As digital technologies become more prominent in how organizations work, employers are balancing the need for employees with digital and other hard skills with the need for employees with “soft” social, interpersonal, and communication skills. In fact, employers are increasingly prioritizing social and emotional skills; McKinsey, for example, predicts that skills such as communication, pattern recognition, logical reasoning, and creativity will be in high demand in the coming decades.
With these soft skills in high demand, Jake Bullinger proposed in a recent article at Fast Company that for-profit organizations consider hiring trained social workers to fill that need. Bullinger talks to Michàlle Mor Barak, a University of Southern California social work professor, who notes that companies today require expertise in societal good as they are increasingly under pressure to prioritize things like corporate social responsibility, work-life balance, and diversity and inclusion which weren’t on their radar a few decades ago. Social workers and other experts in social and emotional issues could be particularly helpful in people management and community engagement, Bullinger writes:
A human resources department staffed with therapists could better handle harassment claims, and recruiters working with social scientists could better target minority candidates. Corporate philanthropy arms would benefit, one can surmise, from case workers who understand a community’s greatest needs. The people best suited to run diversity and inclusion efforts might be those who study diversity and inclusion for a living.
I graduated with a master’s degree in social work in 2005 and have spent most of my career working in for-profit organizations. From my vantage point, social workers can provide an array of benefits, but organizations need to be realistic about what they can and can’t do.
Since taking up the position of CEO at General Motors in 2014, Mary Barra has undertaken to transform the culture of the storied American automaker. As the automotive industry and other legacy manufacturers find themselves increasingly in competition with big tech companies for talent—in Detroit’s case, a product of the race to market self-driving cars—they have had to expand their talent attraction strategies outside their traditional blue-collar comfort zone and reach out to candidates with very different expectations and values, as well as more diverse backgrounds.
Barra’s approach to culture change at GM has focused in part on simplifying rules and policies that might strike this new generation of talent as arbitrary and overly bureaucratic, such as the dress code, which she shrunk from a detailed section in the employee handbook to just two words: “Dress appropriately.” Barra told the story at the Wharton People Analytics Conference in Philadelphia last month, from which Quartz’s Leah Fessler passes it along:
After replacing GM’s 10-page dress code treatise with a two-word appeal, Barra received a scathing email from a senior-level director. “He said, ‘You need to put out a better dress policy, this is not enough.’ So I called him—and of course that shook him a little bit. And I asked him to help me understand why the policy was inept.” The director explained that occasionally, some people on his team had to deal with government officials on short notice, and had to be dressed appropriately for that.
According to our diversity and inclusion research at CEB, now Gartner, creating an inclusive team climate is just as important as improving diversity. However, organizations still struggle to determine what inclusion looks like for them. For many of us, the concept of diversity is concrete, but inclusion feels a lot less defined. D&I budgets are increasingly focused on leadership development and D&I leaders are making inclusive leadership a priority, but most employees don’t agree that their manager fosters an inclusive environment, and perceptions of inclusivity are lower further down the organization chart than they are among senior leaders.
In a session on building inclusive leaders at our ReimagineHR conference on Wednesday, we heard from Bob Lennon, VP of Industrial Components Business at Rockwell Automation; Aida Sabo, VP of Diversity and Inclusion at Parexel; and Celeste Warren, VP of HR and the Global D&I Center of Excellence at Merck, about how they are defining inclusion for their organizations and implementing it in their organizational cultures. Here are some key ideas that came up in Wednesday’s conversation for how to encourage inclusiveness among leaders and the entire workforce:
Create a Common Language of Inclusion
The definitions of “diversity” and “inclusion” can vary across organizations and each leader and employee also may have a different interpretation of how these live within the company. The most successful organizations, however, define the D&I narrative for all their leaders and employees globally. By using a common vocabulary to communicate D&I efforts to the workforce, the organization can have a clear understanding of what inclusion means. Storytelling also can be an essential tool for communicating the success of inclusion initiatives, as it is important to know what metrics and success stories to share with leaders, employees, and external stakeholders to create transparency and accountability.
Make Inclusion About the Entire Workforce
Oftentimes employees who do not identify as a part of a marginalized talent segment feel excluded by D&I efforts, but according to our panelists, it is not only important to get these employees to buy into inclusion, they are in fact an essential part of these initiatives. Some employees get stuck because they don’t know where they are in their own journey of inclusion or recognize the significance of supporting D&I as an ally.
The topic of sexual harassment at work has been rightly thrown into the spotlight in recent months due to several scandals at major employers, particularly the allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The #metoo campaign on social media, in which women are speaking up about having been sexually harassed or assaulted, has also highlighted just how prevalent this problem still is in society writ large and the workplace in particular.
To try and get a handle on this problem, some employers may think the best solution is to identify the types of employees most likely to sexually harass their peers and push them out or refuse to hire them. Unfortunately, FiveThirtyEight’s Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux digs through the research and finds that it’s not that simple, because we don’t actually know how to identify those people:
Quid pro quo harassment, where one employee promises a benefit to another in exchange for a sexual favor or threatens reprisal in the workplace if rejected, is an exception to the pattern-of-behavior problem in that it’s easy to identify after just one incident. But it’s more common for harassment to take the form of a hostile work environment, which is built over time through a series of actions that might seem relatively harmless on their own but become harassing or intimidating in the aggregate. … It’s also hard to find out whether harassers share common attributes like age, marital status, level of education, industry or position in the work hierarchy. …
One important takeaway from Thomson-DeVeaux’s reporting is that the work environment and the organizational culture have a huge impact on the prevalence of harassment, such that people who would engage in inappropriate behavior in one environment do not when the culture makes it clear that such behavior is unacceptable:
Mindful of the risk of alienating allies and the potential backlash against diversity and inclusion, some organizations have recently been rethinking and retooling their D&I efforts to be “colorblind”—i.e., to de-emphasize demographic differences and attempt to achieve greater inclusion by removing spaces created for employees of specific, underrepresented demographics. Reacting to this trend, and specifically Deloitte’s controversial decision to do away with employee resource groups, Paradigm founder and CEO Joelle Emerson lays out the case against colorblindness at the Harvard Business Review:
The negative impact of colorblindness on organizations and individual employees has been well documented. Downplaying demographic differences reduces the engagement of underrepresented employees and increases their perceptions of bias from their white colleagues. Moreover, the cognitive load of attempting to appear colorblind when we all, of course, do notice difference can ironically result in more biased behaviors from white employees, or lead them to avoid the intergroup collaborations that can spark innovation and enrich their work. Colorblindness is a quantifiably ineffective inclusion strategy for individuals and organizations. Multiculturalism, the opposite of colorblindness, stresses recognition and inclusion of group differences and has been shown to benefit minority employees and organizations at large. …
If both ally engagement and designated spaces for discrete populations are important, what’s the solution? Efforts need not be either-or. In fact, the most effective ones must do both.
Emerson is not the first critic to question Deloitte’s approach to ERGs along these lines. Before going down the road of ERGs entirely, organizations can consider other ways to make them more inclusive while also ensuring that they still primarily focus on the needs of underrepresented employees. If the challenge they face with ERGs is involving allies, particularly white men, leaders can consider opening up these groups to allies rather than abolishing them.
In our D&I research at CEB (now Gartner), we have also seen organizations questioning colorblindness (and gender-blindness) in making decisions on performance reviews and succession management.
Google’s decision to fire James Damore, a senior engineer who circulated a memo criticizing the company’s diversity efforts and making questionable claims about the biological differences between men and women, was bound to fan the flames of the controversy the memo had sparked. Was terminating this employee the right call? Reasonable arguments can be made on both sides of the debate, and as our HR practice leader Brian Kropp remarked in an interview with the Washington Post, Google had no good options here: Whether it had fired Damore or declined to fire him, either decision was going to upset a certain group of people.
One of the challenges that any talent executive or head of diversity and inclusion will face when inflammatory internal communications like Damore’s memo go public is in figuring out whether they are dealing with a single person who has managed to rile up the Internet (the “don’t feed the trolls” challenge), or are facing a real source of tension from a segment of the workforce. If it’s the former, it’s a great opportunity to make sure that people are aware that you are addressing D&I, and that it’s a key part of your core values; if the latter, it could prompt the organization to reorganize its D&I strategy along the lines of what Deloitte is doing, and double down on inclusion to ensure that everyone gets on board.
Below are some thoughts on what the Google controversy reveals about the challenges facing diversity and inclusion, as well as what employers can learn from the debate in order to strengthen their future D&I efforts.
The Dangers of Backlash
The downside for an organization of reacting to an incident like this with absolute rejection is that it contributes to the framing of D&I as a zero-sum game, which gives ammunition to those who oppose it. When an organization treats a skeptic like Damore as a threat, employees who fear being left behind by D&I efforts or having their viewpoints marginalized in pursuit of diversity will tend to see that as proof of their point. While Google CEO Sundar Pichai told employees that Damore’s memo had crossed a line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes, he also acknowledged the more valid concerns it raised about whether Google’s approach to diversity was optimal and whether employees with minority opinions could safely express them in the workplace.
In other words, irrespective of whether Damore violated norms of professionalism and collegiality in the way he voiced his opinions, and of whether the company was within its rights to terminate his employment, Google does not want to be perceived as making rules about what employees are allowed to think.
Employee resource groups, which create spaces for members of historically disadvantaged or minority communities to come together in support of each other and to help leadership understand and respond to their unique challenges and concerns, are a cornerstone of diversity and inclusion practices at some organizations. Yet there is also a growing understanding among D&I leaders that the most effective initiatives are inclusive in the broadest sense, involving everyone in the organization, not only those in specific affinity groups.
That’s why we’re seeing more inclusion campaigns focused on cultivating allies and helping members of more privileged demographics recognize their own unconscious biases. When the Harvard Business Review devoted an entire issue to D&I last year, it focused heavily on the challenge of getting everyone on board with diversity without courting backlash.
In a controversial move, Deloitte has decided to take this shift toward a more broad-based approach one step further by eliminating ERGs altogether in favor of groups whose membership is not limited to specific demographics, Jeff Green reported recently at Bloomberg:
After 24 years, WIN, the women’s initiative at Deloitte, will end. Over the next 18 months the company will also phase out Globe, which supports gay employees, and groups focused solely on veterans or minority employees. In their place will be so-called inclusion councils that bring together a variety of viewpoints to work on diversity issues. …
“We are turning it on its head for our people,” says Deepa Purushothaman, who’s led the WIN group since 2015 and is also the company’s managing principal for inclusion. Deloitte will still focus on gender parity and underrepresented groups, she says, but not in the same way it has for the past quarter-century, in part because millennial employees—who make up 57 percent of Deloitte’s workforce—don’t like demographic pigeonholes.