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Creating an Inclusive Lab Environment

Establishing a culture of inclusion is the first step to achieving a positive DEI strategy

Joanne Kamens, PhD

Dr. Joanne Kamens is the executive director of Addgene, a mission driven, non-profit dedicated to helping scientists around the world share useful research reagents and data. Dr. Kamens received her...

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Diversity, equity, and inclusion. We hear these words all the time. Sometimes we tack on belonging or equality but mostly we just say DEI. It is actually misleading to start with diversity when it comes to the workplace. Trying to diversify before working on an inclusive and equitable culture is a common mistake. This order of pursuing the desired change is likely to fail. An organization can only become more diverse by first creating a culture of inclusion and equal opportunity, which will then promote employee attraction, engagement, and retention. 

According to a recent study from MIT’s Sloan School of Management based on an analysis of more than 1.4 million Glassdoor reviews, the number one reason employees are leaving their jobs is due to a toxic environment. In fact, having a toxic corporate culture is over 10-fold more likely to lead to a resignation than salary or compensation issues. So, if an employer is spending a lot of time worrying about giving a two percent versus four percent raise, it is probably not going to help increase retention or employee engagement. 

Benefits to the business

Addressing bias to move toward a more inclusive culture is the right thing to do, but it is also good for driving organizational success. On an individual level, increased employee engagement leads directly to retention and effectiveness. Inclusive teams are more innovative, productive, 

and creative. Internal inclusion usually translates to a public-facing image that provides social benefits. Customers and partners want to work with companies that project that image and value system. The benefits of a good DEI strategy are large, so the effort must be scaled to meet that large value potential. What steps must organizations take to meet this challenge and reap the benefits?

DEI efforts should be incorporated into all facets of an organization over time, and this work will be going.

There is no quick fix. Lab managers must embrace this journey for the long haul. DEI efforts should be incorporated into all facets of an organization over time, and this work will be ongoing. A strategy for inculcating an inclusive culture should include both short-term wins as well as long-term strategic plans and goals. One common short-term approach is to start by delegating the responsibility for DEI progress to a single director of DEI, perhaps located under the human resources umbrella. However, a more effective first step would be to initiate a climate assessment and a series of discussions to identify the largest gaps, set goals for improvement, and identify the best levers to cause change. This type of work is usually done in conjunction with consultants because employees will be more open in their feedback if being surveyed by an external party. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Take advantage of seasoned DEI practitioners. 

The full leadership team, not a designated “owner”, must be responsible for setting policies, processes, and metrics that will lead to progress and they must be involved directly in implementation of a solid DEI strategy plan. DEI strategy and implementation must begin with the leadership team, but engagement at all levels is the only way to bring about a lasting change in culture. Dialog and learning along the way is a good tactic for bringing along the entire company. 

The lab manager’s role in creating an inclusive culture

When employees are experiencing a toxic company culture, their main point of contact, their manager, is likely to be an integral part of creating this experience. Imagine an employee that sees another experiencing an excellent, inclusive manager while they languish with a manager that is not on board. It won’t take long for them to decide to move on. DEI goals, intentions, and philosophies of the leadership team will never permeate an organization unless all managers are clear on expectations, trained in execution, and have the capabilities to implement the goals

When employees are experiencing a toxic company culture, their main point of contact, their manager, is likely to be an integral part of creating this experience.

One excellent first step leaders can take is to define and clearly articulate a management philosophy and resulting expectations, especially around inclusion. Managers are the conduit of communication in an organization. The desires, attitudes, and philosophies of a company’s leaders will never permeate an organization unless all the managers are brought on board to similar ways of thinking.  What is your management philosophy? What do you want your managers to know to create and sustain your cultural vision? In working together with leadership and manager teams, I’ve usually found them to be surprised as they uncover the management practices they want to permeate their organizations. Here are a few examples of questions to help develop an organization’s inclusive management philosophy: 

  • What are the top three priorities for your managers to consider when making decisions about their people?
  • What are your expectations for communication between managers and their reports?
    • Frequency of one-on-one meetings
    • Will there be a framework and training provided for these discussions? 
    • How should employee issues or problems be captured and reported in a timely fashion?
  • How much time and effort should managers invest with their teams in learning about and addressing diversity, inclusion, and belonging in your organization?
    • Should they attend DEI events or programs? Internally, externally? How often?
    • Is there required bias training specifically to address bias in hiring and promotion?
    • Where can they go if they have reports with diversity characteristics on which they need more information?
  • Do you want managers to monitor and advocate for pay, promotion, and opportunity equity in their teams? 
  • What part should managers play in forecasting departures? Do you want to know about departures openly and early so replacements can overlap with those leaving?

Articulating the philosophy, while important, is not enough to ensure it has an effect on inclusive management in an organization or team. Managers must have ongoing training, engagement, and accountability to create and sustain the cultural vision. Management excellence through training and ongoing communication is a crucial part of a successful approach to the inclusive culture. 

The pandemic accelerated a major shift in employee expectations for cultural inclusion. This shift was already gaining force as a result of the #MeToo movement bringing visibility to sexual harassment, and then further spurred by the #BlackLivesMatter movement bringing racial inequity to the fore as a result of the murder of George Floyd. Organizational leaders are well aware that the pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented turning point for workplace culture and practice. Investment in creating and maintaining radical inclusion in their workplaces is of paramount importance and will have benefits that are far reaching for every organization.