The 2020 US election had the highest voter turnout in 120 years, with more than 155 million people (67% of the total population) voting. That’s a huge win in itself. People are increasingly recognizing that they can actively participate in (re)shaping their future. The election reminds us that we are our own agents and businesses should be inspired to embrace that mass participation to start shaping better workplaces horizontally, to make them work for everyone.
Fair and open workplaces are formed when everyone, at all levels, has the same influence in the business culture. So that if leadership isn’t functioning for everyone’s benefit, this is caught and addressed. Because if changes are implemented top-down, you risk perpetuating problems shaped by the vision of a handful of people who may not be aware of their unconscious biases.
Bottom-up or democratic strategies are really the only way to ensure you have the most inclusive and representative workplace possible. That means creating the space, opportunity and encouragement for anyone and everyone to tell you what’s wrong, what you’re not seeing, and what the best alternative approach is. This isn’t as simple as asking your black employees to rate D&I in the company from 1 to 10. It’s a proactive movement that will truly empower people, make them feel safe about expressing their feelings, and put the tools in their hands for sculpting a better workplace.
Founders, ultimately you’re the ones who write the rules, but that gives you the power to bring today’s mass participation momentum into the workplace, and here are eight ways to do so.
Give yourself a day to look around
Your first step needs to be this: spend a whole day looking with intention at the people around you, those you surround yourself with versus those who are always in the periphery. Consciously take note of who you speak with, meet with, and message the most throughout the day. Do they have anything in common? Do you discuss the same topics with them? Do they challenge you or always agree with you?
Be honest about whether your day-to-day is homogenous. Share your findings with others and ask what they think. Pick up on those absences—is there a group of people, a type of person, a gender, race, age or opinion that you’re unconsciously excluding?
Those are the action points for expanding your network moving forward. It doesn’t matter if this pushes you out of your comfort zone, or if you’re resisting talking to people with radically different political views than you, that’s the point.
Try to also identify these traits in the rest of your C-suite and management. As a founder you shouldn’t be the only one taking this journey. As we’re trying to prove, a structural problem can’t be isolated at the very top, so encourage conscious self-reflection at as many levels of the company as you can.
Shake up your leadership
When you’re trying to get employees to be honest with you about diversity, but their C-suite is a monolith, they’re going to have trouble telling you exactly what the problems are. This rings especially true for underrepresented people who often feel like if they say that something is not going well in the company, it will work against them. To counter that fear, you have to build a diverse brain trust – not only the official leadership team but also the people who are always around you, who you consult informally, and who others see you with. If your top team doesn’t look like the society we live in, how can it serve it?
Equal representation not only makes your employees more comfortable, it helps you make smarter business decisions. A 2015 McKinsey report found that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean. The same was found for gender diversity, with a 15 percent greater chance of having higher returns.
Ask on a regular basis
Companies don’t know what they don’t know, and it can feel impossible to make positive changes without first understanding where there’s an absence. The best solution is to ask your employees. Send out surveys using Google forms—it doesn’t have to be overly-official—and focus on the right questions. ‘What do you need to be successful?’, ‘What does your ideal workflow look like to help you be successful?’, ‘What do you need to be emotionally successful?’ are great starting points. Notice that they don’t always have to tackle the negative issues head on, but rather help the employee paint a more positive, alternative workplace that you can be working towards.
Be sure to provide opportunities for anonymous feedback along the way. If your employees still feel intimidated by leadership, they’ll be more diplomatic with their responses. With anonymity they can be completely honest and help break down that gap between leadership and the team.
Filing feedback forms can be tiring but it’s never overdone. Consider making them obligatory tasks for everyone, and when possible, have senior staff conduct one-on-ones based on the survey’s responses. The more you express interest in employees’ opinions, the more willing they will be to share them.
Give a timely answer
A recent study showed that 60% of HR executives admitted their organizations do nothing with survey results. In this case employees will be right to ignore your questions.
Because not everyone will be willing to come forward initially, demonstrate that you’re really listening when someone expresses a problem: set yourself a strict time limit to implement some form of change after every feedback round, whether big or small. It could be launching a new development program or setting up a face-to-face meeting with employees, the most important thing is it has to directly answer a point that’s been raised in the surveys.
Adapt to new conditions
Underrepresented people have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, and are more likely to be in an underserved community in terms of mental health and other resources. When big shifts happen, people will be affected in different ways, and as an employer you have to be looking out for them. Let them tell you how.
Check-in with employees about how they’re dealing with new difficulties and how you can care for them throughout the crisis. Chances are you’re saving on overhead costs like snacks, real estate, and Christmas parties, so ask employees where they would most like that money to be reinvested. They may want extras like subscriptions to relaxation apps or mental health consultations; gifts if they’re housebound; or training courses for their spare time. Consider pledging an extra 2% on top of your employees’ salary to dedicate freely to their personal and mental health, whatever that means to them (VC firm Seven Seven Six does this with every founder they invest in). You’d also be showing your employees that you trust them to use the extra funds wisely wherever they see fit. Or you could float the idea of a ‘hardship fund‘ that employees can tap into if they need to. If having perks was important pre-pandemic, they’re even more important now.
Expand employees’ networks
For employees to offer the best feedback and recommendations that can improve the company, they—just like you—benefit from getting outside of the company bubble. Beyond expanding your own network, you need to proactively push the boundaries of others’ networks.
A mentorship program is ideal here, as it can introduce employees to connectors in different industries and from different backgrounds. Source those mentors from regions and life experiences that are uncommon in your company. Ask employees if there are any specific thought leaders they want to meet, and then leverage your network to find them.
Turn tech tricks
The right tools are far less biased than humans, and can force you to break down implicit biases. Moreover, they can eventually make that change permanent, not just temporary responses to public pressure.
Digital tools leading the way in diversity include Project Include uses data and advocacy to accelerate diversity and inclusion solutions in the tech industry. Through the three pillars of inclusion, comprehensiveness, and accountability, Project Include provides free, actionable advice about leading in a manner that gives everyone a fair chance to succeed.
The bottom-up approach doesn’t stop at your employees, all stakeholders need to participate for it to have the deepest impact, including your clients.
Try to be more transparent with customers by publishing your employee or user diversity statistics—you could even make them readily available online for prospective clients too. One creative solution is to ask customers to rate your company via a cultural NPS score – so give the company a 0 to 10 score based on what they know about internal culture, diversity, impact etc.
When you engage customers like this, you’ll have to provide a timely answer just as with employees. You could publish the cultural NPS score and then clearly define how you’ll be working to improve it. Customers will appreciate the acknowledgement and employees might feel inspired to speak up after witnessing your productive response.
Once you pledge transparency, there’s no going back. It will light a fire under your business so you can only keep getting better.
The power of the 2020 election turnout will ripple far beyond the political sphere. It was a reminder of people’s determination to be heard and represented, and should serve as inspiration for leadership roles across industries to nurture an open dialogue with employees. By fostering a culture of participation, founders aren’t simply building a better business, they’re helping to build a better reality for all.