How to Shape a Workplace Culture That Works for Everyone

It’s about creating an environment that allows for tough, meaningful conversations.

Prostock-studio / Shutterstock
Prostock-studio / Shutterstock

The awakening around racial injustice spurred by the murder of George Floyd has touched nearly every aspect of life, impacting politics, policy, and conversation — not only in America, but around the world. 

In the business world, leaders have vowed to create more inclusive cultures, providing equal opportunities for people who might otherwise be marginalized. They have pledged to take meaningful action to truly embrace diversity — employing and championing people of different races, cultures, and backgrounds — instead of taking check-the-box approaches. And the ability to go beyond inspiring statements to actually shape change has quickly become one of the key tests for business leaders. 

“Recent events have put a much-needed spotlight on the fact that our discussions, and the efforts made to create a more diverse and inclusive workplace, have not been enough,” writes Jill Popelka, president of SAP SuccessFactors. “The fact is, we continue to combat systemic racism across the globe and we need to do so much more to advance racial and gender equality, reduce economic disparities, and be active allies for those who are marginalized.”

Minal Bopaiah is the founder of Brevity & Wit, a strategy and design firm focused on designing a more inclusive and equitable world. Her advice to leaders who really want to move the needle? Start looking at diversity, inclusion, and equity at a systems level and re-examining the structures within the organization that influence people’s behavior.

This approach, she says, “makes it easier for people to behave in inclusive and equitable ways, instead of requiring constant human effort and motivation to behave in a way that is more fair toward all employees.”

In an interview, Bopaiah shared her recommendations for steps leaders can take to create more inclusive workplace cultures and foster the kind of uncomfortable, authentic conversations that can lead to growth.

Start at the top

As companies have moved to join the conversation on diversity and inclusion, Bopaiah has seen some organizations do it in well-intentioned ways that can be counterproductive, such as holding company-wide meetings to talk about race and injustice.

The better approach, she says, is to start with leaders. Because until leaders have built self-awareness — about their own privilege, and the actual narratives of their own success — it’s much harder to create a truly equitable and inclusive company culture.

“It takes a lot of work for an organization to be able to hold any sort of town hall around these topics,” Bopaiah says. “You should not be doing all-staff trainings as a knee-jerk reaction. You have to start with leadership.”

Leaders can begin by looking at themselves.

After Floyd was murdered, Bopaiah heard from several white business leaders who wanted to do something meaningful by offering to mentor Black people in their professional field.

Bopaiah told them they had it backwards. “You want to diversify your field?” she told them. “Then I want you to go find the people in your field who are Black, or indigenous, or people of color who are already thought leaders in this space so they can be your mentor.”

A simple step Bopaiah recommends is to scan your social media network. Who are you following on LinkedIn and Twitter? How many people of color who are leaders in your field are you following, retweeting, or engaging with? How many books by people of color are you reading that could influence how you do your job? 

From there, leaders can connect in other ways, like reaching out to fellow leaders they admire.

The impetus for making these new connections matters, Bopaiah says. Don’t seek out a partnership with a Black-owned business because “it’s the right thing to do,” but because you think that business’s leaders might actually have something to teach you, or that a partnership might benefit you and your company as much as it would benefit theirs. 

Build equity at the structural level

Some leaders focus on learning a new language of diversity and inclusion.

“Then it becomes the Woke Olympics, like who knows the right terms for all these different things,” Bopaiah says. 

More effective, she says, is to implement systems-level changes that can really create ongoing equity.

For example, all company job postings should include non-negotiable salary ranges, she says. Many people’s salaries are dependent on their negotiation skill, even if negotiation skill isn’t a job requirement. 

“That leads to a lot of inequities,” Bopaiah says. “A lot of diversity and inclusion consultants, myself included, will not share a job with our network unless the salary is posted on the job posting.”

Additionally, when interviewing new candidates, leaders should look for a “culture add,” not a “culture fit” — a mindset shift that can help reduce unconscious bias.

“When people start to interview for culture fit, that’s how you start to get people who are a lot alike,” Bopaiah says. “And that’s how you decrease diversity, because culture fit is often a code word for, ‘I want to hire people like me, that I like.’”

Connect inclusion to performance

Until people are rewarded for behaviors that promote equity and inclusion, not much is going to change, Bopaiah says. Leaders need to ask themselves if their performance review system rewards and incentivizes these behaviors. If it doesn’t, and leadership’s lofty statements are seen to be just P.R. messaging, “people are always going to do the thing that allows them to keep their job over anything else you say.”

Therefore, leaders should ask how they can link these goals to actual metrics that people pay attention to, such as performance reviews and compensation. Starbucks, for example, has announced it will tie executive compensation to its goals of increasing minority representation across its workforce, aiming for at least 30% of American corporate employees to be people of color by 2025.

Invite people to opt in

Creating an environment that allows for tough, meaningful conversations is key to business outcomes. For example, according to the Thrive XM Index — a research report that measures the connections between employee experience, performance and organizational resilience — employees most (versus least) satisfied with how their company handles workplace conflicts reported 34% increases in retention likelihood, 33% lifts in work satisfaction, 33% lifts in engagement, and 32% reductions in perceived stress.

So how can leaders make it possible for people at every level of the organization to have these conversations?

To start, don’t force it. “The best diversity and inclusion interventions are voluntary,” Bopaiah says.

One of her clients created a monthly series for employees featuring a film, book, or podcast around the Black experience. 

“Having a calendar of events can be a fun and lighter way to introduce these topics at work,” she says. Coming together — in person or virtually — over media, art, food, and holidays are positive, welcoming ways to have conversations about difference and inclusion. 

In this way, instead of telling people what to do, leaders can invite people to go on a journey together toward the kind of workplace that truly works for everyone.

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