3 Steps to Achieving True Equity in the Workplace

by Tara Jaye Frank

If enough leaders commit to an equity journey, we can make progress toward the equitable workplace we deserve.

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In a talent market transformed by a worldwide pandemic, remote work, a greater focus on mental health, social justice, and divisiveness, the road to a more equitable workplace has more potholes than ever. Once a straight line marked by simple questions –Do you need a job? Which industry do you want to work in? Is the pay good? —that road is now a meandering one, punctuated by so many more (and more complex) considerations. Today, talent is asking about our values. They want to know who’s on your board of directors and how they spend their time and money. And they desire to understand whether your workplace is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. In fact, 88% of Generation Z considers diversity, equity, and inclusion “very important” when considering where they might work. The tables have definitely turned since the “command and control” era, and many leaders have been caught on the vulnerable side.

If it’s so important to rising talent that we achieve a more equitable and inclusive workplace (as opposed to just talking about it), what can leaders do to move toward that goal? How do we know where to begin, when to accelerate progress, and what we can reasonably expect from our efforts? While there is no singular manual for achieving true equity at work, there are a few steps you can take to inform your plans. But first, context: according to The Waymakers narrative inquiry study, employees define equity as equal pay, equal access to opportunity, and appreciation that matches their value contribution.

  1. Evaluate your starting point.

It’s important to have a clear sense of what your employees are currently experiencing before you start making major investments in achieving more equitable outcomes. You can do this by conducting an experience survey or holding listening sessions with various talent segments. You can also analyze your existing employee data (pay, promotion, retention, exit). One question to ask is are people doing similar jobs being paid similarly, regardless of their salary history? You can also look at how equitably (or not) you are developing talent. Are you coaching people toward their aspirations equitably, or are some people stagnating? Are there certain talent groups that seem to have sponsors while others do not? Are your people getting promotions at similar rates across dimensions of difference? Beyond the hard data, understanding how people characterize the quality of their relationships with you and knowing which specific experiences (good or bad) are driving that characterization are critical first steps in determining which processes or leadership behaviors you might maximize or mitigate to improve your workplace culture.

  1. Experiment.

Once you learn what’s working and what isn’t, bring people together from multiple levels of the organization and across diversity dimensions to discuss learnings and share ideas for bold actions that might move you forward. This does not mean ask your Black and brown people or your women to develop your strategy for you. It means recognize they will have perspectives you may not have, and meaningful discussions about insights will help you add dimension to those ideas, leading to equity solutions you may not have thought of on your own. Best practices usually include sponsorship programs to help enable fair promotions, pay audits and reconciliation steps, revised leadership expectations with accountability metrics, or targeted development programs to increase visibility and strengthen peer networks for those who have been invisible. Remember, you want to solve against your insights, not someone else’s idea of what great looks like. Your success will be defined by your unique aspirations as well as your starting place. What do you do once you land on a few bold actions? Experiment. Experiment. Experiment. Bring key stakeholders along for the ride. Build on what works, and revise what doesn’t.

  1. Define and monitor success.

As with any important body of work, it’s crucial to be specific about how you will measure success. If you did everything right on the equity front for the next year, what would be true? What would your data tell you? What would your employees say or do differently? How would your business change? Think about success signals through multiple dimensions, capture them, share them for transparency and accountability, and determine how frequently you will review your progress. Then, report on that progress. Don’t forget to determine who is accountable. Pro tip: every leader is accountable for whether and how their talent thrives (or withers) in their care. In other words, don’t pass the buck to your HR partners. If you’re the leader, this is your work to do, and to keep doing until you gain steam.

Of course, achieving equitable outcomes is part systems work and part human work, but we should remember that people implement systems. If enough leaders commit to an equity journey, to include learning, doing, and responding to lessons learned along the way, we can make progress toward the equitable workplace we deserve. And if we are disciplined and courageous enough, we can position our companies to stand strong against the headwinds that will undoubtedly come.

Tara Jaye Frank is a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategist and author of The Waymakers.