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Improving work culture doesn’t always require a big budget

Even with a limited budget, businesses can take action to address inequities in the workplace.
Carolyn Copeland November 30th, 2020
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Consultants who offer diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training have had their phones ringing off the hook since the gigantic wave of racial justice protests took off in the spring. Since then, companies of all sizes have pledged to do more to address social injustice in the workplace. But now, with the coronavirus entering a third wave and stimulus negotiations that could have provided relief for businesses being stalled, employers that had once hoped to invest resources into altering their company culture have continued to face lossed revenue, furloughs, hiring freezes, and layoffs.

Employers wanting to make improvements may be at a loss for what to do or how to do it, and a limited budget can make it challenging to reach any business-related targets—let alone achieve diversity goals. But even with a limited budget that makes formal DEI training out of the question, businesses can still take actions to address already-existing inequities and create a better, more inclusive work culture. Here are a few:

Create clear, measurable goals

Chrysta Wilson is the president and senior consultant for Wilson and Associates Consulting, which, among other services, provides in-depth unconscious bias training for government agencies and businesses. Wilson and other people in her line of work call it “capacity building,” which she says helps people have the “knowledge, skills, abilities, and tools to advance an agenda around anti-racism, diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.”

When Wilson gets a call or an email from a company looking for a DEI consultant, she first asks them a list of questions to ensure they’re serious about the work before agreeing to move forward. Saying “we want to be more inclusive” isn’t clear enough, Wilson said, because it doesn’t show a commitment to the work.

“[DEI] is a big category, and the services within that category are big: coaching, training, curriculum development, human resources, professional development, recruitment, evaluation, culture assessment, team building—there’s so much in the DEI and anti-racism categories that it’s important to be specific, and that part is free.”

Wilson said “DEI work” is often thrown around by people who have no concept of what it actually means.

“People love an acronym,” Wilson said. “I was at a meeting and someone was like, ‘You know, Chrysta, we’re doing JEDI work.’ I had no idea what they were talking about, but I knew they weren’t talking about Star Wars.”

What they meant was justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Wilson said she often works with people who use words interchangeably without realizing what they mean.

“People are using the word ‘diversity’ when they mean ‘inclusion,’ and inclusion means something different,” she said.

Get specific. What exactly are you trying to achieve? In an ideal world, what would your staff look like? What complaints have you received thus far?

“I’ve had people come to me wanting to do a whole cultural overhaul,” Wilson said. “They’ll say, ‘Our culture is racist. Our entire leadership has no one from an equity-seeking group—no women, no people of color, no LGBTQ folks, no people of a diverse race or ethnicity. It’s all white folks. We’ve got $10,000. Can you help us with this?’ And my answer is, ‘No, I cannot. I can’t do the training, the deep coaching work, your hiring, or strategy development—there just aren’t enough resources.’ I'll invite them to go back and think about what their ultimate goal is and invite them to seek more funding—not necessarily for me, but for them to be able to do this right, they have to find the budget.”

It’s also important to consider why you want to make these improvements in the first place. Is it because other companies are doing it, or is it because you want your employees to feel valued and respected?

Do some inventory

Setting goals is helpful, but if you’re not clear where to start, chat with your staff and invite them to speak freely about the work culture. What would they like to see? What level of commitment have you already made in this space? Where are they not getting enough support? Is there a high turnover rate for staff members of color? When you look at the people of color on your staff, are they earning as much as their peers? How many advancement opportunities are in place, and how often are people of color, disabled people, or LGBTQ+ people recommended for the position? Is there any ongoing workplace behavior that might be counterproductive?

“You’ve got to ask people: ‘What would you need so that you can feel like you belong here?’” Wilson said.

Taking an honest inventory about the work culture is one of the best ways to know what problems need to be addressed.

“Senior leadership doesn’t have to be the only ones who decide what the DEI agenda is,” Wilson said. “Ask your employees by interviewing them or doing a staff focus group.”

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Sometimes, that can be easier said than done—especially since many people are unaware of how their language or behaviors can affect others. Syntrio, an online company that offers ethics and compliance training, has seen “a large surge” in the number of businesses seeking diversity training since the video of the police killing of George Floyd went viral in May. With the flood of new business, the company has created courses to address some of the common questions and concerns they’ve received; the courses have to do with sensitivity to racial and social identities, unconscious bias, and establishing a civil and respectful workplace.

“It’s challenging enough to help people identify and address their blatant biases, stereotypes, and prejudice, and manage them,” said Larry Bograd, senior director of product development at Syntrio. “One common theme we see is well-meaning people not admitting to unconscious bias. For example, they may think they’re complimenting a person, but the person ‘reads’ the compliment as patronizing, hurtful, or ignorant. Additionally, we see a recurring theme of getting people to accept the concept and reality of social privilege.”

Bograd said that it’s on leaders to lead by example and promote a civil, inclusive, and respectful workplace. Looking at whether lawsuits have been filed or threatened in the past and whether or not there have been a reduction in complaints is also a good way to determine which areas need the most improvement.

Implement grievance protocols

You have an employee with a complaint. Now what? Maybe there is already a system in place for employees to have their concerns addressed, but are employees aware of it? Installing a clear system free of judgement where employees can address their concerns or anxieties without fear of retaliation is crucial. Make sure your employees know their rights and that you intend to take any complaints seriously. Also, make it clear what behavior you will and will not accept—such as insensitive, off-the-cuff jokes or certain language or terminology—and issue a clearly-defined definition of racism, ageism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and transphobia for staff to adhere to.

The Commission for Racial Equality has issued a practical guide for employers to refer to if they’re having trouble coming up with a procedure.

Encourage individual staff development

Recommending free resources can help contextualize the struggles of marginalized communities. Recommending specific books, movies, or podcasts could be a helpful, free way to educate staff.

“I actually had a client put together an anti-racism DEI reading list [for employees],” Wilson said.

You can regularly send out a list to employees, or post the list somewhere around the office that can make it easier to reference. To make it more collaborative, can also ask staff to recommend resources to add to the list over time and even carve out some time for staff to discuss them. If you do this, be sure to recommend books or other resources by BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled creators.

Reduce or eliminate bias in evaluations

Stereotypes surrounding race and gender have been proven to creep into the performance evaluation process. Studies have shown that women are more likely to receive vague feedback in performance evaluations, whereas men typically receive longer reviews that focus specifically on their strengths and weaknesses. When it comes to personality evaluations, gendered expectations also creep in. Women are more likely to be called “aggressive,” and men are more likely to be criticized for being “too soft.”

Learn to have a heightened awareness about what criticisms are dosed out to employees and whether they might be enforcing gender stereotypes. Also, consider where ageism, racism, and white supremacy might be embedded in the current evaluation process and think about where you can make some improvements.

Regularly follow up

Raising awareness about issues surrounding race doesn’t automatically mean there will be behavioral shifts, which is why businesses must make a commitment to defining their priorities and seeing their goals through.

Unconscious bias training and racial sensitivity training can be pricey, and will only go so far when it comes to creating an inclusive culture. Almost all Fortune 500 companies have diversity training for staff, but many don’t follow through to ensure the guidelines or rules are being followed. Even if your employer has previously offered racial sensitivity training, they can still create goals that can help measure their goals and the effectiveness of the protocols they put in place.

In a 2019 study published in The Harvard Business Review, researchers evaluated the impact and effectiveness of racial sensitivity training at several businesses. Not long after training took place within the companies, they instructed managers to send out an email to staff, asking them to nominate five people for a position. They encouraged managers to get data and experiment with their staff. They then evaluated the number of women and people of color who were recommended by staff, and decided where to move forward from that point.

Some employers also use Key Performance Indicators [KPIs] to measure the effectiveness of their work and evaluate whether their equity goals have been accomplished. KPIs can help gauge performance, train talent, track efficacy and effectiveness, and encourage promoting employees solely on performance metrics, rather than personal attributes.

Even if there is a lack of observable change in the attitudes and behaviors of employees, researchers recommend taking a multi-pronged, creative approach to changing the culture, rather than expecting an immediate solution after one or two meetings or racial sensitivity training sessions.


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