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New Faces, Changing Families: New Challenges for the Workplace in the New Year?

It was certainly eye opening to read the New York Times article, The Changing American Family. I readily admit that I was surprised by some of the dynamic changes, and how families have grown increasingly diverse. These changes are yet another example of the shifting demographics that continue to challenge any narrow definition of people’s lives, and the makeup of the homes from which they come. My mind immediately began to swirl with questions regarding the possible ramifications for the workplace in the new year and beyond.


Will shifting demographics challenge the definition of effective employee engagement practice?

The simple answer is no, and there is no shortage of information out there on what effective employee engagement looks like. When employees are motivated to perform at their best, the organization sees measurable increases in important business outcomes. The correlation between these two variables is widely embraced today.

The Conference Board CEO Challenge 2013 (a global survey), saw more than 720 business leaders identify human capital, operational excellence, and innovation as their top challenges. When you watch the video you will hear Jon Spector, President/CEO of TCB add this important note: “While these are distinct issues, what is very interesting is that the ‘people thread’ runs through all three of them. So in terms of operational excellence (for example), CEO’s are worried about reducing cost, but they’re also worried about employee engagement and how do we increase productivity through more motivated, excited employees.”

But leaders have known about the correlation between motivated employees and increases in business outcomes for a long time. As far back as the 1950’s, research psychologists like Will Schutz advanced team productivity by rethinking the importance of interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Schutz delineated inclusion (affecting worker significance), control (affecting worker competence), and openness (affecting worker affection) as fundamental to positive worker self-esteem and effective team compatibility and productivity.

So while shifting demographics continue to change the face and the structure of the lives of employees, their needs as human beings remain steadfast. This is where it can all get tricky. As the Forbes article, How the Best Places to Work are Nailing Employee Engagement points out, “motivating high performance and aligning talent with business strategy requires getting to the heart of what matters to employees.”


Will shifting demographics challenge how effective employee engagement is implemented?

The simple answer is yes. Organizations may choose to prioritize employee engagement strategies, but it is the day-to-day practice of managers and coworkers that can make or break implementation. In the case of managers, they must see their own awareness of the growing diversity that defines today’s workplace as critical to their effectiveness. Otherwise their own conscious and unconscious biases will undercut employee engagement.

We know, for example, that recognition and career path development are often listed as highly motivational employee engagement strategies. Working mothers, because of their increasing role in stabilizing family income, need ready access to career path development. As the New York Times article highlights regarding U.S families, The share of mothers employed full or part time has quadrupled since the 1950s and today accounts for nearly three-quarters of women with children at home. The number of women who are their families’ sole or primary breadwinner also has soared, to 40 percent today from 11 percent in 1960.”

Yet a study published just this summer found that, many managers assume that when women ask for flextime, they will begin a downward spiral out of the workplace, but that men who make this request are actually demonstrating commitment to their jobs.”

A conversation I had recently with a senior HR manager formerly employed by a major U.S. retail chain revealed another story of manager gender bias: “68% of our talent pool for potential managers were women, yet 70% of our managers were men. We just couldn’t crack that number. Come to find out that we had male supervisors who were making statements to women like, Oh you probably don’t want to think about a manager’s role given you having a family and all that entails.” 


Are there effective responses to shifting demographics that strengthen employee engagement?

Again, the simple answer is yes. Some suggest, for example, that a shared responsibility model is necessary for women to counter the stifling effects of gender bias and “crack the (glass) ceiling in both directions.” In this model of change, organizations are intentional about restructuring the availability of opportunities, and women intentionally create opportunities for themselves. One of the examples in the article is so simple, yet so smart. “…In one organization, promotion into the leadership ranks only went to those who had international experience, positions that were typically given to people in their 30s. But that third decade coincides with when many women start their families. The company’s solution was to offer international assignments to promising young executives in their mid- and upper-20s.”

Another model suggests to get diversity right, get potential right, with right defined as “the ability to accurately assess what someone is truly capable of in the long term.” But as the article cautions, this requires checking conscious and unconscious biases amongst leadership, and “a clear definition of potential and an accurate way to measure it.” I would also add from my experience as a diversity and inclusion manager that a lack of awareness of narrowly defined organizational culture can see diverse talent languish or even leave, having been labeled as “not quite the right fit.”

I really like the mechanisms that companies like Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), Duke Energy, and CEMEX have devised to neutralize biases in talent management decisions.

It is also wise for organizations to implement employee engagement strategies sooner rather than later, specifically ones that strengthen the relationship between the recruitment and retention of diverse talent. According to Attracting and Retaining High Value Talent, 90% of employees make the decision to stay or leave a company in the first six months.” Focusing on “binding new hires” suggests that leaders need to provide employees “with organizational-specific cultural insights along with the tools and knowledge that will help employees begin contributing to the organization’s bottom line immediately. The more quickly leaders impart the ‘tribal knowledge,’ the faster they will see a rapid return on their recruitment investment.” 


Will shifting demographics change everything we know beyond recognition?

Yes AND no, but that’s a good thing! This is a silly question, but I know it comes up in people’s minds. It’s part of the nature of the human response to change.

I said in the opening that “I was surprised by some of the dynamic changes and how families have grown increasingly diverse.” There was both an element of excitement and discomfort for me. I know that’s because I have led and benefited from a pretty traditional life. But I also know that as traditionally defined roles continue to change for the better and we become more egalitarian both at home and at work, we gain more collective advocacy for family and social health. This is exactly what has driven more and more men and women to seek flexibility for better work-family balance.

Yes, diversity and inclusion work has always been about expanding access, building relationships, and leveraging the ensuing diversity of talent, perspective, and team capacity to strengthen organizational outcomes. Yes, people with different identities, from different backgrounds and different life experiences may have different ways of seeking and defining what matters to them. But as we move into the new year, addressing quality of life issues wherever we can, whenever we can will remain a basic human need for ALL of us. There is no question that this practice will benefit all our lives.


Robert is a Sales and Training Executive for IBIS  with a combined thirteen years’ experience functioning as a Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the Director’s level. If you are interested in having further conversation about these issues, Robert can be contacted at