There’s a lot of talk about creating the ideal workplace environment. Words like diversity and inclusion get tossed around with abandon and without much focus on what they mean. One of the least understood of those buzzwords is “equitable.” What exactly is an equitable workplace, and how do we create one? Why should it be a priority for managers?
What Does Equitable Really Mean?
Let’s begin with a little refresher: what does equitable actually mean? In a workplace context, it means fair treatment for everyone, regardless of their differences. Someone might be of one religion or ethnic background; they might be a different gender or have a different sexual orientation. Some people might be younger or older than others. They must all be treated fairly, but they also have the right to be different from others.
Equity means having equal rights to all opportunities. It also means being free of oppression or discrimination. In the United States, equality in the workforce is protected under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s enforcement of discrimination laws.
Is Equity the Same Thing as Equality?
Equality is simply giving everyone access to the same opportunities. Equity, on the other hand, is ensuring that the playing field is leveled by focusing on proportional representation within the opportunities that equality makes available. For instance, in a company with a 50/50 split between Black and White employees, if all the managers are either White or Black, then there is a lack of equity. The management team should represent the makeup of the company, with a roughly 50/50 split between Black and White managers.
Of course, a true 50/50 split is usually not possible due to a wide range of forces, including employee churn, finding qualified applicants, the time required to train new managers, and more. However, the company should strive to keep it balanced – and should do so across all opportunities. Note that equity does not just apply to racial diversity but also diversity and inclusion across all the various breakdowns, including race, gender, sexual orientation, and more.
How Do You Create an Equitable Workplace?
Superficially, the process of creating an equitable workplace is the same for all businesses. However, that is surface-level only. When you dig deep, you’ll find that every situation is different because every business is different. The reasons for non-equitable conditions vary from organization to organization, which means that the steps to change the situation(s) will also vary. With that being said, several high-level steps should be taken to help understand the nuances at play within your organization and to inform your strategy.
Realize It’s Not a Straight Line
There’s a misconception out there that you can go from non-equitable to equitable via a straight line. Sadly, it’s not an A to B path. Instead of a razor straight line, you’ll follow a curving path that spirals upward. Chances are good that your progress won’t be consistently upward, either. There will be dips and bobs here and there. Be prepared for that, and don’t let a seeming lack of progress discourage or frustrate your efforts.
The most important thing is to commit to change. With a realization that there are problems to fix and openness to how to go about doing that, you’ll naturally move forward. However, if you become discouraged or frustrated, your evolution will suffer even more.
Have Difficult Conversations in a Safe Space
Once you’ve realized that there is room for growth, it’s time to take what is perhaps the hardest step of all: having those difficult conversations and making a safe space where they’re possible in the first place. The people within your organization need to be able to have ongoing conversations about equity within the workplace, and all sides should be able to discuss the situation calmly, openly, and without fear of reprisal.
It’s also important to encourage everyone to engage with the conversation, which is a break from the paradigm that holds sway in most organizations. For instance, Black women are often penalized for bringing up diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) related topics. White men, on the other hand, although often perceived as the most powerful group in the equation, often hold back from this discussion because they feel unqualified to talk about it or that they somehow lack the right.
Make it clear from the outset that equitable treatment affects everyone. Therefore, everyone has a right to discuss related topics, ask questions, and explore solutions to challenges. No one group (whether minority or majority) should be solely responsible for equitable treatment advocacy (or for any other DEI-related topics).
Get Beyond the C-Suite
Like all other initiatives, creating an equitable workplace will require buy-in from the C-suite. However, you need to go deeper than this. It’s critical that you get middle management on board early and that you keep them there.
Why focus on middle managers? Doesn’t equitable thinking trickle down like everything else? Yes, it does. However, the challenge here is that you need frontline leaders involved from the outset. C-suite leaders are anywhere but on the frontlines.
Communicate Early and Often
If you’re absent from the conversation, it will happen without you. You must drive the conversation surrounding equitable treatment within the workplace, or you risk having it highjacked by those who want to turn it to their own agenda, which could be completely at odds with your goals.
Communicate early and often with leaders, but don’t neglect employees lower down the ladder. Everyone has a role in effecting change, and, often, what starts at the bottom will spread toward the top. Create a grassroots equitable workplace campaign and watch the initiative take off!
No Rest for the Weary
Like most other workplace initiatives, ensuring equitable treatment is an ongoing, ever-evolving process. Be vigilant for signs of intolerance or discrimination. Keep communicating your equity message. Lead by example and hold leaders who fail to do so accountable for their actions. With diligence, compassion, and courage, we can create organizations that work for everyone’s success.