Business

Building equal opportunity workplaces: Is it possible?

By Shehani Seneviratne

Many a case has been made for diversity in workplaces – while previously a “feel good” factor, organisations globally are increasingly reporting on the tangible benefits in having a diverse and inclusive workforce. Increased productivity, boosts in innovation and creativity, balanced risk taking, and a better flow of ideas stemming from a variety of perspectives are just a few of many advantages documented and that I myself have witnessed first-hand. 

Bringing about this change can be easier said than done, especially in traditional industries with older, hierarchical organisations. A popular strategy has been the introduction of “diversity targets” – not only in corporations but even in government and educational institutions. Diversity targets may be a good start to tackling the issue but is not sustainable.

A more long-term approach would be building up, or rebuilding in some cases, an “equal opportunity workplace”, where all objectives, practices, and the very culture of the organisation are geared to negate bias or discrimination of any kind. To hire, promote, and act based purely on performance and merit. Further, addressing stereotypes and preset mindsets, which come through our schools, universities, and home environments, for both males and females, is essential to building an equal opportunity workplace. Leadership commitment and buy-in are very important.

This can take an immense amount of time and effort, but the results are tremendous. I have been a part of a team dedicated to building an equal opportunity workplace for over a decade and the following are some initiatives that I have seen reap great benefits, and some observations over the past years.

Leaders without titles

Although traditionally used to hierarchical, designation-driven work structures, an open, flat organisational structure where everyone – from an intern to a manager – are empowered to challenge and bring about change, is a big step towards creating equality in a workplace. What we refer to as “leaders without titles” also inculcates a feeling of respect for all employees, irrespective of age, seniority, or gender. Importantly, promoting this organisation-wide “can-do” attitude inspires those who may not be used to seizing opportunity due to constricting structures they’ve grown up within.

Creating opportunities for all

To be an equal opportunity employer, you need to create these opportunities for your people. Within core job roles, this can be done by encouraging self-managed teams. At certain companies, most teams operate with no managers – responsibilities are shared by all, with the entire team liaising with global clients daily to deliver excellence. Outside core work, corporate strategy and objectives are broken up into structured milestones that any employee can take ownership of and work towards achieving. All this creates opportunities for them to excel, refine leadership skills, and map their personal goals with the organisation’s objectives. 

Merit-based evaluations

A performance-driven culture can only be built on a proper cycle of evaluation and recognition. This needs to happen in multiple ways, but the foundation is a 360-degree evaluation for every employee, which takes into account feedback from customers, peers, seniors, juniors, and of course the employee’s own comments. Contributions across the board must be recorded, evaluated, and then justly rewarded. However, rewards and recognition should not be limited to a yearly evaluation or be purely financial. Frequent appreciation must be encouraged among colleagues, teams, leads, and from the leadership. 

Balanced interview panels 

This is a simple step that can be taken to ensure balanced hiring. Through practical experience I have seen that the addition of more women to interview panels is a highly effective tactic, which in the long run has brought in greater balance to the recruitment process. Recruitment automation through the increased use of tools can also help in eliminating unconscious bias.

Feedback and grievance redressal 

An equal opportunity workplace thrives on employee satisfaction. Create a high-trust environment where employees feel comfortable to raise concerns and suggest improvements with the leadership with the assurance of being heard. For this, leaders should be highly accessible, and opportunities to share feedback must be created and frequently promoted. However, employees may sometimes need anonymous channels to share their feedback. It’s important to acknowledge this and create that safe space, with the assurance of full confidentiality.

WFH: Yay or nay?

On one hand, the pandemic has ushered in work from home (WFH) and part-time work options, which will further enhance the diversity index. However, will the current work from home environment jeopardise equal opportunity environments in the long run? Are females now especially burdened with work, home schooling, chores, and childcare, with increasingly blurred boundaries between them all? This is something employers need to be aware of and ensure that it does not have a negative impact. 

Conclusion

While the need to create sustainable equal opportunity workplaces is a growing requirement, keenness to uplift under-represented groups of people could unconsciously lead to positive discrimination, where a person or group of people are treated more favourably than another because they have a protected characteristic. This could create a feeling of imbalance among your employees in the long run and create adverse sentiments. Decisions based on performance and merit as outlined above can help avoid these situations and help the creation of a truly equal workplace. 

(The writer has been an integral part of the 99x journey and currently plays the role of its COO. Her core competencies are in delivery management and customer success, product engineering, continuous process transformation, process consulting, people and operations management. She is a Board Member of SLASSCOM, the local industry body for the IT/BPM sector, and is Board Lead for the SLASSCOM HR and Women Technopreneurs Forums. She is also a founding Board member of the Women’s Chamber for Digital, Sri Lanka.)