Earlier this year, Michael Page and MindTribes, an organisation that seeks to promote diversity and inclusivity in companies, held a panel discussion for an audience of over 250 on effective ways of listening to employees, with a focus on how to create psychological safety at work and handle workplace exclusion.

Speakers on the panel included Div Pillay, CEO of MindTribes and Co-founder of Culturally Diverse Women; David George, Senior Managing Director – Western Australia, Victoria and ACT, PageGroup; Jasmine Doak, General Manager – P&C Commercial and Corporate, Coles; and Heidi Beck, Chief People Officer, Toll Group Express.

Here are some key takeaways from the discussion.

An effective speak-up culture must work in good times and bad

A sign of good company culture is when people feel empowered to speak up not only when things are going well, such as during idea generation or collaborations, but also when the going gets tough.

This could be during times of conflict, such as when there is social exclusion of certain groups, unfair treatment, or when people experience workplace bullying or are discriminated against because of their identities.

The effectiveness of yearly engagement surveys must be reassessed

Yearly engagement surveys are the most common method of garnering sentiment on the ground when it comes to psychological safety, along with monitoring complaints and reports of misconduct. Such surveys typically ask how employees feel with statements like “I feel like I belong”, along with giving them an opportunity to raise issues, concerns, or to report negative experiences.

However, there is some evidence that these surveys may not really be getting to the heart of what people feel, think and experience at work.

“From our research at MindTribes, with a sample size of over 1,000 people, we found that despite consistently high year-on-year engagement scores, one in three women of colour, one in two First Nations’ women, and one in five Anglo and European women don’t feel psychologically and culturally safe at work,” shares Pillay.

“In our qualitative interviews, women shared that these negative experiences include inappropriate sexist and racist jokes and commentary, consistent dismissal of ideas or contributions, consistently being talked over, having others claim credit for work done, missing out on promotions or development opportunities for years, or even more insidious forms of workplace exclusion, such as social-professional isolation (consistently being left out of informal gatherings and important meetings).”

Another study found that while many organisations cited no or isolated cases of misconduct, 76% of women of colour and 42% of Anglo and European women shared that they had no faith or trust in the reporting system and that while they had experienced and witnessed discrimination, bullying and harassment, they did not see reporting as an effective way to put an end to toxic behaviours or obtain resolutions.

Organisations must be invested in remedying these toxic aspects of company culture as the ramifications of tolerating workplace bullying include decreased performance and lost productivity.

Effecting change as a junior staff member

Sometimes, there may be problems pertaining to exclusion and discrimination within the company that is observed by more junior staff members. Either out of genuine or wilful ignorance, these problems may sometimes escape the notice of the organisation’s senior management. How should the junior employee handle such a situation?

Pillay says that key to solving this issue is to influence executives with data and evidence, as well as present a clear “ask”: What do you expect the leaders to do differently after they are made aware of the problem? Is it realistic to expect them to act immediately? Will they realise the risks of doing nothing?

“If you are in a junior role, our advice is to partner with your HR lead or a senior leader you trust to gain buy-in and collect qualitative data,” says Pillay. “If there is a staff-led network or employee resource group, be sure to engage with them as well. Either way, the objective is to gather people’s lived experiences of exclusion.”

This has to be done safely, with due consideration given to privacy and confidentiality of information shared. With this information, you should be able to analyse core themes and patterns, rather than merely presenting raw data.

Pillay also suggests running an anonymous survey to gain buy-in, or to bring in a third-party vendor who is skilled at doing this. Another way of influencing executives is to bring in an influential speaker who can provide senior leadership with a case for change and why it is important to act to create a more inclusive culture.

Related: Is culture fit limiting diversity in the workplace?

On helping perpetrators of workplace bullying or discrimination

In cases where a perpetrator admits to wrongdoing, there should ideally be resources available to help in their rehabilitation as well. “Perpetrators wouldn’t usually ask for support from an employer due to fears surrounding job security,” says Pillay.

The Employee Assistance Program or external counselling providers are often good referral support services. However, these services need to be trustworthy, and people need to know that they can confidentially access them. It also depends on the severity of the case: Ultimately, the organisation has a duty of care to provide a safe environment for all employees.

If an employee admits their wrongdoing to their manager, the latter needs to be equipped to handle the conversation sensitively. From an organisational culture point of view, supporting both perpetrators and victims needs to be discussed, a course of action agreed on and then operationalised for people to have faith and trust that this will lead to positive outcomes for all.

On the difficulty of speaking up

Pillay agrees that it is a tall order to get women to speak up in male-dominated workplaces – or for that matter, for any member of a minority group to speak up in a majority-dominated environment, due to the power differential that exists between mainstream and minority voices.

This is why it is important for the systems and structures in the workplace – from recruitment, selection, onboarding, performing, advancing and informal activities (including coaching, feedback, social gatherings and team meetings) – to be monitored for bias and barriers or even rebuilt with inclusion at the core.

This works to reduces the power imbalance and over time will make it easier and safer for minority groups in workplaces to trust reporting and speak-up systems. However, this transformation of organisational culture will take time and require commitment from leaders.

Creating a speak-up culture in smaller companies that may not have a dedicated human resources department

Without a dedicated team to codify systems that would reinforce positive behaviours, it can be a little more challenging for small businesses to create a good workplace culture. However, it is not impossible. Pillay suggests trying the following:

  • Create an employee resource group led by a group of representative volunteers who drive conversations, champion diversity and inclusion initiatives, and advocate for change. The existence and leadership support for this “grassroots” group legitimises people’s voices. If set up and run correctly, this should create a safe space over time, ultimately fostering a culture of encouraging people to share their experiences.
  • Leaders can candidly share stories about the points in their career where they felt included or excluded. This sharing needs to be a genuine and consistent effort for it to have real impact. ·
  • Employees should be actively encouraged to share more about their diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking, highlighting non-stereotypical lived experiences. Once again, this should be a sincere and concerted effort. Asking people to share something about themselves at every meeting can feel forced and tokenistic.
  • Ultimately, good culture only comes about when employers and employees work together to create it. A supportive environment will reduce any fears or barriers to speaking up, and ensure that when someone does so, they remain safe and respected.

About MindTribes:
MindTribes is an organisation that works to promote diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. It designs bespoke surveys with care by listening to employees and crafting questions pertaining to how they view exclusion: When do people feel excluded? Where does it happen? How often does it happen, and with whom?

MindTribes is also partnering with #NotMe Solutions, a whistleblowing tech platform that is victim-centred, allows anonymity and provides early agile data on a dashboard, to fulfil the objectives of early intervention and proactive prevention.

Read more:
5 ways to improve equity in the workplace
11 traits you need to be a highly effective leader
How to hire to improve gender diversity in the workplace

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