Inclusivity must be built in to the system

In software development, we have this idea of certain attributes that must be built in to systems at the start of design and development. That is, these are aspects of software systems that are far easier to build in at the beginning than to bolt on to an established system later on. Some common examples are security, performance, user experience, and accessibility. These are attributes that are intrinsic to software systems in ways that are hard to alter as the system becomes more complex over time.

The culture of a group of people or organization, how they communicate, interact, and treat each other is a complex system as well. I submit that, like the intrinsic security of a software system, the intrinsic inclusivity of a group of people is hard to alter. It’s not an attribute that can be easily bolted on after the group has grown to hundreds or, really, dozens of people.

A colleague of mine works at a startup of around 50 people. When the company was smaller, a decision was made that the office would be “dog friendly”. More accurately, the CTO had gotten a new puppy and wanted to bring their dog to the office. To make it fair, the rule was established that anyone could now bring their dog to the office. Hooray! A win for freedom and proof that tech start ups have the best perks. Right?

Depending on the study you look at, somewhere between 1.5 and 15 percent of people are allergic to dogs and cats, while folks with asthma are sensitive at an even higher rate. So, something like up to 1 out of every 8 people in any given office space will react to a puppy in the office by popping Claritin instead of rushing to snuggle the adorable animal. Inevitably, the question must come up. What do we do when we hire someone who is allergic to dogs?

The answer in this case was “If we hire someone who is allergic, we will tell people to keep their dogs at home”. Frankly, this is the worst of all possible answers. Let’s talk a bit about why.

The science says that, should you have the option between granting a perceived benefit that must later be taken away and never giving the benefit in the first place, the best choice may be to never give the benefit to start with. In psychology and behavioral economics, it’s been shown that people who have something will be willing to fight harder to keep it than they would to obtain it. This response is known as the endowment effect.

In real terms, when participants are given an item, say mundane office supplies, told that it’s theirs to keep, and then asked how much money they would take to give it back, their answers are higher than participants who are asked how much they would pay for the item to receive it in the first place. People add an intrinsic value to items that are already in their possession, above and beyond the actual value of the item.

Now think of the puppies in the office. Similar to a mundane office supply handed to a participant in an experiment, the workers in that office ascribe a value to the benefit of having puppies in their workplace. According to the endowment effect, those people consciously or not think that having puppies in their office is more valuable than a similar group of people who never have had puppies in their workplace. Those people will fight harder to keep the puppies, than they would have to acquire the puppies.

So, let’s see. Could there be any worse way to start your first week at a new job than to find out that not only are you the new kid, but that you also killed all the puppies? You are now the most hated person in the office.

So, what does this have to do with inclusivity in organization culture? This is going to take a leap, so bear with it, but the analogy is pretty clear. Let’s substitute puppies with offensive language of the racist, misogynist, and/or ableist variety, and new person with dog allergy with woman, person of color, or person with a disability.

I had a recent conversation with a friend who works in a relatively small and mostly white+cis+male company. They posed the question as to whether they should step in preventatively to promote inclusive language when others said things that could be perceived as offensive to folks from backgrounds underrepresented in tech, and wholey unrepresented at their company. This person wants to work in a place that is inclusive and values diversity but they had only recently started to shift their thinking from a view that these things should be dealt with when the group added someone who might actually be impacted by these things. They answered their own question with “Why should it be the person who is offended who fixes the offense?”

Why, indeed. Left untended, uninclusive practices fester. Folks become accustomed to being able to speak and act in certain ways and begin to assign a value to that benefit. Exclusionary words and phrases become ingrained and part of the cultural lexicon of the organization. So much so that simple word choices, something that costs us nothing to alter, would take a herculean effort to dislodge from the collective vernacular.

So, the person who joins the organization and has every practical reason to take offense to a casually tossed slur or epithet, is left the choice to complain and be blamed for changing the culture. Or they can take a Claritin.

It’s not impossible to affect cultural change toward inclusion in a large, established organization. But, like the security and privacy required by recent regulation, it is far harder to add it later than it is to do so earlier on. Make the spaces you exist in inclusive by default while it’s easy before someone has to be offended.