intent does not supersede or excuse actual impact.
  • Reflect. If you make a microaggression, pause a moment for self-reflection and ask for clarification. This will help you understand your colleague’s point of view and repair relationships.

Step 3: Promote Equity

We all know that our workforce is made up of diverse individuals – some may have different ethnic backgrounds, speak different languages, participate in different religions and make up different generations. Acknowledging those differences is important to an inclusive workplace, but they must also be met with a sense of equity.

Equity in the workplace is the idea that all employees are provided with fair and equal opportunities based on their individual needs. Equity recognizes that not all employees are afforded the same opportunities and addresses the imbalance of opportunities available to them. Some workers may not have the traditional four-year college degree or a conventional career background. But with equity in the workplace, employee retention and engagement can grow. Equity in the workplace might look something like this:

  • Create accommodations. This is important for health conditions and disabilities, including those that are invisible. This can include other learning tools and platforms for individuals or providing distraction-free workplaces for neurodivergent employees.
  • Review policies. Look at policies to determine if changes can be made that support equity. For example, consider offering paid parental leave to all parents of new children.
  • Close racial and gender gaps. Look at standardizing all of your positions, promotions and pay scales to remove any biases that translate into gaps in salary and advancement opportunities.
  • Strive for representation. Prioritize equitable representation among the workforce, both in hiring and promoting individuals to leadership positions.
  • Be proactive. Update hiring practices and new employee onboarding to be more inclusive and minimize bias.

Step 4: Transform Hiring & Promotion Practices

When it comes to hiring, seeking diversity doesn’t have to mean an overhaul of practices you already have in place. The key is simply widening the net where you’re looking for applications to find individuals that are qualified for roles AND bring diverse perspectives and experiences to the credit union. Utilizing things like talent assessments and candidate scorecards to standardize your hiring process, as well as different interview techniques and formats which can help reduce bias, and setting diversity hiring standards will go a long way. In addition, you can increase your candidate pool by posting open positions on a wide variety of employment platforms, consider hiring for remote positions, remove names and genders from applications for initial review and include multiple people in an interview.

Beyond your hiring processes, think about how you’re promoting people into leadership positions that foster inclusion and make our employees feel like they belong. Research by the Harvard Business Review has found that inclusive leaders share six signature traits: visible commitment to their team and DEI practices, humility, awareness of bias, an open mindset and curiosity about others, cultural intelligence and effective collaboration that takes into account diversity of thinking and psychological safety.

Step 5: Commit to Using Inclusive Language

It might not seem like a huge deal, but the language we use in our workplaces can have a profound impact on the culture. Language has the ability to build relationships and create connections with others, but it can also create barriers and impact someone’s sense of belonging. Inclusive language encompasses words and phrases we use that avoid biases, slang and expressions that discriminate against groups of people based on certain characteristics. By incorporating more of this inclusive language in everyday work life, it lets all employees know they are respected and welcome. Here are some suggestions to help bring inclusive language to your credit union:

  • Be simple – utilize plain language. Rather than writing in expressions or jargon, make your thoughts easy to everyone understand by using plain language.
  • Use non-gendered language. By using non-gendered words in your language, you can eliminate the unintentional support of stereotypes. This also relates to gendered terms that add nouns to the end of them, like salesman. A more inclusive term might be “salesperson” or “sales rep.”
  • Share pronouns. By sharing personal pronouns, you are creating a space that allows the other person to share theirs and feel comfortable doing so.

Step 6: Create Safe Spaces

Everybody needs a “safe space,” right? These are areas where you can have deep conversations and encourage learning around DEI- related topics in your credit union.

Think about all of the channels you have at your disposal to really engage your employees and create safe spaces. Are there community boards or chat platforms within your employee intranet to share information and encourage conversation? Do you have a learning management system for educational resources? What updates can you make to your website that show your commitment to DEI? Frequently sharing content and educational resources across all of these platforms lets everyone know the credit union is a safe and open space where everyone is heard, respected and valued.

There are also a number of ways to invite employees into spaces where they can have open conversations and hear the stories and perspectives of their colleagues. Some examples are creating a DEI council of employees or members, forming employee resource groups (ERGs) focused on specific identity groups or hosting informal DEI club meetings/lunch and learn sessions/staff training.

Step 7: Get Feedback & Measure Impact

Now that you’ve seen all the ways to incorporate DEI into your workplace, it’s time to talk about feedback and impact. It’s important that we solicit input and feedback from employees as we advance DEI at our credit unions. Here are some good ways to gather information:

  • Anonymous surveys. People tend to give the most honest feedback when they have the option to remain anonymous. In these surveys, ask questions that get at the heart of how people feel about their sense of belonging.
  • Focus groups. Focus groups can be a great way to get people from the same identity groups to express their shared experiences and identify areas that could be improved with more equitable policies or practices.
  • One-on-one chats. Build trust quickly in one-on-one conversations where individuals may be more open to share personal experiences or stories. Maybe even advertise DEI office hours where employees can have conversations with the person leading DEI at your credit union to address their questions, ideas or concerns.

Then, look at the results and ask yourself these questions: Who is speaking up? Who is showing up? What are people saying? What are leaders saying? How are our efforts working? Also track DEI metrics such as demographics of your talent pipeline, new hires, all employees, promotion rates and retention trends, as well as diversity through language changes, DEI training/program participation and pay equity.

Once you’ve collected your feedback and analyzed the data, it’s time to do something with that input. Use what you’ve heard from employees and colleagues to create further educational opportunities and discussions or address inequities in policies and procedures.

Ultimately, you want to strive for an environment where people can share their ideas freely, learn new things, feel they are able to be themselves and have a solid sense of belonging at your credit union. By following these steps – and putting your credit union’s unique spin on them – you can break barriers and build bridges for a more inclusive, DEI-friendly workplace!

Erin Doan is the diversity, equity and inclusion director for Vizo Financial. She is responsible for developing and implementing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and community involvement strategies and programs that foster an environment of inclusivity and collaboration amongst staff, business partners and natural person credit unions. Erin has held various roles with the Corpoate since 2002 and is a Credit Union Development Educator (CUDE).