By Chris Morin and Kerryann Adams
Is our need for belonging outweighing our ability to stay safe and be socially distant during the pandemic? That question has been on the minds of many of us in the D&I field. We know that belonging is an inherent need for us. We espouse the benefits of organizations that practice belonging in their workplaces, and we praise an honor companies that create a culture of belonging. But is this need counterproductive or even a health risk for employees?
Unless you have been living under a rock, social distancing guidelines are not new news. According to the CDC website, “Limiting close face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact (within about 6 feet) for a prolonged period. Spread happens when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and droplets from their mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby.”
Yet our need to be in close proximity with people nearby is fostered by our need to belong. Howard Ross, author of “Our Search for Belonging: How Our Need to Connect is Tearing Us Apart”, has stated, “According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Safety and Security is our primary need. However, more current research and neuro-cognitive studies have demonstrated that our need to belong may be the most primary need of all, which is why we have seen countless examples in society where people endanger or even kill themselves for the benefit of a group they identify with.”
Since belonging is such a strong need for us and the way we interact with others in our organizations, how might we weigh the need for belonging and challenge or forego safety to fulfill this need? The Pandemic has certainly shown that this is a conundrum for most Americans. The news is rife with daily reports of super-spreader events and gatherings. Even at the top echelons of government we see belonging superseding safety. According to NBC News, “The White House is planning to host as many as 20 indoor holiday parties this season, even as its own coronavirus task force warns states that the pandemic is “in a very dangerous place” and top health officials have cautioned against indoor celebrations.”
Belonging is a deeply personal necessity for us. The need to gather with other people is part of the sense of belonging that we share. Belonging gives us a sense of shared purpose and direction. And the opposite of belonging, exclusion can even cause us to feel pain on the same scale as it if were physical (Kipling D. Williams, Purdue University).
The need to belong is so strong, that the recent news of caution from the CDC and others not to gather with members outside our immediate households largely was ignored by many Americans—and even though travel during the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday was about 50% of what it was in 2019, “US planes carried more passengers on Sunday, Nov. 29 than on any other day since March 2020,” (David Yanofsky; Quartz) according to TSA data. This illustrates that on one of the most quintessential days of belonging for most families, Thanksgiving, that need outweighed the need for safety.
And Christmas and the year end holiday season may not prove to be different from Thanksgiving with many Americans traveling outside of their homes to visit relatives, potentially exposing them (Huffington Post, Fauci). This may lead to even more positive Covid cases and severe shortages of ICU beds in hospitals (CBS Evening News)
Can we as Americans temper our need for belonging, and yet still stay safe? Only time will tell, but with the coming potential surge in Covid 19 hospitalizations, the outlook doesn’t look promising.
That a company with more diverse representation in senior management will likely achieve greater profits is not breaking news. Those realities came to light in a 2015 report from McKinsey & Company, and in another, a year later, from the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Compounding these findings is another report from McKinsey, a management consulting firm, titled “Delivering Through Diversity,” released last week, which shows that gender diversity in management positions actually increases profitability more than previously thought. In the firm’s previous analysis, companies in the top 25th percentile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 15% more likely to experience above-average profits. The latest data shows that likelihood has grown to 21%.
When it comes to gender-diverse boards of directors, data on increases in profitability vary by region and company health—though firms within the U.S. and the U.K. show gender diversity to be a plus for profits, but not by much. According to McKinsey, the varying results in different regions could be a result of differences in government-mandated board gender quotas (which might dilute personnel quality), and the power that boards in different nations have to drive financial performance.
But gender is not the only side of the story. Companies with more culturally and ethnically diverse executive teams were 33% more likely to see better-than-average profits. In McKinsey’s previous study—conducted with 2014 numbers—that increase had been 35%. At the board of directors level, more ethnically and cultural diverse companies were 43% more likely to see above-average profits, showing a significant correlation between diversity and performance.
Diverse and inclusive companies drive innovative results. Yet the tech industry still struggles with diversity and inclusion, often failing to attract diverse talent due to inclusivity issues in the workplace. For organizations looking to shape up their diversity and inclusion programs and policies, the change can be challenging — and rewarding.
Most companies enact change to deliver business value, and many who launch diversity and inclusion initiatives cite research showing that companies with more diverse teams outperform those with a more homogeneous workforce, says Sabrina Clark, associate principal at SYPartners, a consultancy that specializes in organizational transformation.
“Research shows that even just the presence of physical diversity results in better performance and for companies that are data-driven, that extra performance boost can be extremely motivating,” Clark says. “It’s also the fact that companies that lack diversity are being called out publicly, and may even be losing business, not to mention falling behind when it comes to recruiting. Even Google is starting to show signs that their lack of diversity is affecting them.”
As 2018 research from McKinsey shows, greater diversity in the workforce results in greater profitability and value creation. The same holds true at the executive level, as McKinsey found a statistically significant correlation between diverse leadership and better financial performance. Companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity at the executive level are 33 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile. When it comes to gender diversity, companies in the top quartile are 21 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the bottom quartile, according to McKinsey’s research.
While financial performance is a major driver of D&I strategies, some organizations launching diversity initiatives in the face of government compliance regulations or to address shareholder pressure, Clark says. “In the UK, for instance, companies are required to publish their diversity statistics; there’s also been increasing pressure from shareholders and boards,” she says.
Current employees and potential hires are also raising the stakes, says Jeff Weber, senior vice president of people and places at Instructure. “More and more, when we’re interviewing, candidates are asking what we’re doing about diversity and inclusion. And it’s not just diverse talent themselves, and it’s not just millennials or Generation Z — we’re hearing this from white, straight men in the Midwestern United States.”
Organizations are also realizing that make diversity and inclusion a business imperative will help them avoid tarnishing their reputation, Clark says. “They’re thinking ahead, which is great, about what kind of company they are, who they want to be, and what their legacy will be. It’s going to continue to be important, and the voices demanding it are only going to get louder,” she says.
In the wake of major social and political changes over the past decades, leading companies are taking steps to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet progress in most sectors remains tepid. Programs designed to increase diversity and inclusion in the workplace often fail. So that leads to a natural question: What’s actually working?
Focusing on solutions to the diversity challenge — rather than on the failures — was top of mind when Devah Pager and I designed a convening in 2018. We brought together leading experts on bias, technology, discrimination, and organizational design, and – rather than documenting the problems that abound – we asked everyone to focus on answering one simple question: What works? (Pager, who was the Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of public policy and professor of sociology at Harvard University, passed away in 2018. The ongoing aspects of our project, I hope, are a testament to her pathbreaking work on racial discrimination and social inequality.)
It was challenging to keep our emphasis on solutions. As became clear, there is no silver bullet. No single solution. Yet, in pushing ourselves to think outside the box and draw on the best empirical evidence that exists, the convening participants identified promising areas where investment, focus, and experimentation have the ability to serve as remarkable engines of change.
We dove into these promising areas and produced a report, titled “What Works? Evidence-Based Ideas to Increase Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace.” Here, I highlight five key insights that can serve as tools for those looking to make their workplaces more diverse, more thriving places.
1. Collect, Count, and Compare.Set goals, collect data, and examine change over time and in comparison to other organizations: When it comes to maximizing profits and effectiveness, many businesses deploy this set of strategies. Why not do the same for issues of diversity and inclusion? Sociologists Elizabeth Hirsh at University of British Columbia and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey at University of Massachusetts at Amherst argue that companies should do precisely this.
By collecting and analyzing data on diversity over time, comparing those numbers to the numbers at other organizations, and sharing them with key stakeholders, companies can increase accountability and transparency around diversity issues. Say a company has far lower representation of women in managerial positions relative to the local labor market, similar firms, and/or the goals of the corporation. This identified shortfall can lead to concrete goal setting about numbers and timelines for increasing women’s representation in management. In turn, these goals can be made available to key internal and external stakeholders to promote accountability. Of course, this strategy will only work if the data are appropriately analyzed, progress and roadblocks are continually identified, and key stakeholders are able to weigh in to chart a path forward.
2. Deploy Alternative Complaint Systems.Approximately half of all discrimination and harassment complaints lead to some type of retaliation. And workers who complain about harassment are more likely to end up facing career challenges or experiencing worse mental and physical health compared to similar workers who were harassed, but did not complain about it. Clearly, something is not working.
Sociologists Frank Dobbin from Harvard University and Alexandra Kalev from Tel Aviv University present an innovative way forward: alternatives to legalistic grievance mechanisms. Employee Assistance Plans (EAPs), ombuds offices, and transformative dispute resolution systems can play a critical role in not only reducing retaliation but also provide fuel for organizational change. EAPs, for example, are frequently run by vendors outside the organization and offer free and confidential advice to employees, often over the phone. Yet, EAPs are not used very often to handle discrimination and harassment issues. By expanding their scope to provide valuable support and guidance to employees on strategies and tactics to deploy around harassment and discrimination, EAPs can serve as an important resource for employees, although they do not generally intervene in organizations. Key to this type of shift is changing leadership mindsets from seeing complaints as threats to valuing them as insights that can spark positive organizational change.
3. Test for Biased Technology.Technology has become ubiquitous in the workplace. While holding powerful potential to increase efficiency, there is also significant concern that technologies can reproduce and even exacerbate group-based inequalities by race, gender, or other social categories. Business leaders Kelly Trindel and Frida Polli of pymetrics and Kate Glazebrook of Applied offer strategies to reduce the likelihood that biases and discrimination creep in to new technologies.
First, technologies that get deployed for corporate screening, hiring, and evaluation processes have to be built on data that is fair to socio-demographic groups – such as different racial groups – in the aggregate and that is relevant and predictive of success for the particular role being evaluated. But, that alone is not enough. Companies need to proactively test new technologies for disparate impacts on workers before they go in the field and need to audit their procedures after implementation to ensure that biases are not creeping in. The combination of building solutions with an eye to screening out discrimination, and then checking for it on the back end, will not only create fairer products but can also help organizational leaders sharpen their understanding of what does not work in their current system.
We know it’s awkward, talking about class. Especially in the United States, talking about class is considered taboo. When the subject comes up, otherwise articulate and extroverted people suddenly clam up and be struck dumb by the social awkwardness that is a customary partner of conversations about class.
But class background matters in the workplace. Just ask professionals who grew up in blue-collar households — people scholars call “class migrants.” Class migrants are finding their voice: J.D. Vance has received huge attention for his book Hillbilly Elegy, chronicling his time as a venture capitalist who grew up in rural Ohio, and the difficulties his background presented. J.D.’s story isn’t unique: 97% of individuals from working-class backgrounds reported that their social class background affected their work experience, according to research conducted by Andrea G. Dittmann, Nicole M. Stephens, Sarah S. M. Townsend, and Lauren A. Rivera. We can no longer afford to refuse to acknowledge the role that class plays in the workplace.
Class migrants have unique skills that people who grew up economically privileged may lack. Studies have shown class migrants who are CEOs have increased risk-taking sensibilities to propel them further up the corporate ladder, and class migrant U.S. Army leaders have been shown to be more effective leaders (because having wealthy parents as a child is correlated with increased narcissism as an adult — and, you guessed it, narcissistic leaders perform worse). Anecdotally, we’ve heard from a former Big Law hiring partner that in her experience, class migrants are “willing to put in the hours required with less complaining, they remain at the firm longer and they are far less ‘entitled.’…And they often bring a more common sense approach to client service and problem solving.”
Despite all this, class migrants report negative workplace experiences due to their background. Class migrants report lower levels of belonging in the workplace, feel disadvantaged by lack of knowledge about the “rules of the game” in a corporate office, and are less often seen as a “good fit” due to arbitrary measures like not knowing what windsurfing is or whether brown shoes are taboo in the city.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives should factor in multiple aspects of diversity, such as class and disability, as well as gender and race. Employers who exclude class from discussions about diversity and inclusion risk losing or alienating talented employees. This applies both to class migrant white men who may be excluded from diversity or inclusion initiatives, despite lacking the advantages that their elite counterparts have, and to employees of color, as people of color are more likely than white people to be class migrants.
Class-based bias, just like gender- and racial-based biases, can seep into workplace systems and artificially hinder the career success of those groups. Here are some examples of common workplace systems and processes that can get tainted by class-based bias:
Hiring, Onboarding, and Culture FitA common way that class-based bias plays out is in hiring. Many companies use some sort of “culture fit” criteria to judge whether a candidate would fit in. A study of investment banks and law firms found that culture fit is very important to the hiring process: consistently mentioned in the top three hiring criteria and more than half of the people interviewed rated culture fit as more important than analytical or communication skills.
What is culture fit? Notoriously ambiguous, one respondent described culture fit as, “I need to be comfortable working everyday with you, then getting stuck in an airport with you, and then going for a beer afterwards.” Other people describe culture fit as “The Lunch Test” — who do you most want to have lunch with? Some people are very specific in their idea of culture fit. As a banker asked to evaluate a series of resumes said, “Anyone who plays squash I love.”
The problem with culture fit is that can add value to seemingly innocuous things but that are actually class differences. Class is expressed through cultural differences, not just how much money is in your bank account. For example, what are elite sports? Polo, tennis, windsurfing, squash. What are working-class sports? Bowling, basketball, NASCAR, skateboarding. Is playing squash a requirement for the job you’re hiring for? If it’s not, you’re unconsciously rewarding candidates with elite backgrounds over candidates with working-class background based on criteria that don’t relate to future job performance.
One compelling study of this bias was by Lauren Rivera and András Tilcsik. They sent fictitious resumes to 316 offices of the top 147 law firms in 14 cities, from fake law students looking for a prestigious summer associate position. The resumes were identical in terms of education and work experience. Elite-class candidate resumes listed “traditionally upper-class hobbies and sports,” such as sailing, polo, and classical music. Lower-class candidate resumes listed pick-up soccer, track and field, and country music.
Employers overwhelmingly favored the higher-class man: over 16% of his resumes resulted in a callback versus only about 1% of the lower-class man’s resumes. Again, both candidates had identical — and impressive — work and education credentials.
Even when class migrant candidates are able to be hired, they often find themselves left out of workplace bonding activities and having to work extra hard to fit in.
Sports isn’t the only culture difference that class is expressed through. Everything from the way we dress, to the food we eat, to the way we raise families, to what we do on the weekends is influenced by class. In elite workplaces, class migrants find themselves constantly “covering” any indication of their background to fit in. Covering means changing your appearance, behavior, and attitudes to fit into the mainstream. It means avoiding any behaviors that are stereotypical of working-class people and not standing up to the casual classism of higher-class coworkers — a colleague unthinkingly describing a reality star as “white trash,” or a certain restaurant chain as “redneck.” Covering is taxing, tiring, and isolating. It takes an especially acute toll on class migrants of color, who have to cover more about themselves to fit into the mainstream.
While this is a complex issue, there are a few ways organizations can start to practice more inclusive hiring practices:
In a study of how different groups are viewed in terms of competence and warmth, blue-collar workers were viewed as less competent than rich and professional-class people. In the Rivera and Tilcsik study, the higher-class male candidate was seen as more competent and a better fit.
In addition to being viewed as less competent, class migrants may be more reluctant to brag about themselves given the strong working-class norm of modesty and non-boasting. Said one class migrant, “admitting to ability or intelligence was a great sin and indicated that you were ‘stuck on yourself.’” Successful self-promotion is an important ingredient to career success in professional workplaces. Being an adept advocator for yourself can affect your performance evaluations, your promotions, and your compensation. Class migrants may be artificially dinged in these processes due to their discomfort with self-promotion.
Class migrants may be viewed as less ambitious and less committed to their jobs due to their strong family ties. In professional workplaces, people are often expected to “demonstrate commitment [to their jobs] by making work the central focus of their lives…unencumbered by family responsibilities,” to quote Mary Blair-Loy. Upper-class children get this message from their earliest days, and it’s reinforced in elite schools. That’s why, as adults, elite men “attach great importance to success-related traits such as ambition and a strong work ethic… these traits are double sacred… as signals of both moral and socioeconomic purity,” to quote sociologist Michele Lamont. As such, they consistently demonstrate their devotion to work through displays of their extreme schedule: “I’m slammed,” “I worked straight through that whole week,” “Holidays are a nuisance.” People who work less — even if they work full time — are seen as unambitious, uncommitted, or even lazy.
by Joan C. Williams, Marina Multhaup and Sky Mihaylo