A few years ago, I was talking to a coworker and mentioned I hadn’t watched a film that apparently everyone had seen as a child. No big deal, right? There are thousands of movies I missed out on as a kid—just like there are thousands of books and television shows I haven’t yet read or seen (or plan to) as an adult. Except this coworker made a joke that made my mental brakes come screeching to a halt.

He said: “You didn’t see it? Why? Were you still on the boat?”

This came from a person I still consider a friend. A flippant, off-the-hand comment that they apparently didn’t think twice about because … Why? Was it because we were friends? Because he thought I was a “cool” Asian and could “take it?” Or maybe he had a lot of Asian friends and he thought it was okay? I’m still not exactly sure why, but it was definitely upsetting.

It was a memory that surfaced during ColorComm last week as I heard women of color speak about their experiences in the workplace and the tiny incidents like this that remind them, over and over, they are “other.” These incidents are jarring and hurtful and they add up—sometimes to the point where a person eventually has to leave an environment because they don’t feel welcomed or safe. My experience was a very direct example of this, but when it comes to feeling like you’re truly involved in the work place, it’s the little things that matter. Things like making connections with your co-workers, having someone to grab coffee or lunch with, or just knowing someone you feel comfortable sitting next to in the lunchroom.

On a bigger scale: Can you walk into a meeting and feel as if you can speak up and share your perspective? Are there programs or initiatives at your firm you can join that help you on-board?  Do you have an advocate, a mentor, or sponsor at work? Does anyone else look like you? 

We’ve had a lot of discussions at Porter Novelli about diversity in hiring and it’s an important, immediate area we’re looking at to make sure our offices have a mix of ideas, experiences, expertise, and cultures. At ColorComm, I was reminded that inclusion–how you actually keep the diverse people you hire—was just as (or even more) important than simply getting them through the door. I sat in the audience listening to women on panels talk about what inclusion means and how valuable it is to cultivating a work environment where people want to stay and grow. At the same time, I heard from fellow attendees during side conversations about the exclusionary actions committed by co-workers and managers, likely unintentional, that eventually made them seek other opportunities. Lack of structure or planning focused on making someone feel truly part of the collective whole can eventually lead to their departure.

My biggest takeaway from the conference is that inclusion is something that needs to be thought about and discussed, not just at the leadership level, but at all levels. We all need to ask ourselves: what am I doing to foster a work culture that respects, welcomes, and leverages the uniqueness of its people? Inclusion means people in your workforce know better than to say things like, “Were you still on the boat?” to their co-workers because they know comments like that are offensive and disrespectful.

As T. Hudson Jordan notes in his article for the Diversity Journal, “Inclusion puts the concept and practice of diversity into action by creating an environment of involvement, respect, and connection—where the richness of ideas, backgrounds, and perspectives are harnessed to create business value.”

So my question to the masses is: how are you helping to create an inclusive work environment? Please share your thoughts and suggestions by tweeting at me @KFontanilla!