Creating a More Inclusive Organizational Culture

Perhaps more than any of the other elements of creating an inclusive organization, changing organizational culture takes time. It is not a linear process that happens overnight. Furthermore, changes to organizational climate can be chaotic. While you can and should develop deliberate strategies to improve organizational culture, some change will naturally occur as a by-product of other activities in your inclusiveness initiative.

For example, if you reassess and change how you work with clients, you will likely learn from your clients about issues related to race and ethnicity of which you were not previously aware. This new level of awareness will likely alter your organizational culture over time.

Using the three core levels of organizational culture (surface level, espoused values, and basic assumptions), develop long-term strategies to improve organizational culture within those three levels. Here are some specific ideas to consider at each of the three levels:

Surface Level

Complete an audit of the organization's printed materials looking for the way your organization presents itself in relation to communities of color. To do this, collect most or all of the printed materials (including posters for events, annual reports, brochures, fundraising materials, etc.) that you have created in the recent past and analyze the extent to which communities of color are presented. Look at the language that is used and give consideration as to whether the symbols and examples used effectively communicate with diverse constituents. Give consideration not only to the number of times that images of people of color are presented but also how they are portrayed.

For example, if your organization provides clinical services, are images of physicians of color presented as well as patients of color? Are multiple communities of color represented or only one group?

Have discussions about and try to develop consciousness around your organization's language. Is it generally inclusive? 

For example, at the end of the year, if people take time off is it generally referred to as a holiday break or a Christmas break? For people who celebrate Kwanzaa, Chanukah, or other year-end holidays, calling it a Christmas break may not feel inclusive.

Similarly, do you refer to "moms and dads" when talking about parenting rather than simply saying "parents"? Members of single-parent households may not feel included when your default language refers to a traditional nuclear family unit.

Pay special attention to the physical environment in your organization. Consider how people are greeted when they enter your organization. Is there someone there who greets your visitors?  If so, are greeters equally welcoming of all people?  You may be surprised to find that nonverbal, unconscious cues cause people to have an immediate reaction that isn't always positive. If you're not sure how people of color and others respond when they visit, consider asking them. Also look at the physical surroundings and evaluate whether the signs, pictures, or images that one first sees when entering your facility are likely to be welcoming to all racial and ethnic groups. Do communities of color see people who look like them?  Do groups whose primary language is not English see references in their own languages on signs and elsewhere?

Making changes to your organization at the surface level probably won't radically transform the organizational culture on its own; however, coupled with other changes, these surface level adaptations can make a difference.


Espoused Values

Not surprisingly, organizational culture is directly tied to the leadership style and philosophies of an organization's leaders, especially the CEO or executive director. Espoused values are generally aspirational, that is to say the CEO holds the values but they are not yet embraced by the organization.

In order to understand your organizational culture in relation to the values of the leadership, compare the responses in the assessments from Modules 5 and 6 of the leaders (usually the CEO, the board chair, and perhaps other key senior staff) to the responses of the other people in the organization. Look for areas of overlap and differences. Where there is a difference, the leadership should be encouraged to assess the root of the difference and discuss strategies to bridge the gaps.

For example, the leadership might believe that the organization should develop targeted outreach strategies to reach communities of color while the culture of the program staff is such that they do not value targeted outreach programs.

One especially effective method for addressing discrepancies in perspective is for a leader to work with an executive coach to assess how the leader strengthens or weakens organizational culture. Together, the coach and the leader can develop strategies to communicate and then implement the leader's values regarding organizational culture. In particular, the leader should consider the first two characteristics of organizations with inclusive cultures that were mentioned previously: (1) The leadership truly values the variety of opinion and insights that people with different cultural backgrounds bring to the organization; and (2) the leadership recognizes the opportunities and challenges that diversity presents to the organization.


Basic Assumptions

Since the basic assumptions that make up the core of an organization's culture are developed and held collectively, it follows that understanding and adapting the culture should also be done collectively.

Probably the most useful mechanism for doing so is to work with inclusiveness trainers and/or organizational culture consultants/trainers who understand diversity and inclusiveness. (Refer to Consultants/Training.) 

If resources allow and you haven't already been working with an inclusiveness trainer, consider hiring one to help develop a common understanding of your current organizational culture. The information collected in the assessment process about organizational culture provides an excellent starting place for this process. However, you will likely find that discussing these matters collectively will provide a level of knowledge and understanding about organizational culture that isn't easy to capture in an assessment tool. (Refer to Consultants/Training.)

You might also consider the informal ways that staff and/or board members spend time together. If, for example, a white individual joins your staff and is invited out to lunch by peers, but an individual of color is not included in informal lunches, you might consider what such interactions mean for your organization's culture and basic assumptions. Or, you might also look to the relationships between administrative staff of color and their supervisors versus those between white administrative staff and supervisors. Are any assumptions made regarding the ambitions or professional future of some staff versus other staff?


In summary, here are some suggestions that may help improve your organizational culture in relation to inclusiveness:

  • Complete an audit of printed materials and evaluate the appropriateness of images and language.
  • Develop a consciousness about the language your organization uses internally.
  • Assess your physical environment and find new ways to ensure that people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds feel welcome from the moment they enter your facility.
  • Examine similarities and discrepancies between the leadership's values, beliefs, and behaviors and those of the other people in the organization.
  • Use an executive coach, if necessary, to understand differences and help the leadership create a plan and communicate aspirations for the organization's culture.
  • Engage in inclusiveness training that focuses on examining and improving the organization's culture around inclusiveness issues.
  • Consider the informal culture and interactions among staff, board, and volunteers.

Complete Developing an Action Plan for Organizational Culture.


Overview: Organizational CultureExamples of Organizational Cultures Related to Diversity and Inclusiveness     Discrimination and Fairness Culture: Assimilation     Connecting Diversity to Work Perspectives: Integration