IBIS shares news, insight and best practices about pressing Diversity & Inclusion and Unconscious Bias topics in today’s workplace.

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Sustaining an Open, Collaborative Workplace Culture: Employee Vigilance Required

2015 – Let’s dig in! We open the New Year by continuing to explore the vast potential of our ever-growing, multi-generational workforce. In “Wanted: Managers capable of creating and sustaining an open, collaborative workplace culture” we provided six strategies for managers to strengthen their ability to play a key role in “developing an open workplace culture where cross-generational, collaborative relationships can flourish and benefit the organization.”

As promised, this companion article will offer strategies for employees to assess how inclusive their work environment really is.

Oh, wait! Are the words “open” and “collaborative” seen in the same light, said in the same breath, as “diverse” and “inclusive” in the workplace? It might seem a bit tongue-in-cheek to ask this question, but let’s be honest – all too often both management and employees alike do not always draw an immediate parallel.  All the more reason for employees, regardless of generational affiliation, to have strategies for scrutinizing the following areas of workplace culture:

Area 1: Programming
Is your organization intentional about offering and sustaining programming that supports the development of cross-generational, collaborative working relationships?

The Hartford, a Fortune 500 Financial Services Company, has been able to realize multiple benefits through its Reverse Mentoring Program. Early career professionals have gained connection supporting their career development, while the organization as a whole is now experiencing a “multi-generational employee transfer of knowledge” regarding the use of social media.

As smart organizations have reaped the benefits of reverse mentoring initiatives for well over a decade now, there remains an important list of success factors that require continuous monitoring. It is no surprise that this list includes a need for clearly defined expectations, and a requirement that both parties are intentional about seeking learning from each other.

Area 2: Internal and external resources
Does your organization leverage internal resources as well as seek partnerships with external resources to build cultural competency and the inclusive capacity of the organization?

ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) and Diversity Councils are important mechanisms for supporting the recruitment, retention and development of diverse talent. But as Philip Berry, Executive Director of the Association of ERGs & Councils stated at the 2014 Baystate Health Diversity & Inclusion Conference, “Management needs to connect the dots.” Translation? These groups need to be intentionally included in a feedback loop providing valuable insights regarding workplace culture, and positioned as strategic business resources for input regarding company policies and procedures.

Organizations can not assume they have the capacity to tap the full potential of the diverse talent that defines our multi-generational workforce. That full potential includes a readiness to use a leadership capacity built on ownership of an authentic personal identity and keen cultural intelligence in order to reach new diverse clients, customers and markets. Companies can partner with organizations like the Center for Hispanic Leadership (CHL) to build this capacity.

Identifying culture as the “new currency for growth,” CHL provides multiple resources for organizations including leadership impact training for Hispanic professionals. Workshop participants learn “to leverage their innate skills and characteristics that are directly influenced by their Hispanic cultural values, that enable their full potential as a leader.”

One other related note here: cultural competency is not an organizational “soft skill.” Recent conversations with leaders in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors continue to reveal the consequences of this shortsighted approach. By doing so, organizations have not only struggled to build relationships with and service culturally diverse communities, but have also alienated potential clients and lost business.

Area 3: Policies, Procedures and Benefits
Does your organization embrace a “non-traditional” approach to administering policies, procedures and benefits that builds a true relationship to the unique needs of diverse populations?

As we stated in our last article, “it is noteworthy that some of the common work-life balance needs of our multi-generational workforce, from childcare to elder care, are pushing change as organizations compete to recruit and retain skilled talent. These demands challenge both an organization’s systems and the practices of its leaders.”

But it is not enough to just offer more flexible work arrangements for working women, for example. According to Gender Diversity – The 5 Key Drivers, “Despite overwhelming evidence that engaged female talent is a key driver of competitive advantage, workplace diversity remains a challenge …Standalone programs and siloed initiatives are not advancing gender diversity.” In reading the summary of this report, be sure to pay close attention to the language that defines the key drivers. This language addresses all stages of the employment life-cycle, and challenges organizations to go beyond any “check-the-box” approach to administering their policies, procedures and benefits.

Area 4: Management and Leadership Practice
Does your experience of management and leadership practice encourage you to bring your “authentic self” to work?

Checking your organization and its culture with this level of scrutiny is reminiscent of the worklife adage that defines “right fit,” as how the job fits you, versus how you fit the job. It also tests an organization’s forward thinking as to whether diversity is framed not just as a cost center, but as a profit center linked to advancing organizational priorities and increasing growth and innovation.

Encouraged to bring their authentic self, including their personal identity and culture to work, employees are naturally engaged, eager to contribute, and more readily a spokesperson for their organization being a great place to work.

But all too often, we hear employee narratives that sabotage this level of engagement.

A female Gen X’er joins the leadership of a finance and investment management firm. She brings innovations and a more intentionally personal, quality of life-focused style of working with clients that moves the firm beyond the traditional “here’s your goals, here’s your plan” approach to money management. While these innovations are generally received positively, she finds that all too often her male colleagues are resistant to her suggestions to change the way things are done, especially when she is suggesting something is not working. If it’s not their idea first, that can be a problem. She defines her frustration as a feeling that, “A male never asks, Is my ego in the way?” She also feel she has to constantly adjust how she presents her ideas. Being straightforward with her male colleagues can be a problem.

A female Millennial of Hispanic descent is recruited for her keen cultural intelligence and competency to build relationships and service culturally diverse communities. Prepared with research to back up her thinking, she hits the ground running with strategies and suggestions for growth and development in the organization. Without mentoring regarding important organizational-specific cultural insights, and any coaching on effective policy advocacy skills, this highly motivated new hire is constantly hitting walls of resistance and grows increasingly discouraged.

A male Gen X’er who left the workforce a few years back to be a stay-at-home dad, now with MBA in hand looks to return to the workforce. Deep inside he knows that the long list of skills and attributes he acquired and honed while managing a household with children, ranging in age from infant to teenager, only strengthen what he has to offer an organization. “I think about these skills and feel confident that I can manage lots of situations in the workplace that are ambiguous, unwieldy, and emotionally challenging.” But knowing there is a bias against people who have left the workforce for personal reasons, including an unfounded bias that stay-at-home dad’s “are soft,” he chooses not to discuss his personal life in interviews. “Most interviewers want to hear about success you’ve had at work. I believe it will be much easier to bring my authentic self to the workplace once I’m already employed.”

A female Baby Boomer brings her strategic HR leadership to a small business with less than $50 million in annual revenue. She couples her seasoned expertise with a strong belief that in order to develop a business model that captures the greatest value, an organization needs a diversity of thought and perspective to counter the pitfalls of “groupthink.”  In less than a year’s time she finds herself frustrated, ultimately feeling minimized and not taken seriously. Why? Although the rest of the management team (all male) spoke of wanting to explore options for growth, in the end they proved to be close-minded and resistant to new ideas. “I’ve developed effective tools for helping leaders get past resistance to change, and employee engagement programming that builds trust and motivation, but they (management team) looked at me like I had four heads …Most of my career I’ve been the only woman on management teams, and it depended on the sector as to how seriously I would be taken. In the past, I chalked this up to being the only woman and the youngest, but not here – I had more experience than all of them combined!” Unable to embrace strategic HR thinking and demonstrating a strong aversion to risk, not even willing to pilot programming to explore change over time, this management team proved to lack diversity in more ways than one.

Employee vigilance required
In truth, an honest assessment of how inclusive one’s work environment really is requires a vigilance on the part of employees at all stages of the employment lifecycle.

Keep track of how you are personally experiencing your work environment. Beyond simply being ok with showing up everyday, are you energized and motivated? This is not an unrealistic measurement. You can be sure that both you and your co-workers at all levels will bring conscious and unconscious biases to the workplace. Raising your awareness level is smart. It can act as a counterbalance to the negative effects of these biases.

Your year in review
Here are some questions you can use to track your personal experience of the inclusive capacity of your work environment over the last year:

  1. What have been the creative thinking, observations, and ideas for innovation and sustaining the competitiveness of your organization that you have brought forward and shared with leadership and colleagues?
  2. What has been the response of leadership and colleagues to the creative thinking, observations, and ideas that you have brought forward? Be detailed…
  3. Given the response of leadership and colleagues, what came up for you? How did their response make you feel? Again, be detailed and honest…
  4. Subsequently, did you find your energy and motivation levels raised or lowered?

Tracking to act in the New Year
Empowered with this qualitative data, and with the goal of contributing to your organization’s ability to build and sustain an open, collaborative workplace culture, you will have much to offer in the New Year. The diversity of thought, perspective, identity and experience across today’s multigenerational workforce defines its greatest strength and value. Smart organizations will move into the New Year looking for better ways to tap the power of this diverse talent for the greatest impact.

Does your organization have feedback loops established for employees to share their valuable insights regarding workplace culture? Are you and your colleagues at all levels actually encouraged to give input regarding company policies and procedures, from the perspective of your role in the organization as well as from your generational affiliation? This level of employee vigilance and scrutiny can inform and shape an important partnering with management that will strengthen the organization’s ability to build and sustain an open, collaborative workplace culture.