Understanding Barriers to Inclusion in the Workplace

September 29, 2019

Do you want to run a business where employees are confident and comfortable enough to give you their very best work? Sure you do; employee satisfaction is a huge factor in your company’s culture. But can you say with confidence that all of your workers feel truly valued and accepted? There’s a good chance that, if they were truly honest, some of your employees would report feeling excluded or isolated because of their differences. Identifying the barriers to inclusion that exist in your workplace is the first step toward dismantling them. 

Physical Barriers

Just because a workplace is ADA compliant doesn’t mean it’s fully accessible to all. Physical barriers can keep disabled employees from performing their best work or feeling completely integrated into the workplace. These barriers may not be immediately obvious to non-disabled people. For example, maybe all parts of your workplace are technically accessible to wheelchair users. But if the office supplies and coffee pot are kept out of their reach, and your company retreat is held on an inaccessible rustic campground, you’re not truly inclusive to wheelchair users. 


Minimizing physical barriers isn’t straightforward because as the employer, you can’t know what unique accommodations a given employee will need before they tell you. And because many disabilities are invisible, an employer can’t make assumptions about who needs what kind of accommodations. 

Attitudinal Barriers

An employer has the power to change physical barriers in the workplace. Tackling other people’s attitudes isn’t so simple. All employees bring their unconscious biases and stereotypes to work. When managers and decision makers have biases around demographic features like race, gender or country of origin, they may (consciously or unconsciously) favor certain groups of employees over others. That can lead to underrepresented groups being passed over for promotions, raises and mentorships. 

Attitudinal barriers can touch every part of the work experience for a disabled employee. Some employees might look at a coworker who has a visible disability and unconsciously assume that the person also has intellectual disabilities, or needs assistance to do simple tasks. Meanwhile, the disabled employee – noticing how others treat them differently – may feel infantilized and resentful. An employee who has an invisible disability may be written off as being unreliable, or unfairly receiving special treatment. A worker who has a serious gastrointestinal condition may need to visit the bathroom every hour, for example. Coworkers who don’t realize the underlying cause may gossip and resent the employee for taking frequent breaks, especially if they have to cover for that coworker when they’re gone. 

That said, it’s important to be conscious of the fact that employers and managers create attitudinal barriers, too. If a disabled employee asks for reasonable accommodation and a manager drags their feet or acts like the request is an inconvenience, it sends a clear message to the employee: Your disability is a problem. Obviously, that’s not what an employer wants to communicate. 

Social Barriers

It’s useful for employers to keep in mind that exclusion can happen outside of working hours, while still affecting an employee’s performance. 

Economic disparity can be a barrier to inclusion, in turn limiting an employee’s advancement opportunities. The Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this year ran some small focus groups with professionals who are the first in their families to hold white-collar jobs. One of the barriers respondents cited was lack of disposable income for socializing with coworkers. Physical barriers may come into play here, too. 

Say a group of coworkers goes out to a restaurant to celebrate the completion of a project. It’s not officially a work event, but it’s an opportunity for team bonding and networking. If a few team members can’t join in because they can’t afford to, or because the chosen restaurant is inaccessible, those employees miss out on that valuable time with their coworkers. Meanwhile, the people who did participate in the gathering made connections that could lead to mentorships and opportunities on future project opportunities.

Barriers in Hiring

If your company is more homogenous than the general population, it’s worth looking at whether your hiring process is excluding or even alienating certain groups. Federal law actually prohibits employers from using language in job postings that encourages or discourages candidates to apply based on their race, religion, gender, origin, age (40+), disability or genetic information. Avoid listing any requirements that would disqualify some candidates but aren’t truly essential for the job. Including “must be able to lift 50 pounds” in a description for a desk job that doesn’t really include heavy lifting excludes people with disabilities who could otherwise excel at the job. To include candidates who lacked the family resources for college, require advanced degrees only when the work really demands that experience.

How and where interviewing happens matters too. When possible, involve a team of diverse employees in hiring decisions to make sure the unconscious biases of one individual don’t come into play. In terms of physical barriers: The ADA allows employers to ask interview candidates whether they will need any accommodations during the interview. As long as it’s communicated in a way that makes clear the candidate’s response will have no bearing on their chances, asking this question (and making any reasonable accommodations) lets you as the employer show your commitment to inclusivity. 

If you want to learn more about eliminating barriers to inclusion, check out our recorded webinar, Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace. Have questions specific to your business. Contact us today. Our team is here to help.

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