How do workplace rituals affect diversity and inclusion?

How do workplace rituals affect diversity and inclusion?

By Linda Peach and Heidi Sundin

‘Culture’ is, in simple terms, ‘the way we do things around here’.  In workplaces, it means the ways that people develop and maintain relationships with their colleagues, how work is organised, who makes things happen, and how things happen.  Workplace culture includes the way that colleagues socialise, how and when meetings happen, and the rituals that go with being a part of a culture.  Rituals can include after work drinks, weekend outings, end of year functions and the ways that people are welcomed and farewelled. 

The culture in a workplace can create a strong bond between people and it can equally strongly exclude people from the workplace.  For this reason, culture is like a centrifugal force that keeps workplaces moving as a cohesive unit, and it can make or break efforts to improve diversity and inclusion, including gender equality.  When people feel excluded in a working environment, it is often because they don’t meet the cultural expectations of people in the workplace, or are unable or unwilling to take part in workplace rituals that support the culture. 

But our rituals are fun! Surely everybody should just make an effort to fit in?

Workplace rituals can be inclusive like “casual Friday” or morning teas to celebrate milestones or to welcome people to the team.  They can also be exclusive like after work drinks, golf games on the weekend, breakfast events, go-karting, car racing or paintballing.  Rituals like these automatically exclude anyone who is generally unavailable for evenings out, early morning events or weekend outings (parents and others with caring responsibilities).  They can also exclude some people with a disability and may not take into account religious or lifestyle preferences (e.g., no alcohol or objections to some types of entertainment). Below are a couple of hypothetical examples. 

Ahmed and his wife, Raziya, recently immigrated to Sydney and Ahmed quickly secured employment as a structural engineer with a large organisation.  He and Raziya have no friends or family in Sydney and have been hoping to make some social connections through Ahmed’s work.  They both love living in Sydney and are slowly getting used to the cultural differences that confront them every day.  Ahmed has been disappointed to find that most of his work is done on client sites and he rarely gets to meet and talk with the people who work in his own company.  He knows that a number of his colleagues meet up at a pub near the head office after work on Friday nights, but he is unable to go because his religious preferences preclude him from drinking alcohol and he doesn’t enjoy being around people who are drinking. He wishes they would meet somewhere else like a restaurant to have a meal and talk, but it seems the visits to the pub are very ritualised and changing them would be difficult. 

Mary has been the Head of Customer Relations at this company for 10 years.  She has two children aged 4 and 7 and her husband, Jim, has a disability which he acquired in a motorbike accident five years ago.  He is unable to drive and works from home most days.  He earns quite well but Mary’s executive salary is the mainstay of their family finances.  Mary loves her job and under her leadership her department has consistently performed beyond expectations.

Accommodating Jim’s disability required modifications to the house and to afford those in a house large enough for a family, they moved to the Blue Mountains four years ago.  Mary commutes for 90 minutes each way to go to work.  She has flexible working arrangements and also works from home one day a week.  Mary’s mornings are tightly scheduled with children needing to be dropped off at pre-school (earliest time is 7 am) and at primary school (earliest time is 8 am).  Mary catches her train at 8.30, working on the train and arriving in the office by 10 am most days. Mary and Jim employ a part-time nanny who collects the children in the afternoon, takes them home and supervises their homework and then prepares dinner for the family before leaving at 7 pm.  Mary is usually home by 8 pm.

Once a quarter, Mary’s boss – the Vice President of Business Services – takes his senior leadership team out to dinner.  He chooses an expensive restaurant and the team shares news about their departments and discusses ideas and developments.  It’s the only opportunity each leader has to showcase the good work each of their teams does and to influence the VP.  Mary is excluded from this event because her caring commitments mean that she can’t attend evening functions.  She has suggested that it be changed to a weekday lunch, but the VP does not want to take people out of the office when they should be working. 

How can workplace rituals be fun and inclusive?

Like most things that promote gender equality, diversity and inclusion, there is no simple answer to this question.  If the majority of people enjoy going for a drink at the pub and nothing in their own cultural or caring landscapes makes it difficult for them to indulge that preference, then asking them to change this ritual to accommodate a few people who do have difficulty with it is unlikely to be well-received.  What leaders can do, however, is deliberately create other opportunities to include people in informal networking events who might not be able to attend the ritualised events.  This might be a lunchtime gathering over food.  Morning teas and afternoon teas are often good opportunities for people to talk and network.  The challenge is in making them casual and informal enough to encourage conversation.

Reviewing workplace rituals is also an opportunity to look carefully at what is considered ‘fun’ in a workplace culture.  Historically, ‘fun’ at work has sometimes involved demeaning behaviour towards groups of people, particularly women, and that is a cultural norm that many organisations are trying hard to change.  

Some organisations are no longer serving alcohol at company functions to reduce the possibility that inappropriate behaviour might see them embroiled in legal action or their reputation damaged.  Other organisations have implemented a policy that all important meetings must start and finish between 10 am and 4 pm to ensure that people with caring commitments and those who work flexibly can attend. 

Workplace culture and workplace rituals can drive a healthy, inclusive and respectful culture, or they can create an environment where people can be excluded from full participation in the life of the organisation because they do not fit with cultural expectations embedded in rituals like drinks after work or meetings held after hours in nice restaurants.  Organisations can adjust their culture and rituals by adopting proactive policies and activities that are deliberately designed to be inclusive.