diverse team

3 Strategies to Promote Workplace Health

2017 is shaping up to be the year of populism in the U.S. This has direct implications for compliance, HR and diversity professionals. If diversity is a key driver of business competitiveness, how do you create a culture of ethics, respect and inclusion amidst this rising tide of populism?

Populism in the Office

Recently, several commentators have attempted to explain the rise in populist authoritarianism in the West as a cultural backlash against ongoing social change. When this sentiment manifests in the workplace, it can characterize respect and inclusion as politically correct narratives that lead to unnecessary bureaucracy and create a drag on business.

When populists share their views in the workplace, it can lead to conflict and a spike in workplace claims. We have even seen a recent corresponding surge in requests for guidance on managing political tensions in the workplace. This workplace tension is keeping HR and diversity professionals working double time as they work to de-escalate workplace conflicts and reassure other employees that respect and inclusion remain core values.

Diversity Drives Competitiveness

However, even as populism creeps into the workplace, the business case for a respectful, inclusive culture has never been more clear. As the world shrinks and nearly all businesses compete within a global marketplace, women and minorities are critical employee segments as well as influential customers who vote with their wallets.

Workplace diversity is a key competitive advantage because it enables businesses to engage multiple perspectives to build the products and services necessary to meet the demands of this modern customer base.  As shown in a diversity study from McKinsey & Company, EBIT margins at the most diverse companies were 14 percent higher on average than those of the least diverse companies. Enabling better business results is an objective everyone can agree on.

But you need a respectful, harassment-free culture to attract top diverse talent.  Without an inclusive culture, women and minorities will steer clear when choosing a new job opportunity and/or quickly exit in a revolving door of talent, e.g., the leaky diversity funnel.

Similarly, and as influenced by millennials, people increasingly want to work for a company that has purpose and a positive social impact.  So as soon as management acts in a way that is inconsistent with positive social values, recruitment and retention will suffer.

Reputation Affects Success

Recruitment, retention and employee conflict are all indicators of a healthy workplace culture.  Typically an organization can sustain a moderately unhealthy culture for a short run before it becomes public knowledge or affects the brand.  But once the workplace culture moves from unhealthy to toxic, employee frustration is bound to explode and show up on social media for the world to see.  These social media posts can result in unwanted media attention, extended gossip that reaches partners and investors or negative reactions from potential new hires researching a company.  If you’re not convinced, just look at the business success of Glassdoor, which showcases employee gripes, or the recent social media implosions of Uber, Theranos, Zenefits, Wells Fargo, ad infinitum.

Whether it’s a harassment scandal, an ethics mishap or embarrassing diversity numbers, an unhealthy workplace culture eventually reaches a boiling point if left unaddressed.  And “a boiling point” these days means social media and a resulting PR nightmare that affects the company brand, causing negative impact to recruitment, retention and sales. Worst case scenarios can even result in public customer boycotts.

Driving Change in the Workplace

To support a healthy or what we refer to as a “green” workplace culture, HR and diversity professionals should consider and implement these three basic steps:

  1. CEO support: Founders and CEOs create the workplace culture, and their actions disproportionately affect that culture.  Conversely, HR and compliance professionals are generally regarded as advisers rather than business leaders.  Therefore, you need to have the CEO deliver the message if you want to influence the culture. It may be the adviser’s role to help craft the message, but it’s the CEO’s role to deliver it so the workforce listens and prioritizes the need for a healthy workplace culture.
  1. Ongoing, integrated programs that support workforce health: Too often, compliance and diversity professionals “talk at” people rather than strategically influence them. It’s often a question of “checking a box” versus driving real change. Change requires a sustained campaign that strikes a chord and resonates with employees. Unfortunately, very few (if any) company advisers leverage technology to track what messages and content resonate with employees.  Companies spend money on marketing technology to track what resonates with potential buyers but don’t do the same for their workforce.  Investing a small percentage of the overall labor budget into programs that provide visibility and a workforce “health score” is money well spent if it helps avoid issues and possible social media implosions.
  1. De-risking employee conflict: De-risking employee conflict means providing mechanisms for otherwise vulnerable employees to be heard and escalate concerns without the fear of appearing combative or being perceived as a complainer.  At Emtrain, we’ve addressed this by color-coding conduct and giving employees conversational terms to use rather than combative terms (e.g., “that’s kind of orange” rather than “you’re harassing me!”).  This helps defuse situations where those in power might feel on the defensive against claims of harassment. We’re also addressing it by allowing employees to ask questions and share concerns privately.  We then redact employee identity and provide employers a report showing the aggregated Q&A and concerns of their workforce.  These two mechanisms are a beginning to provide otherwise vulnerable employees a safe way to share concerns and improve the workplace.


So for the rest of 2017, execute these three strategies to promote workplace health (ethics, respect and diversity) while building a more competitive business that remains off the social media hot corner.

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