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Creating a “Human-friendly” Workplace

This article on workplace equality was originally posted on on April 5, 2018. 

Every year, a slew of articles are released regarding workplace equality, the gender wage gap, challenges women and minorities face in the workplace, and most of all, a whole lot of questions about why the face of corporate America is still predominately white and male. What are the underlying issues? Why are women and minorities getting left behind somewhere on the ladder to the top?

Why are women and minorities getting left behind somewhere on the ladder to the top?

Many companies have responded by implementing policies that attempt to mitigate these concerns, primarily by offering flexible work schedules, improving parental leave, and increasing workplace diversity. However, these options are frequently direct responses to the needs of a particular group—flex work for women, for example—rather than valid, complimentary, and widely encouraged options for all employees.

What our employees really need is not a “female-friendly” or “minority-friendly” workplace—they need a human-friendly workplace.

Intersectionality—Seeing the Whole Person

Intersectionality is a theory championed by Columbia law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. According to Crenshaw, “Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.”

People are more than just race, or just class, or just gender.

People are more than just race, or just class, or just gender. If a company policy is designed with the idea that “This will really benefit working moms,” or “This will benefit our black employees,” it is likely undercutting the reality that these people are often being taken advantage of by the system in more than one way.

The other issue is that if something is designed with a specific group in mind, it is likely that the policy will be primarily considered as an alternative or deviation from the “ideal,” rather than just simply another, equally privileged path to get to the same end goal.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, a law professor at Princeton University and previous Director of Policy Planning under the Obama Administration, explains this in her book Unfinished Business:

“It’s easy for employers to marginalize an issue if they label it a ‘women’s problem.’ A women’s problem is an individual issue, not a company-wide dilemma.”

She gives an example of a firm that researched the causes of their employee attrition. She explains, “The firm’s key HR problem was not gender, as management believed, but rather a culture of overwork. The firm’s leadership simply refused to accept these findings. They didn’t want to be told that they needed to overhaul their entire organizational philosophy or that they were overpromising to clients and over delivering. . . what the leaders wanted to be told was that the firm’s problem was a work-family conflict for women, a narrative that would not require them to make changes in anything they were doing or feeling.”

From Slaughter’s example, we can see that when we label an issue as an individual problem rather than a systemic problem, it acts merely as a Band-Aid for a gaping hole: we pretend to address the issue, but all the systemic issues creating the bigger problem still remain. Alternatively, even if the fix is helpful, only one part of the systemic issue is resolved (a “women’s issue”), while other systemic problems relating to race, sexuality, ethnicity, or disability are overlooked entirely.

What can Companies do to Create a “Human-friendly” Work Culture?

While it is, of course, still important to be aware of the unique challenges your employees face, providing a Band-Aid, a single-issue fix won’t help in the long run. Instead of thinking about what accommodation you can make retroactively, think about what you can do proactively in your company to address as many issues for as many people as possible. This may mean making some structural or cultural changes within your company, but it will help provide a happier, healthier environment for all your employees.

Here are some questions to get you started:

  • Do you emphasize the quality of work over the number of hours worked?
  • Do you foster a culture of respect for all employees? How do you address instances of disrespect or harassment?
  • Do you offer tuition reimbursement but no schedule flexibility that is often required to take college courses?
  • Do you offer part-time positions with a clear path to meaningful full-time positions?
  • Do you offer flexible schedules to all your employees, while maintaining paths to promotions that mirror or are the same as those for traditional employees?
  • Are any positions currently dead-ends in the company, with no way to move up?
  • Do you offer sufficient days off that employees have time to take care of other needs?
  • Can you point to specific, work-related reasons someone may or may not be hired or receive a promotion? Or are they tied to an underlying bias?
  • Do you offer desirable, challenging tasks to all employees, or do certain groups tend to receive the prime opportunities that prepare them for advancement?
  • Do you look with scrutiny at company policies or culture when there is a problem, rather than attaching it to a particular group of employees?
  • Do your benefits provide for a wide range of personal and family needs?
  • Do you provide help for employees with childcare or other care-related responsibilities (such as elder care)?

While providing extensive benefits may pose difficulties for smaller companies, all companies can evaluate their culture and business models to identify areas of improvement. When employees from all walks of life feel valued, their best efforts come through, and your company and employees will reap the benefits.