While genuine diversity is a working progress in the workplace, an employee’s voice is still a challenge, strong leadership and open communication channels have been proven to help make employees feel heard.
Diverse perspectives spark innovative business solutions, yet many employees feel their voices go unheard at work.
While the focus on genuine diversity and inclusion (D&I) in the workplace has spiked, the inclusion part of the puzzle remains a challenge. Making a tangible difference to whether employees truly feel heard can only be achieved with a collaborative effort from executive-level leadership, managers, and colleagues.
This means going beyond “window-dressing” to offer substantive affirmative actions, argues Kent Wong, director of UCLA’s Labor Center. “It’s important to acknowledge at a senior level that something needs to be done, that there is inequity and a historic disparity which exists in the vast majority of companies in our society,” he points out.
The key, according to recent research, is to move beyond surface inclusion to a culture that nurtures differences, without over-emphasizing them, while creating supportive workplaces to promote a sense of value.
In a study examining belonging, researchers at Columbia Business School and University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business found placing equal value on social group and individual identities is essential. The research, covering more than 1,500 employees, found they felt singled out when asked for their input as a representative of their minority social group, which actually reduced belonging and feeling actively heard.
But there are strategies to overcome this hurdle of surface inclusion. Recognizing every employee as a unique individual, acknowledging the intersectionality of diversity, and promoting an open dialogue with managers are good places to start.
Senior leadership teams drive active change
“Fundamentally, there has to be a desire on the part of management and leadership to make real and constructive change,” urges UCLA’s Wong. “That begins with committing to ensure the leadership of the organization reflects the workforce and the general population.”
If employees can see a clear professional development route, such as through mentors, access to training, and senior-level role models, they are more likely to believe the business wants to listen and values their unique perspective and skills.
In addition, tackling aspects including everyday micro-aggressions, such as commenting on origin, use of language, sexual orientation, or appearance through company-wide training, can allow all employees to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.
“There needs to be an investment in resources that upskill employees to build their cultural competence and train them on behaviors that are equitable and inclusive,” says diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) practitioner Dr. Salwa Rahim-Dillard, founder of Equision Consulting.
As well as training, creating formal channels for staff members to raise their voices can help develop the sense a business really wants to hear from every employee. Anonymous staff surveys can be an effective starting point, with open-ended questions an opportunity for sharing views without repercussions.
Bringing in independent facilitators for focus groups allows greater neutrality so employees can speak their minds. After all, “employees themselves are in the best position to make recommendations and suggestions”, adds Wong.
Democratize decision-making processes
Rahim-Dillard says: “Generally, there are no established processes for including marginalized and junior-level employees in organizations’ decision-making.” The golden rule is action. If employees see effective policies developed when issues are raised, it becomes a virtuous circle reinforcing the idea their voices are heard and valued.
At global pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson, its latest DE&I Impact Review highlights how it is only by actively listening to its diverse workforce and developing solutions that it can rise to the challenge of health inequalities spotlighted by the coronavirus pandemic.
J&J’s chief DE&I officer Wanda Bryant Hope explains: “Through the Raise Your Voice global dialogue sessions held throughout 2020, employees told us they want leaders who take visible, tangible, and impactful actions to create a more inclusive culture where everyone belongs and can contribute.
“We have acted on these learnings by launching a cultural immersion program, called Black in the US, and a conscious inclusion workshop to educate our leaders and help them take purposeful actions to enhance our culture of belonging.”
An active network of employee resource groups can also create a forum for diverse employees to speak up in an empathetic environment. As these are generally led by employees, their success depends on how much power and resources they’re given, such as physical space, funding, and time to meet. Individual employees have a chance to share their views, while the group can potentially wield more clout with senior leaders.
Open-door policies foster ‘employee voice’
Empowerment is important for employees to express the unique take they can bring to the decision-making process, which can be a catalyst for creativity and disrupt the status quo in a positive way. Meanwhile, ensuring an open-door policy with management is crucial to foster a sense of feeling heard.
In its research report Empathy: DE&I’s Missing Piece, the Society for Human Resource Management found when workplaces are not empathetic, employees do not feel comfortable voicing their opinions. Yet by demonstrating empathetic traits, companies can improve trust and drastically cut costly staff turnover.
As remote working has altered the structure of workplaces, it’s more important than ever that virtual spaces allow diverse employees to feel heard. Rahim-Dillard says while virtual working may help increase under-represented talent from a wider pool, it means leaders “need additional skills to help them with bridging (connecting with people different from them), and bonding (connecting with people similar to them)”.
“With less face-to-face time providing the opportunity to read body gestures and non-verbal communicative cues, leaders need to be intentional about including remote employees from marginalised groups in the decision-making meetings, and intentional about acknowledging and valuing their efforts,” she says.
The challenge of making sure employees feel heard is a complex one, but with strong leadership, investment in training, and a clear goal to listen to diverse voices, it is a process that adds value to the entire business.
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