Inclusive workplace

At the University of Oxford we are committed to establishing an inclusive culture, where everyone can contribute and flourish regardless of visible and invisible differences. With over 11,000 staff from around the world, we must all contribute to creating a supportive culture. Often we can do that by talking together. In our daily lives we have opportunities to create high-quality relationships across difference to further our common endeavours.

Here are some suggestions to help you think about your personal share in creating an inclusive culture.  

Cultural awareness

People at the University of Oxford come from around the world, with very varied backgrounds, beliefs and cultures.  We expect all members of the University to treat their colleagues with dignity and respect.  As an individual you are entitled to hold your own beliefs, but in your work role you are expected to work with people holding different beliefs.

Communication styles vary in different cultures.  To people coming from a culture where the style is more direct, communication at the University may appear very indirect.  Be alert to feedback that is phrase as a suggestion: ‘You may like to look at that section again’ implies that the material needs major revision! 

The University has an academic culture where people are encouraged to debate and challenge ideas.  However the challenges should be on the ideas and approach and not a personal attack on an individual.  Similarly, feedback should be constructive, and evidence-based.  Some individuals have a more directive management style, but this should be clearly distinguishable from bullying.  If you feel that you are being bullied or harassed, you may like to talk about your situation with a Harassment Adviser.

Much of our behaviour is determined by our culture, which may create misunderstandings between people with different expectations. Test any assumptions and be patient in establishing good working relationships with colleagues.

Workplace customs

Many of us work in shared office, where we have to get along with our colleagues.  Try to be sensitive to the needs of your colleagues. Things to think about include:

  • Minimise distractions when colleagues are trying to concentrate on work: keep social chat for later.
  • Check with your manager whether you can eat at your desk.  If it is permitted, try to eat quietly, since colleagues may be working.  Don’t leave dirty plates and mugs.
  • Share information your personal needs:  if you are allergic to nuts, you might want to ask colleagues to avoid bringing nuts into the office or shared kitchen facilities. 
  • Warn new colleagues about any customs for celebrating birthdays, bringing in food to share etc.  Be sensitive to dietary preferences and religious observance that may include fasting.
  • Explain local practices, which may not be obvious to a newcomer e.g. on making drinks for colleagues, doing washing up etc.
  • Recognise that people may differ in their desire to socialise outside the office, and may have other commitments.  Try to ensure that people do not feel excluded from the team because they do not join social events.
  • Check that any meetings are scheduled to take account of people’s working patterns and other commitments, including caring responsibilities.
  • Be sensitive in social chat: do not make assumptions about the gender of partners, or about relationships.  While one person may be excited about a new baby, this may be very painful for a colleague who is childless or who has had a miscarriage.
  • Personal space varies between cultures.  At Oxford you may be working with colleagues from around the world, some of whom have different norms on personal space and on physical contact.  It may be helpful to talk about different preferences.

Working style preferences

Recognising that people have different ways of working and being sensitive to their preferences may help to ensure that workplace relationships go smoothly.  Things to think about include:

  • Avoid putting people on the spot by demanding an instant response. Some people may prefer to think about an issue and give a more considered response in writing.
  • Try to accommodate different communication preferences. Some like to discuss and debate, others have difficulty speaking in front of others and may prefer written communication.
  • Written communication has the advantage of providing a record, so it may be helpful to write brief notes from a meeting, to ensure an accurate record.
  • Brief conversations can easily be forgotten, so sending a follow-up email may be a helpful reminder.
  • It is always sensible to have written documentation of instructions and procedures. Some departments include photographs, for example of a laboratory set-up.
  • Providing papers in advance of meetings allows people to prepare for the meeting. It is not a good use of meeting time to expect people to scan long papers, and this is very difficult for anyone with dyslexia.
  • Some people prefer to think about the ‘big picture’ while others focus on the detail. In most projects both preferences are needed.
  • It is sensible for a manager to be aware of individual preferences and working styles when assigning tasks, and to check that individuals are happy with what is required of them.  However individuals may choose to develop their skills in areas where they are weaker. 

Meeting arrangements

Efforts can be made to ensure that meetings are arranged and conducted in an inclusive way:

  • Try to arrange a meeting within core hours: meeting before 9 or late afternoon may be impossible for staff with childcare or other caring responsibilities, people with travel constraints or people working off-site.  
  • Arrange the meeting at a time that maximises the attendance of part-time staff. Where there is no overlap time, vary meeting time and dates to ensure that all have the chance to attend occasional meetings.
  • Can people participate remotely via conference phones?
  • If a meeting participant requires a British Sign Language Interpreter or Speech to Text Reporter, the meeting may need to be arranged for when the communication support is available.
  • Working lunches may be difficult for people for disability-related reasons.  They may also conflict with religious observance.
  • Circulate the agenda and papers in advance, so that people who cannot attend in person can contribute.  Some disabled people find it difficult to read papers on the spot.
  • The Chair is responsible for ensuring that the agenda is followed, for timekeeping, and for ensuring that decisions are reached and recorded. They should ensure that all meeting participants have an opportunity to contribute. It may be helpful for the Chair to give very brief summaries of the discussion and clarify the action that has been decided.   
  • Agree for someone to make brief minutes of action points, and circulate these afterwards.   Check in private that an individual is happy to take minutes: this requires multitaskiing which some individuals may find very difficult for a disability-related reason.
  • Ensure that those who were not able to attend are informed what happened.
  • Very long meetings are often difficult for disabled people.  Scheduling a 5 minute comfort break mid-meeting allows people to move around to relieve stiffness, use toilet facilities and relax concentration.

Presenting to a diverse audience

Ideas to think about include:

  • Giving an overview of the structure of your presentation at the start may make it easier for people who are not native English language speakers.
  • Presenting data graphically may make it easier to understand.
  • Providing handouts in advance allows people to do the advance preparation they need in order to understand your presentation e.g. some disabled people.
  • Speak clearly, and not too fast.  Brief pauses may help your audience to understand what you are saying. Signal clearly when you are introducing a new topic.
  • Humour may be misunderstood, so is best used in moderation.
  • Depending on the context, linking ideas to those already understood may help the audience to follow your talk.
  • When taking questions, it may be helpful to repeat the question so that the entire audience can hear.  If asked about a specialist topic, which you suspect maybe unfamilar to some listeners, you may want to provide some context for your answer.

Religious observance

The University will try to accommodate religious observance, subject to business requirements. 

Things to think about:

  • If you want time for religious observance during the working day, discuss this with your manager.  The University has a Muslim Prayer Room  in a central location, but there may also be private rooms within your department.
  • Make requests for annual leave for religious festivals well in advance of the date.
  • It may be possible to request a working pattern that accommodates religious practice, depending on the nature of the role and subject to business requirements.  A Jewish member of staff might wish to explore the possibility of finishing work earlier in Fridays during winter months in view of the shorter daylight hours, or a Muslim colleague might with to take a longer lunch on Fridays to attend prayers.
  • Employees may wish to take additional leave for extended religious observance, for example following the death of a close family member overseas, or if they wish to go on pilgrimage.  This might be accommodated through unpaid leave, at the discretion of the Head of Department.
  • If you are providing refreshment for an event, ask about dietary preferences and make appropriate arrangements.  It is always a good idea to have a vegetarian option, and to ensure that food is clearly labelled.
  • Check our Equality dates for religious festivals to avoid when scheduling events. 
  • Be sensitive to the needs of students, staff and visitors who may be observing prolonged periods of fasting, such as Ramadan.