Rethinking Inclusivity

Every year my kids’ school has spirit week where they are encouraged to dress in themed clothing for each day of the week. As a person who facilitates activities for a living, I’m a good sport about most things that serve a purpose and cause no harm. Up until this year, I’ve taken no issue with the silly shenanigans of Crazy Hair Day and putting my children in backward clothing.

This year, however, I’ve observed a lot of anxiety over one spirit day that has me thinking about the inclusiveness of activities. Every year the school has “twin day” where students find a classmate to be their twin and they dress alike. This is a cute idea in theory, and the easy solution for my kids is to dress like each other as they are both girls and close enough in age. Many other families do not have that option, and I heard a lot of grumblings about what was intended to be an inclusive activity actually excluding several students should they not be chosen to be a twin or not able to afford to buy the same clothes as their friends.

I tell you this story because I want to demonstrate that being inclusive is a deliberate act, and if it isn’t well thought out, it can have the opposite effect. Activities need to be inclusive at as many levels as possible, let’s look at a couple of red flags that can isolate participants in training sessions.

Using Exclusive Phrases Like “We All Know”

Individuals come to training with their own background, depth of experience, etc. Using words like “we all know” or making an assumption about the group, unless there is a technical skill required of their job, is a bad idea. I would include jargon in this bucket as well, nothing is more frustrating than being in a room full of people using jargon and acronyms with which you are not familiar.

Putting People in a Box

People tend to make assumptions based on a few facts they know about a person, especially when they have spent a few hours in a training room with them. I’ve heard these more often than I’m comfortable with: “obviously you are kind of a computer geek” or “clearly you are fairly athletic”. Even when you think it is a compliment, don’t put people in a box, it is isolating.


Gatekeeping is when someone decides who has access or rights to a community, sort of like a gatekeeper. Trainers do this with new tools or cutting edge technologies by saying things like: “You probably haven’t heard of it yet, but you will,” or “The new tool everyone younger than you is using.” Marketers love to use this to gain interest in a new product, but it has no place in training.

What are some other ways add more inclusivity to your training activities? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

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8 thoughts on “Rethinking Inclusivity

  1. Sometimes well-intentioned efforts to be inclusive can backfire. I was previously part of an HR Leadership team (made of top HR leaders from a family of companies with common ownership) and we were rolling out a leadership development program. Part of this involved coming up with scenarios for role-playing giving feedback. It was mentioned by one of the gals in the group that the names we were using as fictitious employees were all very traditionally “white” names and that we needed to be more culturally inclusive. Everyone agreed and we brainstormed and voted on names to use. Fast forward to the training and it was brought up by a participant that while she did indeed notice that a variety of cultures and ethnicities seemed to be represented by the names in the role play scenarios, it stood out to her that all of the “characters” who had those “minority” names were being given negative or corrective feedback. Wow, talk about a big aha moment – we had not even considered the context in which the names were being used, they were literally just plugged into place. Big learning moment!

    • Cara, that is a big learning moment! This discussion has our whole team talking a lot about balance today. It is impossible to talk about this subject without thinking about intention and balance. The intention was good here, and I think the big win came from the willingness to get feedback from participants. As trainers, we need to balance as much as we can and take this kind of feedback to do our best to be inclusive in the future.

  2. Thank you for your eye opening article Heather. I see ageism often in our sessions. We ask how many years they’ve been in our industry then one trainer says the ones with X years or more should share what they know with the rest of the participants. I feel it’s tantamount to saying we’re not wanting to hear from those with less experience.

    • This is a tricky one, Casey! I hear people ask this question frequently and I see the merits of understanding experience; however, I see your point on where it focuses too much on age. I wonder if there is another way to talk about experience without discussing age.

    • There is a delicate balance between leveraging their experience and diminishing the experience of others. One of my favorite trainers uses “facipulation” in these cases. Instead of repeating these statements in the front of the class, mix those with more and less experience because they can probably teach each other something.

      • Good idea Tim. Good news Heather, I gathered up the gumption to mention it to the trainer in question and he graciously accepted the feedback. He said he’d not realized it might be coming off as diminishing the value of those with less experience. He said he’d find a different way to communicate that he wants those with more experience not to feel left out if the topic is more entry level and vice versa.

        So now I understand his perspective as well. We all could use more practice avoiding excluding participants and encouraging knowledge sharing. Thanks again for helping to trigger action that I’ve been avoiding for too long.

  3. I have found that using gendered language can be isolating. “You guys” is the most common; I’ve had women visibly flinch from that usage. Try using more inclusive language such as “everyone”, “fellow “, or just reaching out by name to get people’s attention.

    • Yes, and this one is hard, I catch my self saying “Hey Guys” far too often. I think it is a regional colequiasim that is hard to break, and you are right, it is offensive. Considering the words we use every day that are isolating is where inclusion starts. Thanks for your comment, Heather.

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