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How Can Organizations Improve Workplace Equity?

A group of hands holding up light bulbs.

​Many companies are enhancing their diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. But too often, they place more emphasis on diversity and inclusion than they do on equity.

A new report by SHRM Research and Work Equity, an initiative of the Center for Social Innovation at the Boston College School of Social Work, revealed the importance of equity in the workplace, the root causes of inequity and other DE&I-related findings that could help organizations create more-equitable workplaces.

"Organizations often overlook workplace equity," said Ragan Decker, SHRM-CP, lead researcher with SHRM Research. "Yet without equity, DE&I initiatives can fail or even backfire."

The report, National Study of Workplace Equity, showed that discrimination continues to run rampant in the workplace. Among a representative sample of 1,062 U.S organizations, employees at about one-quarter of the companies have experienced gender bias (28 percent), racial bias (27 percent) or bias against older workers (26 percent) in the past two years.

About two-thirds of organizations (64 percent) said DE&I is important or very important, yet nearly the same percentage (62 percent) indicated that little or no resources have been devoted to DE&I efforts.

"A new approach is urgently needed to address and resolve the root causes of workplace inequity," said Kathleen Christensen, co-director of work equity and faculty fellow at Boston College's School of Social Work.

The researchers evaluated the equity of 10 different employment systems:

  • Job structures.
  • Recruitment and hiring.
  • Compensation and benefits.
  • Orientation and onboarding.
  • Supervision and mentoring.
  • Training and career development.
  • Performance assessment and feedback.
  • Employee resources and support.
  • Promotions.
  • Separations.

The employment systems with the most equity were recruitment and hiring, compensation and benefits, and orientation and onboarding. The systems with the least equity were employee resources and supports, job structures, and supervision and mentoring.

Researchers found that organizations with higher overall equity were more resilient: They have proved to be more adaptable and more agile and are thriving amid the turbulent business environment of the past two years.

"Inequity in job structures—including when and where work is done—is particularly troubling in light of the rise of flexible work during the pandemic peak, the uncertainty of its future and the possible inequitable fallout for different groups of employees," Christensen added.

Implications of Workplace Inequity

While pay inequity is a widely discussed issue, other forms of workplace inequities also negatively influence how people do their jobs or earn a living. For example:

  • Unemployment disproportionately affects older workers and people with disabilities.
  • Gender bias and sexual harassment are also inequities that affect career development and promotion opportunities for women.
  • A report by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law indicated that nearly half of LGBTQ employees have experienced unfair treatment at work.

"With inequality presented in so many forms, it's no wonder employees feel defeated," said Lisa Edmonds, vice president of HR at McKissack & McKissack, an architecture, engineering, program- and construction-management firm in Washington, D.C. "Not having a formal process in place to monitor and tackle these issues can have a profound impact on the company's culture."

Edmonds said inequity can result in deficiencies in workplace culture that impact crucial elements needed for success, including employee morale and retention, turnover rates, and performance and productivity.

She also noted that having a healthy company culture that treats all employees fairly is imperative to overall employee satisfaction and that it is "impossible to have one without the other."

"After all, employees talk," Edmonds added. "And whether the conversations are good or bad, there is power in their voices."

Leveraging Strengths, Addressing Weaknesses

The report also revealed how organizations can strengthen equity in the workplace by leveraging strengths and addressing weaknesses within policies, practices, culture, climate, communication, roles and accountabilities, planning, and evaluation.

A climate of inclusion is a common equity-related strength among organizations, the study found. Many employers are fostering a climate of inclusion, particularly during the recruitment and hiring phase and the orientation and onboarding phase. But organizations should maintain a welcoming environment from onboarding to the later stages of the employee life cycle.

"Organizations would benefit from a more targeted approach to workplace equity—one that recognizes fairness can vary across employment systems," Decker said. "This approach ensures that organizations are investing in the areas with the most inequity as well as taking the appropriate actions to strengthen equity within each employment system."

The research indicated that few organizations are conducting equity audits. Organizations should assess equity across employment systems to ensure they are targeting their efforts in an efficient manner to achieve the greatest impact.

To conduct equity audits, organizations should:

  • Set goals and get buy-in.
  • Collect the relevant data.
  • Analyze the data.
  • Take actions to remediate equity issues.
  • Routinely monitor equity.

Employers should assign a person, council, staff or team to monitor the fairness of each employment system within an organization. Employees from marginalized communities should have input in this process, the report found.

"Rather than seeking a single global measure of workplace equity, our research shows the necessity of a framework that identifies the variable inequities embedded in an organization's different employment systems," Christensen added. "By adopting such a framework, an organization will be able to produce a customized road map for remediation."


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