6 steps for getting practical about workplace equality

Achieving change in workplace equality is a long and winding road. Take the Walmart example: In February, the retail giant was hit by a gender discrimination lawsuit, five months after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed separate complaints against it related to both pregnancy and disability discrimination, and seven full years after the company successfully battled a gender bias suit all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the tech sector is not immune. Dell EMC settled last year with the Bureau of Labor on pay discrimination, nine years after losing a similar lawsuit. And, Palantir quietly settled its racial bias case in 2017. Sadly, countless other examples could be given to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the problem.

While this resistance to change is shocking, it is indicative of the deep-seated inequalities that exist in many organizations. According to Catalyst research, less than 5 percent of the S&P 500 had female CEOs in January — just 24 companies. Even when strides have been made in diversity, certain groups may be left out: Facebook’s own diversity data shows the company is failing women of color. This highlights the need for organizations to really look inwards – and this starts by formalizing a process of self-examination to insure equality and opportunity across all aspects of their business.

With recent movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp dominating the cultural landscape, the signs are quite literally everywhere telling us to “do something” other than just talk about the problem. The question is — what to do?

1. Develop a Philosophy

Depending on the age of your organization, its likely there are different factors at play. A new company has an opportunity to get things right at the beginning. An established company, on the other hand, may need to engage in deep discussions about what they want the company to stand for, what its diversity goals should be, and what changes they’ll make to get there. Benchmarking against companies similar to yours can be very useful, but shouldn’t wholly define what you do — every company is different so a cookie-cutter approach will fall short.

Staying abreast of state and national laws is critical, too. New legislation to support diversity and inclusion is coming – and in some cases, it’s already here. Take California, for example. The state has a new law mandating that public companies incorporated or headquartered there must have female directors on their boards. No matter where you are in the process of becoming a more diverse and inclusive company, bear this in mind: This is not a ‘one and done’ situation. We must expect philosophies and working practice to evolve over time – any maybe faster than you think.

2. Raise Awareness

Organizations have varying levels of commitment to diversity and inclusion, and whether you are an executive, HR professional or engineer, the one thing you can do that costs virtually nothing is to raise awareness of these issues. There are many different levels of awareness. Some relatively simple ideas:

  • Create internal and external websites
  • Make a video explaining your philosophy
  • Share a blog post by your CEO (and make them write one from the heart!)
  • Introduce the topic regularly in team meetings
  • Allow a more diverse group to present at company events
  • Support affinity groups
  • Create a reading list with recommended books, articles and research to stimulate internal conversations and self-education

The more you shift the conversation to diversity, the more awareness you generate. It really is the first step to driving change of any kind.

3. Define your metrics

They say you can’t manage what you can’t measure. It’s critical to have reasonably good data so you can track your starting point, identify trends and move toward a sensible goal. Many companies share this information internally – and even externally. It’s a great way to hold up the proverbial mirror to see how your company is truly doing. It’s also a subtle driver of change.

If you’re not sure where to start, consider gender. It’s the easiest thing to track because it’s globally relevant. But race, ethnicity, age, orientation status and more are also potential levers to objectively measure how diverse your teams are. Make sure any goals you set are both achievable and realistic for your geography and industry.

4. Educate your people

Unconscious bias training is a no-brainer. Consider making it mandatory for all hiring teams. With ample options available online from numerous service providers, it’s easy to find this kind of training on-demand. You can also use it as a jumping-off point for discussion amongst recruiters, hiring teams and leaders.

5. Set the tone

Your executives and the HR team must lead the way by committing and setting the right example. Most executive teams are simply not as diverse as they probably should be. Start by acknowledging your company has room to improve, and then take steps to move the needle. People tend to ignore what leaders say and pay much more attention to what they actually do. Help ensure their actions and words marry up, and mangers will follow suit. Eventually, goals for diversity and inclusion will be considered a core competency for all executives. Get ahead of the curve and embrace accountability now.

6. Acknowledge the shift

Remember, this is truly an incremental journey. Desmond Tutu is said to have once asked and answered this rhetorical question: “How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Creating a model workplace, where diversity and inclusion are considered “must haves”, is a goal that cannot be easily and quickly achieved. By committing to the task, we can begin to understand more clearly how to approach it. Begin with a philosophy that is true to you, then roll it out as an awareness campaign that includes basic metrics, education and leadership accountability, and the conversation will naturally start to shift.

Diversity and inclusion enhances your competitive position in the marketplace, and senior leadership must be champions for it by holding managers responsible for meeting goals and evaluating outcomes. Ensure your leaders can see both the cultural impact as well as the return on investment.

The idea of hiring or promoting the best person for the team, not just the job, will eventually become the norm. Underrepresented groups will experience increased visibility. Hiring and promotion practices will improve. Attrition will drop. Innovation will increase. And you’ll find that with focus, you really can make a difference.

The first step is to address the elephant in the room. The next step is to take one bite of it at a time. It won’t take as long to finish as you might think.