“Do you want to come to my party?”
Think back to the last time you uttered those words — especially to someone you didn’t know very well.
I bet that many of us left this kind of unselfconscious invitation in school, when asking a classmate or neighbor, “do you want to be my friend” was no big deal!
But as we grow older, we become hyper aware of only socializing with people like us. Sadly, this very human tendency to only invite people we already know leaves so many others out and often further marginalized underestimated people.
To disrupt this and become more intentionally inclusive, we can learn something from our childhood selves (or in my case, watching my five-year-old son make new friends).
Intentionally inviting people is key to practicing inclusion.
In my last Inclusion is Leadership, I wrote about the disturbing lack of curiosity I see in social and professional settings. It manifests in:
the way we extend (or don’t) invitations to colleagues and acquaintances;
where and when and how we plan social and networking events;
our unchecked assumptions about what people like and whether they’ll want to socialize in the same way as us.
But I’m happy to tell you: the fix is easy! It calls for tuning in to your curious inner five-year-old, and inviting yourself to be open and excited about new experiences.
Intentionally inviting people to your events (all the more if it’s a virtual event) is inclusion. So is planning your events to suit a variety of tastes, schedules and comforts.
So, here are a few ways leaders like you can be more intentional and curious in event-planning, formal and informal:
1. Make the effort to learn what type of events would best include all employees and colleagues particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds
To ensure all people feel included, make an effort to understand the practices that exclude them, as well as the barriers that stop them from attending work functions.
These could include dietary preferences and timings that accommodate caregiving responsibilities. Listen and make changes accordingly. Of course, it’s important to ask these questions privately so that people don’t feel targeted or othered in a group setting. You can also include questions surrounding personal preferences in an organization-wide, anonymous survey.
2. Be intentional when making connections
When there are employees from diverse backgrounds at an event, intentionally introduce them to those in the “in-group.” Women, people of color and disabled people, for example, are often left to the sidelines while the dominant group socializes — something I’ve sadly experienced all too often at work events. I’ve previously written about affinity bias; we are drawn to sameness and people from underestimated backgrounds often find themselves excluded from conversations, especially in homogenous work environments. Using your influence to intentionally foster these connections can have a big impact on how welcome another person feels.
3. Plan more events that don’t center around alcohol. But don’t immediately assume that certain people of color don’t drink.
In the U.S. and Western Europe, social and networking culture often revolves around alcohol, which can leave out people who don’t drink. Planning more events that aren’t alcohol-driven is key to being more inclusive.
And even if an event is at a bar or alcohol is present, don’t automatically assume that immigrant people of color will be uncomfortable attending. I’ve attended plenty of events at bars, even during times when I wasn’t drinking alcohol, and know many people who have no objections to being around alcohol, whether or not they personally consume it.
It’s always best to extend an invite and let your employee or colleague decide for herself, rather than making the decision for her. Most of all, observe–if almost all work events center around alcohol, be intentional in balancing them out with ones that don’t.
I want to preemptively address some resistance that may surface with this article. You might feel as though being intentionally inclusive means sacrificing what you enjoy. What if you don’t like vegan food, or you have the most fun in places that serve alcohol?
I get it. And if I dig deep into my empathy, I can see how some white men could feel the same way when told that sports bars, cigar clubs and golf can’t be the only places they host networking and social gatherings (we can’t assume that women are automatically uncomfortable in those places, but it’s fair to say that most of them are geared towards cis, heterosexual men!)
If part of you feels defensive about “giving up what you like,” I understand – you’re human. We’ll probably always have a bias towards our personal preferences and comforts, where we feel most welcome and belong. The problem is, most workplaces were set up by and for white men. So these events are often most geared towards…you guessed it! They also often exclude people who don't identify as white men.
Thankfully, more of us can nurture our curiosity too and recognize that we care about more than our preferred food or drink or environment. We care about how we make others feel. We care about our reputations. We care about camaraderie on our teams. We care about creative ideas. We care about connection.
These are preferences too! And when we act inclusively, we give these interpersonal preferences priority. Not only do we benefit from it, but everyone around us benefits, too. So thank you for making social events intentionally inclusive.
How have you changed your event-planning practices to be more inclusive? Or, is there someone in your life you think does a great job of this?