Envisioning "inclusive organizations"

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

ISSN: 2040-7149

Article publication date: 11 March 2014



Podsiadlowski, J.H.a.A. (2014), "Envisioning "inclusive organizations"", Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 33 No. 3. https://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-01-2014-0008



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Envisioning "inclusive organizations"

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, Volume 33, Issue 3.

The idea for this special issue was born at the EDI conference 2010 in Vienna. As organizers of a conference stream on “The Making of Inclusion,” it was our intention to shift the argument away from exclusionary practice and rather focus on the conditions for change. This special issue on “Envisioning inclusive organizations” both owes to the fruitful debates at that conference and takes a step further regarding theory-building and research on inclusive organizations. The call for “envisioning” inclusive organizations at first may seem a step backwards to reflecting about the meaning of “inclusive organization.” While this is true in a way, the need for more conceptual work on the desirable goals of diversity management has been made apparent by ongoing academic debates. Equally, it becomes evident from the challenges faced by diversity management. Departing from Taylor Cox’ (1993) work on “Cultural diversity in organizations,” development toward inclusion has been pushed with considerable success in the past, and researchers have been investigating factors and processes that facilitate a shift toward more inclusive multicultural workplaces (Mor Barak, 2011).

Notwithstanding this progress, the goal of inclusion has remained a moving target. One reason for this is the interrelatedness of diversity and inclusion. The “inclusiveness” of organizations can only be measured with respect to specific diversity issues in a certain organization, concerning certain groups of people at a certain time and place. Hence, taking into account the contextually changing relevance of diversity dimensions, the concept of “inclusive organization” remains open. Moreover, the meaning of “inclusive organization” depends on the underlying theoretical concept of inclusion, whether inclusion is employed as an analytic term (see Laura Dobusch's distinction of “inclusion/exclusion as relation”); or whether the researcher opts for a normative concept within diversity management studies, where “the term ‘inclusion’ adds a purposive and strategic dimension to the investigation of interventions to relations of power at work” (Özbilgin, 2009, p. 2). Susan Woods (2002) states that “Inclusion describes the way an organization configures opportunity, interaction, communication and decision-making to utilize the potential of its diversity” (p. 38). Inclusion, therefore, is regarded as a means to an end. It captures the way an organization deals with diversity issues, if and to which extent it acknowledges and recognizes group identities; or, in terms of power structures, whether it enforces or levels differences among members of diverse groups. Furthermore, Woods (2002) suggests a number of “attributes” which also help to “envision” inclusive workplaces: e.g., demonstrated commitment to diversity, holistic view of employees, access to opportunity, participation and recognition (p. 39).

Other authors understand diversity as a more descriptive construct of heterogeneous environments, e.g., in the form of demographic work compositions, that – if managed accordingly – lead to more inclusive organizations (Podsiadlowski et al., 2012; Roberson, 2006). Diversity then refers to an organization's workforce that is representative of the differences in the wider community; and inclusion involves the appreciation, acknowledgement and utilization of these visible or non-visible individual and group differences within and for the organization (as also outlined in the paper by Preeya Daya). Building upon work by Roosevelt (1995); Dass and Parker (1999) and Ely and Thomas (2001), Podsiadlowski et al. (2012) identify five diversity perspectives as potential approaches toward managing (or not managing) diversity: Reinforcing Homogeneity, Color-Blind, Fairness, Access and Integration and Learning. These five perspectives provide a number of conditions that – to differing degrees – may facilitate or inhibit inclusion as a process and strategic goal. The Integration and Learning perspective should be the one most likely to facilitate the process of inclusion and development of inclusive organizations. Here, diversity is supposed to create an overall learning environment where everybody can benefit from a diverse workforce, also within the organization. This fifth perspective is considered the most strategic, where change happens through mutual adaptation of minority and majority groups alike. By contrast, organizations which represent the Fairness perspective aim at ensuring equal and fair treatment by addressing the need for specific support of minority groups whose inclusion may be perceived differently by members of the organization, depending on which group they identify with. While both Integration and Learning and Fairness address issues of exclusion and discrimination, the Access perspective considers diversity more as a business case, gaining access to diverse customers and international markets and reflecting the demographics of the external environment of a given organization. The Integration and Learning perspective, on the other hand, moves beyond business-related demographic reasons and appreciation.

It has been noted, however, that a consensus on the nature of the construct of inclusion or its theoretical underpinnings has not been achieved yet (Shore et al., 2011). Further research shows that inclusion is a “relational construction rather than an essential conception of social reality” (Özbilgin, 2009, p. 5). Hence, inclusion refers to process, context, history, individual views and perspectives and strategic goals:

  • Dynamics: inclusion is “a process of becoming rather than a state of being; it is dynamically forming rather than fixed in time and place” (Özbilgin, 2009, p. 5); striving for inclusion, organizations face unintended effects and failure (as shown by Dorte Boesby Dahl, Renate Ortlieb and Barbara Sieben); initial goals need to be modified, adaptation to new goals becomes necessary, the process of inclusion means ever new beginnings; in empirical reality, goals of inclusion require constant renegotiation, an Access perspective may be turned into an Integration and Learning perspective, yet the reverse can be the case as well, where companies refrain from more advanced goals (Dorte Boesby Dahl's research gives a hint to this).

  • Unclear transition toward inclusion: inclusion serves as strategic goal for change management, but only provides a general direction with unclear consequences (as studied empirically by Kenna Cottrill, Patricia Lopez and Calvin Hoffman or demonstrated in the practical example of an international organization by Patricia Harris); approaches offering an operationalization of “inclusion” (e.g. Cox, 1993) suggest that a path to change exists, supposing transition from exclusion to inclusion can be achieved (like transition from a “monolithic” to a “pluralist organization”), for example, by identifying mechanisms of exclusion and practices of inclusion and their interrelatedness (see the example given by Karen Geiger and Cheryl Jordan on the experience of race privilege in cross-race relationships). However, the relationship between exclusion and inclusion is not straightforward and goes beyond a uni-directional, bi-polar dimension.

  • Multi-faceted and multi-level concept: organizations may strive to enhance “features of inclusiveness” (Woods, 2002) on different – individual, group and organization – levels and their interpersonal and relational inter-linkages (as in Preeya Daya's derived model) via: individual perceptions, feelings and meanings of inclusion (as in the study by Kenna Cottrill, Patrica Lopez and Calvin Hoffman), group categorizations and identities (as in cross-race relations outlined by Karen Geiger and Cheryl Jordan), and organizational strategies and approaches toward diversity and inclusion. While succeeding on one level, they may disregard or fail with regard to other features, or cause unintended effects (as shown by Renate Ortlieb and Barbara Sieben).

  • Individual meaning: since the work of Taylor Cox, we have gained a clearer understanding of how people perceive inclusion and what meaning they attach to feeling included, as well as how much they feel part of the critical organizational processes and perceive their own ability to participate in and influence decision-making processes (Mor Barak, 2011). Questions like “When do people feel to be part of something? When do they feel included so that we can talk about inclusive identities? What does this mean for them?” still remain open (see Janssen and Zanoni, 2008 in Laura Dobusch and the study presented by Kenna Cottrill, Patricia Lopez and Calvin Hoffman).

  • Complexity: the notion of “inclusive organization” is also shaped by heterogeneous environments; the specific historical, cultural, political, legal and economic context needs to be taken into account in order to understand the dynamics and individual meanings of inclusion (see contributions in this special issue from Denmark, the USA, South Africa, Germany and the range of industries covered, whose specific contexts need to be taken into account when trying to understand their perspectives). Cultural, institutional and situational contexts matter in defining an inclusive multicultural workplace as a goal for change. Contexts frame the meaning and relevance of differences and diversity dimensions.

  • Ambivalence: the term “Inclusive organization” carries a certain degree of ambivalence, as argued by sociologists of work; inclusion means submission to rules and hegemonic identity concepts (see the notion of “making up” in Dorte Boesby Dahl's paper); asking critical questions is important: Is an inclusive organization necessarily a good thing? What are the pitfalls of inclusive strategies? Where do they lead? (see Laura Dobusch's elaboration on inclusion and power).

  • Reflexivity: inclusion as a relational construction accounts for the fact that expectations toward inclusiveness rise; reflection about inclusion serves as a kind of driving force, this may also encourage ever more distinctions of dimensions and levels of inclusion; increasing awareness and reflexivity regarding inclusion means continuously facing new challenges in managing diversity and “changing moralities” (Özbilgin, 2009, p. 2).


With this special issue on “Envisioning inclusive organizations” we aim to contribute to further elaborating the notion of an “inclusive organization” as a means to understanding the conditions and goals of managing diversity and inclusion. The issue encompasses contributions from scholars in the field of work and organizations, informed by sociological, psychological and management perspectives. The papers show a considerable degree of diversity in terms of conceptual and empirical approaches. Diversity here also applies to the context of research, as well as to the cultural and institutional backgrounds of the authors.

Laura Dobusch's theoretical paper portrays four distinct scientific discourses on inclusion and exclusion and argues for the respective role of the organization toward inclusion. While the “social order” type of discourse holds that organizations produce exclusion and inequality more or less by default, the discourse on “social exclusion” implies measures of inclusion in order to end or diminish exclusion that is practiced by organizations. The third type of discourse challenges the idea of inclusion as a remedy against exclusion. Inclusion and exclusion seem interrelated, producing an “including exclusion” in empirical reality, thus operating as two sides of the same coin. Against the background of these discourses on inclusion and organizations, the author elaborates on the notion of “inclusive organization,” highlighting the challenges inherent to managing diversity on these terms. Among other arguments, the author makes a case for not neglecting exclusion as an unintended by-product of measures of inclusion in organizations.

Renate Ortlieb and Barbara Sieben present a theoretical and empirical analysis of how organizations become inclusive and on the ways ambivalence is associated with respective organizational practices. Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory provides the conceptual framework for explaining the potentials and pitfalls of practices of inclusion. The empirical study refers to the situation of migrant employees in the German subsidiary of an US-headed online trading corporation. It is based on a mixed-method approach, including an analysis of PR-material, a questionnaire and in-depth interviews with management and staff members. In the organization, migrants are estimated to amount to 50 per cent of the total workforce. The measuring of inclusion covers three areas: preferential recruitment of migrants, provision of training as an opportunity to augment job-related resources of migrants, and opportunities for informal gatherings and communication among all staff members, e.g., during meals and at parties. Despite self-presentation as an employer of people from over 40 countries, the company shows a considerable degree of differentiation and hierarchization among employees, with native-born Germans and some American and British employees at the top, which may also be a side effect of following an Access perspective. In their case study, Renate Ortlieb and Barbara Sieben highlight the dynamics, contradictions and tensions within “the making of inclusion”.

Dorte Boesby Dahl's research equally draws on contradictions and tensions of attempts to introduce inclusion, referring to the context of Danish public policies and inclusive practices in parking patrol work. The empirical study covers a period of several years, starting with a time when diversity and inclusion were new concepts in Danish workplaces. Based on shadowing and interviews among parking attendants and their managers, the author shows the phenomenon of “making up” employees, thereby referring to the categorization and branding of employee identities according to the politics of inclusion. During the first period, unskilled workers, many of them with a migrant background, were “made up” as individuals in need of care, as in the Fairness perspective and as “diverse employees,” reflecting the diversity of customers or clients of the respective Danish municipality. The second period corresponded to the business case approach toward diversity management characteristic for the Access perspective. Parking attendants were “made up” as professional customer service agents. Despite changing approaches and measures toward inclusion, management still adhered to addressing employees as “in lack of proper care,” which points to the issue of power and domination connected to any process of inclusion.

Kenna Cottrill, Patricia Lopez and Calvin Hoffman present a study that examines perceptions of inclusion and related factors in various industries throughout the USA in order to understand how organizations may encourage and facilitate the full participation of employees. Their research explored “authentic leadership” as an antecedent of inclusion, highlighting two of its potential outcomes on an individual level, organization-based self-esteem and organizational citizenship behavior. Based on an online survey with 107 primary and 219 peer participants, their results suggest that organizations can promote inclusive work environments through authentic leadership, and that inclusive environments promote employees’ work-related self-esteem and their willingness to go above and beyond in their jobs. This approach would be in line with an Integration and Learning diversity perspective.

Preeya Daya uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative techniques to gain an understanding of the elements that need to be managed in order to enhance the perception of inclusion in South African workplaces where extreme demographic misrepresentation of organizations is a key business and societal issue. The author identifies key inclusion elements on organizational, relational, interpersonal and individual levels, such as organizational belonging, engagement, personality and other elements that are also empirically addressed in the study by Kenna Cottrill and colleagues. This approach shall allow moving beyond employment equity compliance as in a Fairness diversity perspective, toward a commitment to multicultural, diverse and inclusive organizations.

While Kenna Cottrill and colleagues as well as Preeya Daya present findings from empirical studies in two different national contexts (the USA and South Africa) Karen Geiger and Cheryl Jordan based their theoretical and practical framework of inclusion on an extensive literature review focussing on experiences of race privilege in cross-race relationships, particularly those of women. The framework shall help understand gender and race-specific dynamics from the perspective of those who have been systematically privileged and suggests practices that could make inclusion mutually successful.

Preeti Krishnan Lyndem provides a practical example of how organizations try to promote diversity and inclusion in her book review. The author of the book, Patricia Harris, a global diversity officer in an international organization, describes the organization's historical and procedural approach toward diversity and inclusion following the three basic principles of top management support, training and education and networking. She thus exemplifies the multi-faceted nature, dynamics and complexity of combining the diversity perspectives of Fairness, Access and Integration and Learning.


How are we to envision inclusive organizations, after all?

The goal of this special issue of EDI is to gain new perspectives and elicit fresh ideas in the field of diversity studies by stimulating reflection on inclusion and inclusiveness.

Instead of giving one single response, the special issue offers an array of responses with different viewpoints, arguments and theoretical approaches toward inclusive organizations. Linking different perspectives we hope to contribute to a better understanding of inclusive organizations by making a potential transition from exclusion to inclusion clearer, exemplifying the ambivalence of inclusion, such as in cross-race relationships, asking for the interconnectedness of multiple levels and demonstrating the dynamics and complexity of inclusion in relation to different organizational, national and historic contexts.

Theoretical and empirical blind spots certainly still remain. However, we hope to contribute to the development of more inclusive organizations, acknowledging that the way we envision them will also continuously evolve.

Johanna Hofbauer
Institute of Sociology, Vienna University of Economics and Business, Vienna, Austria

Astrid Podsiadlowski
School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington


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