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Tolerance Is Not the Endgame For Inclusion: Why it’s important to understand the difference between tolerance and inclusion.

Author: Sinduya Sivayoganathan

Imagine you started working at a new company. You eat lunch in the break room to get a chance to make connections, but when your colleagues see you, they smile, wave, and provide short answers to your conversation prompts before making a hurried exit. While they included you in conversations when prompted, they don’t invite you into conversations. You get the message that they don’t necessarily accept you. Feeling unwelcome, you begin eating lunch at your desk.

Now imagine the opposite. While you are eating lunch in the break room, your colleagues come and join you. They start conversations, ask questions, show interest in you and your experiences, and actively include you in the conversation. They seem like they love having you around and you feel welcomed and accepted enough to eat lunch moving forward in the breakroom.

Being tolerated and being included do not feel the same. In the first scenario, you are placed in a situation where your colleagues are “tolerating” you, by acknowledging you, but not going further to get to know you. However, in the second scenario, we see what inclusion in a workplace can look like; where colleagues are welcoming and interested in you and your experiences, thus showing they will include and value you. 

Understanding the difference between tolerance and inclusion is crucial, especially since tolerance is often mistaken for inclusion (IBCR). The difference between the two can be subtle and hard to identify in some cases, but the impact is significantly different and can “make or break” your DEI strategy. 

According to a journal review by Rainer Forst, disapproval is intrinsic to tolerance and does not mean a change in the status of approval (Cambridge University). Tolerance can communicate that diversity is something that is unpleasant but has to be “endured.” In other words, “We’ll let you speak with us during lunch but only because we have to.” 

In comparison to inclusion which focuses on welcoming, comprehending and embracing what makes everyone unique, tolerance focuses on building resistance to those who are different from oneself or the majority group within an organization. In the chart below, we highlight the key differences between tolerance and inclusion to help you better understand the implications of each. 

Disapproval intrinsic to tolerance. Portrays unwilling acceptance of diversity. Can lack appreciation of experiences, values, and contributions by systemically stigmatized and discriminated against employee groups. May encourage a passive approach to address inequities and systemic barriers.Focuses on welcoming, comprehending and embracing what makes everyone unique. Looks to understand people’s lived experiences, choices, and offers them a safe place to be themselves. Values everyone’s ideas and thoughts.A culture that actively addresses inequities and systemic barriers in the workplace.

Tolerance can make the workplace unsafe and an unwelcoming environment. In a study by Utrecht University, researchers identified perceived devaluation of identity as a common trait among those who are subject to tolerance in and out of the workplace (Journal of Perspectives on Psychological Science). Tolerance establishes a false and condescending superiority, portraying those who are “being tolerated” as inferior, immoral, and/or “other” compared to those who are “being tolerant.” This devaluation of identity threatens identity-related needs and can often impact one’s well-being resulting in a lower sense of identity-based self-esteem and belonging (British Journal of Psychology). 

Being “tolerated” can also encourage negative identity management (University of Notre Dame). This can include refraining from engaging in identity-related practices, concealing stigmatized aspects of one’s identity, or hiding their identity as a whole to avoid others’ negative actions. Identity management can be harmful to oneself and their satisfaction with work and life, which can cause interpersonal implications such as withdrawal from organizational culture due to feeling devalued, rejected, or conditionally accepted (British Journal of Psychology). By not conveying the need for change in attitudes, and behaviours, tolerance can build room for systemic and implicit biases.

Unlike tolerance which illustrates conditional acceptance, inclusion requires us to acknowledge differences, create spaces and promote attitudes that are welcoming, positive and non-discriminatory. 

Research has proven that true inclusion, compared to tolerance, holds a multitude of benefits socially and economically for an organization and its workforce. For example, inclusive workplaces that help employees feel welcome and unconditionally accepted are less likely to have high turnover rates as employees reported they intend to stay 3 times longer than they did at their previous jobs (Limeade). Additionally, research shows that genuinely inclusive workplaces are six times more innovative and two times more likely to surpass their financial goals (Deloitte). A study of over 2000 employees in the United States also found a significant correlation between inclusive workplaces and higher employee well-being and engagement (Forbes). 

We need to acknowledge and overcome this false narrative around tolerance to embrace the journey towards inclusion. Actions that promote true inclusion are needed over tolerance in the workplace to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion. A few actions you can take are:

  • Give employees a secure and safe platform to voice and express their concerns regarding DEI. This can help understand whether there is a culture of tolerance at your organization. It also ensures that employees have a voice in decisions that impacts them and their work which can help foster a sense of inclusion. You can do this through informal meetings, surveys, and simply letting employees know that the door is always open.
  • Equipping management with training and resources to address employees’ DEI concerns. This is important as it can help develop the comprehension needed to move from a culture of tolerance to inclusion. It also helps ensure that concerns are not handled inappropriately or overlooked and promotes an active approach to addressing inequities and barriers in the workplace.
  • Encouraging intentional and open conversations with team members to help them feel valued and welcomed. This includes having productive and safe conversations about issues, recognizing each other’s work, successes, and showing them that you support them and value their whole selves and the experiences and ideas they bring with them. 

We must commit to the hard work inclusion requires over the easy road of tolerance. The journey towards inclusion may be hard and long, but the results are well worth the effort. Book a meeting with one of our associates to learn more about how you can start your journey towards inclusion!

Header and feature image by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash ❤️

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