United States: Transforming Workplace Cultures And The Future Of Diversity And Inclusion Initiatives

This is the third article in a series in which we address what it means to transform workplace culture in light of the #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and other movements, what initiatives work and don't work, and what employers who want to go above and beyond can and are thinking about. Our first post discussed how to create an effective training program, and our second post discussed reporting and investigating harassment. In this post, we focus on how leadership can transform workplace cultures and what practices companies at the forefront of change are implementing.

In June 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a report regarding harassment in the workplace. In that report, the EEOC observed that "workplace culture has the greatest impact on allowing harassment to flourish, or conversely, in preventing harassment." The EEOC further provided two key take-away points in determining workplace culture. First, "leadership and commitment to a diverse, inclusive and respectful workplace . . . is paramount," and "leadership must come from the very top of the organization." Second, the commitment has to be "at all levels, across all positions" and a company "must have systems in place that hold employees accountable for this expectation." At bottom, in order to shift a company's culture and truly create a workplace free of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, the goal must be more than simply compliance, and must instead be "part of an overall diversity and inclusion strategy.

Notably, the report also acknowledged the business case for preventing harassment, citing not just the direct financial costs associated with harassment complaints and litigation, but the indirect costs of decreased productivity, increased turnover, and reputational damage. Companies are also increasingly acknowledging the long-term economic benefits to having a diverse workforce, which can result in a wider variety of perspectives, approaches, and experiences resulting in increased creativity, more efficient strategies, and improved client services.

In light of this, we address some of the key steps companies can take to promote diversity and inclusion and shift workplace cultures.

Leadership and Commitment from the Top

Senior leadership's commitment to a culture of respect and inclusion is critical. Part of that commitment is about messaging and visibility. Leaders must clearly communicate and demonstrate that the company does not tolerate workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and is committed to the creation of a diverse workforce. Another part of that commitment is about allocating sufficient time and resources to prevention programs and initiatives that focus on the recruitment, promotion and retention of a diverse workforce.

Here are some ways in which senior leaders may demonstrate their commitment to preventing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and anti-harassment initiatives and the promotion of diversity through messaging and visibility:

  • Model positive behavior and be an example to employees in the company;

  • Insist upon policies and practices that require a respectful workplace with standards above just basic compliance in preventing illegal discrimination, harassment, and retaliation;

  • Update and distribute the company's anti-discrimination, harassment and retaliation policies regularly;

  • Make an opening statement at, and participate in, respectful workplace trainings;

  • Regularly meet with human resources or institute reporting procedures to ensure senior leadership is up-to-date on complaints about discrimination, harassment, and retaliation and how the complaints are being handled;

  • Hold other senior executives and high-value employees accountable. High-level offenders must also be subject to appropriate discipline. If violators are not punished, employees learn that the behavior is tolerated, no matter how much lip service is paid to messaging, training, and policies.

  • Set company-wide Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) goals, and include an update on diversity during annual updates with employees;

  • Publish a D&I statement on the company website and/or in corporate materials;

  • Meet regularly with executives to review D&I goals and assess how the company is performing;

  • Require regular reports and updates on D&I metrics;

  • Provide an update on D&I to the board of directors quarterly or at least annually; and

  • Hold managers and teams accountable for advancing D&I goals.

Some of the ways in which senior leaders may demonstrate their commitment to respectful workplace and D&I through resource allocation include:

  • Assess your company's risk factors. Undertake an internal assessment of whether key risk factors exist that could heighten the risk of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Some of these factors include homogenous workforces, workplaces where some workers do not conform to workplace norms, cultural and language differences in the workplace (including workplaces that are extremely diverse), workplaces with "high value" employees or power disparities, decentralized and isolated workplaces, and workplace cultures that tolerate or encourage alcohol consumption.

  • Assess the climate of the company. Utilize survey tools, sometimes referred to as "climate surveys," which are geared towards getting feedback from employees regarding respectful workplace and D&I initiatives. For example, surveys can be used to gauge not only whether employees believe discrimination, harassment, and/or retaliation is occurring in the workplace, but also whether the strategies employed by the company are working to prevent and/or address it. Use this information to better tailor existing programs and think creatively about alternative strategies.

  • Invest money and other resources. Add to the budget a line item for respectful workplace and D&I efforts, including customized anti-harassment, workplace civility, and/or unconscious bias training. Consider creating a senior leadership role solely dedicated to D&I, such as a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.

  • Institute hiring, recruiting and retention initiatives aimed at D&I. Post job opportunities on career websites geared towards specific groups like women, minorities, LGBTQ and disabled applicants and institute specific recruitment initiatives to target these potential employees. Offer internships, apprenticeships, and/or scholarships for individuals who belong to these underrepresented groups. Consider implementing policies that include diversity targets or quotas for hiring and promotion decisions (such as ensuring that one woman and one underrepresented candidate is in the final candidate pool for every position).

  • Demand diversity from your partners and suppliers through business initiatives. Track whether your suppliers and other business partners are in line with your diversity efforts. For example, is your company partnering with women or minority owned businesses? Do your consultants, external PR teams, law firms, or banks meet certain diversity requirements?

Employee Commitment at All Levels

No matter which of the above efforts are undertaken, leadership cannot do it alone. It is imperative that all employees are active participants in creating a respectful, diverse, and inclusive workforce. This requires that employees at every level are trained properly in respectful workplace efforts and empowered to have a voice in D&I initiatives. It is also important that these efforts not only ensure that employees from underrepresented groups feel valued and safe, but that other employees do not feel alienated or that the system is unfair. Significant change is only likely to occur through a universal company-wide buy-in on respectful workplace initiatives and D&I efforts. Below are some practical ways companies have tried to encourage employee commitment to respectful workplace and D&I efforts.

  • Training and toolkits. Go above and beyond required training on preventing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation by offering additional types of training, such as: unconscious bias training, training on gender differences in communication and leadership styles, ally or up-stander training (e.g., programs designed to coach men on how to be valued allies in the workplace); and cultural sensitivity training. Create toolkits or playbooks to help provide supervisors with concrete steps designed to make meetings and assignments more inclusive.

  • Create visibility and support networks. Encourage employees to participate and belong to a D&I task force or committee geared towards under-represented groups. Offer to host events or support professional associations that are geared towards these groups. Implement mentoring programs specifically targeted towards employees who belong to underrepresented groups.

  • Elicit feedback from employees at all levels. Solicit feedback from underrepresented groups like women, employees of color, LGBTQ employees, and employees with disabilities. Make changes based on the feedback so that employees realize they have a voice and their feedback is valued.

At the end of the day, there is no "silver bullet" to ending discrimination, harassment, and retaliation in the workplace or to creating a diverse and inclusive workforce. However, as companies increasingly realize the direct and indirect financial costs of litigation arising out of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, coupled with the realization that there are significant economic benefits to having a diverse and inclusive workforce, they are increasingly looking to new and dynamic approaches to solve these issues.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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