Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives are ubiquitous and perhaps talked about more than ever before, but it is clear that there is much more work to be done. This topic is very complex, and organizations have tried to put the right policies and practice in place to create more equitable work environments, but some efforts can be perceived as a quick fix to a present situation rather than preparing for long-term change. For long-term change to occur, the right structure to enable an equitable employee experience must be set as a foundation, amongst other specific educational and cultural awareness initiatives.
Before we discuss the structure that is needed, it is important to understand the context that will be discussed here; how to create an equitable work environment with your current workforce. One of the other challenges is recruiting more diverse people into an organization and having the proper pipeline of diverse candidates to do so, which is necessary, but those already representing your company need the equity they deserve and there’s a good chance that they do not have that experience today.
One of the many culprits to achieving an equitable work environment is bias. As humans, encountering and projecting bias, both unconscious and conscious, is inevitable. When we make decisions, whether life-altering or routine, bias plays a role. In the context of work and your people, that means during skills assessments, performance reviews, succession planning, career advancement conversations, promotion evaluations and more. Each of these processes welcome the opportunity for employees to discuss their capabilities and represent themselves, and for managers to provided effective feedback and alignment measures. It is also an opportunity to introduce our biases. For an equitable experience to take charge, reducing bias during these engagements is critical, while also empowering employees to know their value and aspire to achieve more within your company.
But what if work opportunities, promotions and representation within a company were merit-based? Where skills, experiences, and capabilities were the focus, and all employees have transparency into aspirational career and leadership opportunities. I think we can all agree that this seems wonderful, but bias can get in the way once again. This is where the structure comes in. When we think about people within a company, we can focus on their skills, experiences, capabilities, aspirations, preferences and anything else that makes up an employee.
Decades of research in social psychology and organizational behavior show that when individuals question the value of group identity, they can experience social identity threats. One study found the more a sample of law firms emphasized “value in equality” (affirming differences are not an obstacle to career advancement) during DEI communications rather than “value in difference” (suggesting awareness of bias), the lower the turnover rates among racial minorities. This “value in equality” made the employees feel less distinct from others and confirmed fair access to opportunities. So, while recognizing who each of us are, where we come from and our backgrounds are highly important to appreciate and be aware of, it can also segregate and reaffirm biases that we have leading to social identity threats of the recipient. This example above is considered “race-intelligent inclusion”.
However, when designing programs and practices to support inclusion, there is a need to think holistically to support inclusion for all employees. This makes way for proper and equitably representation and opportunities within the workplace without isolating groups and inflicting social identity threats. Separately, companies must facilitate explicit communication about race. The unwillingness to talk openly about race hinders the professional development of BIPOC and other groups. For example, it reinforces the habit of withholding tough performance feedback to such employees, depriving them of the chance to learn and develop in their jobs.
The structure that brings this all together is based on the work employees do for your company and less about who is the individual is doing the work. Jobs, projects and roles can be predefined to align with specific skills, competencies, and proficiency levels. This structure is found when using a talent framework and a system to scale with. When these are in place, employees and managers have agreed upon benchmarks for skills, performance and capabilities. This reduces bias in decision making, allows for employees to assess themselves appropriately and for managers to agree or provide development when there are gaps to close. The individual is now represented in a structured and fair manner.
Without such structure in place, and a focus toward who is doing the work rather than what work needs to be done, our biases and preconceived notions take over. We are then left in the same situation that we are all striving to change. The term intersectionality recognizes that individuals experience discrimination based on multiple and intersecting identities, including race, religion, ethnicity, migrant status, sexual identity, sexual orientation, disability, age, or socioeconomic status. With each our complex make-up potentially multiplying the chances for unfair treatment, highlighting what any individual can do in the workplace focuses on merit, productivity and equity. Setting this foundation is a great place to build off of to achieve an equitable organization.