Making a Leadership Commitment to Equality—If Not Now, When?

As a commissioner and chair of the U. S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission until this past January, I saw positive change ripple across organizations where leaders embraced equality of opportunity as a core value. I also saw preventable crises materialize when diversity, equity, and inclusion sunk to the bottom of the leadership priority list. We know that leadership commitment makes all the difference in fostering fair and inclusive workplaces, but the million-dollar question I have often asked is: How do you get that commitment from the top where it does not yet exist?

Lawsuits, of course, are one important way to focus leadership attention on systemic problems within an organization and create an impetus for longer-term change. But lawsuits are a last resort. Most employees would much rather see a fair internal process where problems are addressed promptly, so they can focus on their work and avoid the often painful, unpredictable, and resource-intensive process of litigation.

Today, dynamic forces are shifting issues of equal opportunity further up the leadership priority list. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have launched a long-overdue national dialogue on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. The high-profile cases that have grabbed headlines highlight structural problems in many workplaces: a lack of accountability; failing to listen to voices inside the organization; too few resources for equal opportunity efforts; and an absence of influential internal champions of reform.

As workplace harassment takes on a new urgency, leaders are taking notice. In a very new way, we are seeing leaders being held accountable by their stakeholders—including consumers, employees, and investors—for their response to harassment complaints within their organization. A growing cadre of reporters covering workplace discrimination is shining a light on longstanding systemic problems across industries. A single worker can now amplify their experiences through Facebook posts, Glassdoor reports, and online worker organizing sites where workers can share their experiences with harassment, pay inequality, or barriers to promotion, and connect with others who may be part of a larger pattern of unfair treatment by an employer.

The heightened public sunlight and engagement of workers on issues of workplace equality provide a critical opportunity to shift the norms and expectations within our workplaces. The tidal wave of high profile sexual harassment cases has brought to light a crisis in human resources, where many employees have lost faith in the ability of their HR offices to take meaningful action in response to discrimination at work. A trusted and safe complaint mechanism, where leaders exercise their authority to take appropriate action in response to discriminatory actions, should be the new normal. Employees have a right to expect that their leadership will make investments in understanding the nature and scope of problems that exist, take concrete action to address them, and provide oversight over their employment processes.

After large-scale data breaches inflicted massive reputational and financial harm on companies as well as the federal government, the public held leaders accountable, and organizations recognized the need to invest resources and continually innovate to implement state of the art cybersecurity efforts. A similar awakening of leadership accountability is underway for discrimination at work. Often equal opportunity efforts were viewed solely as human resource issues for which leaders could disclaim knowledge or responsibility. Those days are over.

At the EEOC, every day we saw the all too real experiences of people whose dignity and livelihood were destroyed because of discriminatory actions and exclusionary practices. I was stunned by the sheer number of harassment charges we saw, comprising over 30% of all charges employees filed across the country. Through cases and investigations, the EEOC works to shine a light on the barriers to opportunity that remain a reality in far too many workplaces across America. Yet, many experienced employment attorneys were shocked when we reported on the litany of systemic harassment cases we continued to litigate around the country, addressing not only sexual harassment but also widespread harassment based on race, ethnicity, and other bases.

To address this challenge, as chair of the EEOC, I asked my colleagues, Victoria Lipnic, currently acting chair, and Commissioner Chai Feldblum to engage a broad range of experts to identify innovative solutions to combat all forms of harassment. For 18 months, the EEOC Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace dug deep, and in June 2016, the co-chairs of the Task Force issued a detailed report. This report provides a roadmap for meaningful action to prevent harassment of all forms at work.

So, what would it look like to have equality of opportunity as a core value for all organizational leaders? First and foremost, we would see an authentic commitment from the top that engages leaders at all levels of the organization—and goes well beyond good intentions. Meaningful progress requires more than a refresher anti-harassment training or a re-distribution of the anti-harassment policy. Real change means leaders who are accountable for preventing and responding to workplace harassment, who set and enforce norms for respectful workplace behavior and focus on how to solve the problem, not how to protect management.

Organizational assessments provide leaders with the tools and information they need to carry out this role. This includes culture and climate surveys, focus groups and data analysis that help an organization identify and remove barriers to equal opportunity and respectful, harassment-free workplaces. Effective action requires investments in good data and feedback channels to truly understand the scope of problems and build real accountability. It helps leaders target interventions wisely, build trust, and avoid wasting time and money on approaches that won’t address the issues.

Often, employers are understandably wary about “stirring the pot” in an effort to understand the challenges employees experience in the workplace. But what I’ve seen is that the best knowledge on what needs to be done is already within the organization. By creating avenues to listen to workers and create safe spaces to come forward, organizations can identify blind spots that may make it difficult to use the full talents of their workforce. Done well, organizational assessments can help to target the root cause of a problem, create confidence in reporting and resolution mechanisms, and build trust within the organization.

Let’s not stop with harassment. Critically, the need for an assessment of the workplace extends beyond the issue of sexual harassment. A comprehensive assessment should include all forms of harassment, including race, ethnicity, disability, age, as well as other bases, and should seek to understand other very real issues, including barriers to hiring and advancement as well as unequal pay.

Listening and understanding is a critical first step. Next comes the commitment to action. As lawyers, we have a special responsibility and opportunity to lead in advancing equality of opportunity in our own workplaces. As a country, we have an unprecedented opportunity to build stronger workplaces for ourselves and our children. Real leaders understand that opportunity and will embrace it. Their organizations will set the bar for others to follow. I look forward to seeing their results.

About the Author

Jenny R. Yang is a strategic partner at Working Ideal, which conducts diversity assessments and pay equity audits and provides consulting for clients with serious commitments to equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. She was chair of the U.S. EEOC from 2014-2018. Contact her on Twitter @JennyRYang.

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