Building Equity into The Workplace 

by David Faro 

I was recently asked how to incrementally build equity into the “development of people,” at a large state agency. The organization aims to create the nation’s best and most future-ready workforce with a vision 

to generate economic opportunities for all citizens in the state. The task was to contemplate a process, beyond a simple strategic plan, that promotes economic resilience as well as prosperity for a wide array of communities and individuals. At the same time, the plan must create true equity throughout the organization in which this work is being accomplished. The plan had to value investment in the professional development of the people carrying out the work while giving each person an equal opportunity to thrive and succeed.

The end goal required a deep focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, kindness, and collaboration. Written into the subtext of the request was a desire for new and innovative approaches for making equity an intrinsic part of all departments.

New and Innovative? Incremental? A plan to instill equity into the development of people from a diverse community of professionals? A plan like that needs to consider people coming from different cultures, ages, class distinctions, physical abilities, and religious beliefs. Different races, gender expressions, and geographical origins have to be taken in account as well. The task would include people with diverse incomes and educational backgrounds. Some would be parents; some would not be. Some would be married; others would not. Some would come with decades of work experience; others would be brand new to the workforce. 

Where does an organization begin in the multicultural and multi-faceted face of a request like this? First and foremost, the architects of the plan must begin with an open heart and mind that focuses on communities and people that are underserved and marginalized. The first two questions are: how do organizations catalyze a process like this and how does it then come up with a system that will operationalize equity across an agency’s personnel and professional development systems?

As I considered this request, I thought back to several years ago when I was leading an internship program at a large business association. During this time, several interns were attending a college that was in throes of a debilitating equity crisis. Racial tensions were being closely watched in the community and across the country. Students and professors were appearing on cable news channels and anger, hurt, and vitriol were being played out on a national stage. It was a demoralizing experience for many people. One evening, at the end of a long workday, one of my students, a woman of color, sat down to talk with me. She had been in the center of an incident the previous day and TV cameras had captured it all. Over the course of our learning journey together, we had developed the ability to speak frankly with each other and we had an opportunity to talk about some of the concerns that were heavy in both of our hearts.

As she detailed the apprehensions of students and the problems at the school, I felt compelled to ask her a question. As a white male American, a person who has had the unconscious benefit of biased privilege my whole life, what did she think was my best course of action in ameliorating equity problems that might exist in my own organization, life, and society? What role could I play as a senior manager wanting to affect change?  She thought momentarily, considered her response carefully, and then she spoke slowly and intensely. “Start by listening. Do not be the first to talk or control the discussion, just listen. Listen until my people are finished sharing. Listen until it hurts. Then keep listening some more. Listen until my people feel we have truly been heard. Then keep listening some more. Your power comes in the fact that your people are generally the first, and last, allowed to speak, and when my people speak, we know, normally, the powerful do not listen. Give us time to develop what we need to say. Do not speak. Just. Listen.”  Her words have stayed with me, and I have held them close. It was perhaps one of the most impactful events in my professional development as a leader of teams. What l learned was that in helping to create systems that promote equity, my first recommendation comes from this courageous woman. The plan should begin by attempting to operationalize an organizational change process that starts with, depends on, and is sustained with, a focus on deep listening.

How does an organization do that? Institutionalize deep listening efforts? How does it challenge top down approaches to management that often disenfranchise people who are not given the opportunity to be heard? How do we challenge systems that people in positions of power are often reticent to adjust?

Organizational change should begin with strategies that focus on cultural transformation rather than change that starts with regulatory efforts. When a system of change looks to affect culture first, it can infuse itself organically into the agency as a beginning point for transformation. This way, from the surface to the deepest levels of an organization, all people involved are thinking about equity and non-discrimination on a personal level. In time this cultural change effort begins to be adopted by the whole establishment. People only embrace cultural change if they feel listened to and that they have a real and abiding stake in the outcomes of a change process.

A deep listening process can start with a series of formalized feedback tools. Surveys are a good instrument for establishing base understandings of how individuals and working groups “really feel.” These simple devices can give voice to people and provide a first wave of constructive criticism and metrics.  Anonymity can provide a sense of security as people share their situational perspectives. Data derived from these surveys can help to create a starting point for change targets and objectives.

A secondary method can come from developing small focus groups, where deep listening activities are facilitated with the goals of empathy, kindness and understanding at the forefront of discussions.  As leadership embarks on guiding the whole agency on this journey towards equity, it is important to create systems that allow for peer support. From these groups, courageous goals can be developed that are achievable and agreed upon. These ambitions should be concentrated on the fact that it is people who must achieve them and that this will be a human-led effort. Thought should be given to all the emotions, insecurities, trauma, and reconciliation that will need to attend the process. Structures must be in place to ensure a feeling of safety, accountability and a shared custody of results.

 Speaking truth to power does not always come easy.  Starting important conversations that might lead to productive conflict are often easier to have in a group of contemporaries. These groups, absent of direct supervisors, are often fertile ground for producing actionable steps towards equity that are rooted in honesty and candid opinion. The salient points can be formally brought to leadership after they are unearthed in an environment where people feel safe to share. Using surveys and discussion groups, existing conflicts can be identified, and methodologies can be considered and developed for resolving disputes and tensions that previously have inhibited equity.

Ideas for change should be generated from a 360-degree perspective. A starting point being that all opinions are relevant and will be equally considered. Inside of facilitated atmospheres, world class listeners can be developed, and it is possible to enable meaningful interactions that bridge divides. When all people are listening, all people are heard. This is a modality that when aimed towards equity in the workplace, can often produce extraordinary results.

As an organization intentionally embarks on this journey, it is critical that lines of communication are thought out and developed in advance. It should be emphasized to leadership that giving participants the voice needed to ensure equity and inclusiveness, begins with change on their part. The behaviors required to give franchise to those who traditionally have not had it starts with modeling the values that leaders hope to inspire. Cross cultural experiences must be encouraged. Professional development plans for leaders must begin by helping them to discover the unconscious biases playing out in their own styles, personalities and work routines. It will be a challenge. Leaders will feel exposed and vulnerable as their less equitable methods of management and team development are scrutinized and exposed. Through example however, people in stations of control set the most powerful benchmarks for inclusion. Principals dedicated to incorporating diversity into their organizations will need to find new and personal ways of operating that demonstrates that equity is now in fact a hallmark of the new workplace.  

After the vital and initial stage of deep listening has been completed, many organizational attributes that inhibit equity and inclusiveness will have been illuminated. Strategies for fostering new behaviors will then have to be considered and adjudicated. For equity to take root, all people must have permission to suggest and implement pathways towards solutions. In the meantime, a cultural shift towards listening and giving voice to those who have traditionally not experienced  being heard will be celebrated as a new normal.  Muscle will begin to grow. Those who struggle will have a caring community attempting to hold them accountable when they encounter difficulties. A community will form where people feel heard and trust the processes in place for giving feedback. Clear expectations for inclusive leadership will have been formalized. Connections between the mission of the organization and the goal of challenging equity issues will have been established and recognized. 

At this point in the organization’s change efforts, new systems and processes will begin to take place. Leaders will be encouraged to support professional development that constantly connects managers and staff to developing skill sets that are linked to facilitating systemic equity. Procedures that make inclusion integral to work routines will be reinforced through performance management techniques. Continued opportunities for peer support and operational policies that allow for everyone to be heard will be implemented into continued training and education. Managers will be prepared and understand how to set a tone that engages participants. People with different styles, cultures, and personality types will be given the opportunity to contribute equally to the mission at hand. Leaders will begin to implement the power-to-be-heard. Equity as a integral goal, will become a centerpiece for all teams. They will utilize new listening skills with a developed ear. Workers will begin to share that they feel more and more significant to the goals of the organization. Moral will begin to improve, and workplace data suggests that overall productivity will as well.

Once a cultural shift has occurred and methodologies have been adjusted as a result of feedback, the next processes to put in place are practical reviews of the change effort. Measurement methodologies are a must. Have departments and managers changed the way they source, recruit, onboard and promote people? In continuing surveys and group discussions, do employees reflect that everyone who wants to speak is heard?  Do metrics indicate that people are also asked for their opinions about their work rather than simply given task lists? Do team members reflect that they feel acknowledged? Do quantitative and qualitative indicators demonstrate that employees feel a genuine concern for their personal success coming from their managers? 

People living out inclusive management techniques will feel rewarded for doing so. High employee engagement will be connected to leadership performance evaluations. Working groups and individuals will reflect feelings of emotional safety as they move through their day. A singular and regulatory atmosphere surrounding work will have been left behind. Appreciative Inquiry will be a performance and professional development tool. Analysis will reveal that deep listening has tailored workflows that take into consideration the unique conditions and cultural factors of individuals. It will also directly affect the customers that they provide products and services for, and marginalized groups will feel the change.

As the organization begins to settle into a new normal and begins to evolve towards increased equity in the workplace, the targets set at the beginning must be tracked. Are the principles of cultural equivalence continually being adhered to as general practice? Metrics of engagement should be compartmentalized and compared against all the variables that define distinct communities in the agency. Are the efforts producing real and impactful change for all people? Do women share the same level of engagement that men do? People of color? Are older workers feeling heard and engaged?  Are the young? Are people undergoing diverse experiences of change or are they reflecting the experience of opportunity equally?  Is the language used in every day interaction working, or does it still alienate and dis-include certain groups or individuals? Are benefits, rewards, promotions, tasks and services equally available to staff members of all stripes? Are all individuals given equal attention? Are potent feedback methods fairly and safely available to all workers?  Are there still pockets of harassment or bias? Once an organization has systematically implemented a change process aimed at equity, it is always vital to monitor progress, create a reporting structure on efficacy, and continually calibrate equity efforts across all aspects of operation. It is critical that employees continue to feel like fundamental constituents in the process of enacting an organization’s mission, and not simply interchangeable parts in the mechanics of operation.

Listening, coaching, new process development, and organizational change endeavors aimed at equity can be intimidating. Many organizations know that their efforts will give their companies new strength and foster a more sustainable future, but it is still a difficult process. Confronting social justice in the workplace can prompt a whole host of unconscious fears when people are forced to examine their own personal values and behaviors.  When we seek to redefine norms, we must encounter perceptions that are rooted in bias that many people are not even aware they possessed. This process, especially in an organization that is sincerely trying to discover and change attitudes that contribute to inequity, will come with attending tensions. The people who have normally been disenfranchised will experience the first waves of stress. The spotlight will often feel like it is on them. Many will be uncomfortable. Managers will have to allow everyone to find their own way into the process. Supervisors will have to be trained to identify and acknowledge dynamics that might impede the process and learn how to overcome them.

In the end, the objective is to do things differently; to develop a method for achieving equity that is based on listening to all people involved in the mission. An underlying goal is to understand their engagement levels and why they do, or do not feel connected to the benefits and rewards of the work they do. The change effort requires continual assessment of goals against action. It necessitates building process development strategies that gives all employees recognizable franchise in the outcomes of the agency. It involves a change in management techniques reflecting an understanding that workers bring different understandings and attitudes to work projects. Leaders must engage in continual reflection and respond dynamically as metrics and gauges indicate success or setbacks.  But at the forefront of it all, providing equity requires that all involved make a deep commitment to listening to each other. Especially, listening to people who feel like they have never been heard before.