When I think about the words “inclusion” and “tolerance,” I envision two words that are polar opposites of each other. In today’s workforce, diversity and inclusion mean seeking, accepting and wanting people from different walks of life. Tolerance does not denote acceptance. It’s a hostile attitude of being faced with something you must accept but in your heart-of-heart, you really don’t.

How do you address this issue? A first step is to ponder whether you or your company has an issue with accepting people who are different from you.

Looking Inward at Prejudice

Studies show people are programmed to compartmentalize and categorize other people. It’s easy to put people into a bucket than to discover their real characteristics. Feelings of low self-esteem often fuel this thinking and allow it to continue in the normal course of living. But like many things in life, taking the lazy approach produces inferior results personally and professionally, and when adding prejudice to the mix it becomes a morally reprehensible viewpoint.

Denying the humanity of those different from ourselves is a form of prejudice. Unfortunately, this is a common phenomenon in society and without doubt, an all-too-common workplace occurrence that can lead to outright discrimination. When prejudice and bias (another baseless reaction and belief) exist in the workplace, imaginary walls are put up, with certain segments of the population placed inside. These walls block access to the employer’s mainstream activities and benefits,, leaving some people excluded with with limited ability to advance fairly. In essence, they are isolated or at best tolerated.

It Starts at the Top

When business leadership does not openly and actively support a diverse workforce, employees take it as a cue on the company culture. Often a reluctance about inclusion is subtle, but when you look around at your co-workers and see only those similar to yourself, it’s an indication that management is not actively promoting — and perhaps not that interested in — diversity and inclusion.

Also, look at the leadership in your organization. Do you see only the same gender and race in those positions? Organizations that place people in positions of power under the guise of “This is a male-dominated industry” are perpetuating prejudice and ignoring the possibilities of learning from others’ experiences.

Subtle Signs

One of the most common ways that organizations stay homogenous is by hiring only those who fit the image of what is “just like us.” Hiring practices such as using focused venues to advertise job openings to avoid attracting “unwanted” segments of the population is most certainly a sign of conscious bias. Any action, though subtle, to avoid particular people within the population will not serve the organization well in the long run.

In addition, questionable raises and promotions are another subtle sign that not all employees are treated fairly and without bias. Although some employees may have champions fighting for them, there is cause to believe some segments of employee populations are not getting their fair share.

How can these overlooked people prove they were intentionally left out of the conversation? Often they can’t. This situation runs counter to the very ideals of equality that America was built on. It’s something we should never lose sight of, as so eloquently stated in the Declaration of Independence, “… all [men] are created equal…”

Generational Views

Younger workers’ ideas about diversity and inclusion extend beyond the common observations of age, gender, ethnicity, etc., to also encompass an ideal: that everyone, regardless of their differences, will be treated fairly and equally. For Millennials this means they want to be heard, supported and engaged by leadership, regardless of the traditional management of employees.

Older generations may still default to the anecdotal observations, but as they retire and as Millennials and Generation Z take over, it’s expected that diversity and inclusion will go beyond the legal definition and encompass a greater meaning with deeper engagement.

Inclusion Is Good for Your Bottom Line

Still not convinced that diversity is a fight worth fighting? It turns out, prejudice is bad for business.

A McKinsey study indicates that brands in the top rankings for racial and ethnic diversity are about 35 percent more likely to produce an ROI above other brands within their industry. Additionally, corroborating research indicates that diverse companies have 2.3 times higher cash flow per employee compared with non-diverse companies.

When companies become more global, they access more segments of the population, allowing them to expand their clientele. Interacting with new people means reaching a new customer base, with the potential to increase sales.

There are myriad reasons why inclusion will always win out in society, life and in the workplace. It’s up to brands to take an honest look at their employee population with a discerning eye and ask “Who’s missing?” Think about your business to date and what your future plans are for expansion. You may find opportunities you couldn’t imagine before, and in doing so elevate your product and employer reputation.

Research has shown that one of the best ways to gain employees is to first have them as customers. In fact, one of my partners was a former client, so I can attest to the value of good customer interactions. When people like a product and the company that produces it, they’re more likely to be an engaged and satisfied customer — and happy customers are very good for your bottom line for many reasons, such as becoming brand ambassadors for your organization and secondly, they can develop an interest in being an employee. If your business plans include expanding into new markets, having employees who are representative of them is a great idea. They can help bridge gaps in customer relations and keep potential customers engaged. As people go, shared narratives are impactful.

Previously posted on TalentCulture 11/20/2018.