There is an elephant in your conference room. It’s quite comfortable there—it’s been living with us for decades, even centuries. But the longer organizations go without acknowledging its existence, the harder it is for people to do their jobs. The elephant is workplace equity, and new data shows that it’s not only what companies do to eliminate disparities that matters to employees—it’s how they talk about it.
When I talk to new Syndio customers (we make a tech platform that helps companies analyze and remediate pay and opportunity gaps), they deeply want to fix their problems. They share my belief that workplace equity is essential across the board—racial equity, fair pay, mobility, access, and more. They understand that when employees feel they aren’t treated fairly, they aren’t happy. And that in this environment where employees have many options, if they aren’t happy, they’ll leave. But even for the most well-intentioned organizations, it’s often difficult to know how to navigate what’s next.
In a recent survey we conducted in partnership with Fast Company, we set out to understand the core of the issue. We asked people at all professional levels about fairness, transparency, and opportunity to try to identify the common thread.
The key is that organizations with high levels of transparency have a far-more engaged workforce. Both workers and leaders who feel their companies communicate openly about compensation decisions report higher levels of workplace fairness and trust. In fact, 87% of directors, managers, and individual contributors at such companies feel they are treated fairly at work— just a bit less than the 95% of their managers who feel like they treat employees fairly.
Conversely, at companies where management does not communicate about compensation decisions, only 54% of employees feel they’re treated fairly. Meanwhile, there is a huge contrast with 96% of the managers at those companies who feel they treat their employees fairly.
We see this pattern in other areas, too.
My company’s leaders demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
No transparency: 49%
I trust my company’s leaders to make decisions in the best interest of employees.
No transparency: 29%
I feel a sense of belonging at my company.
No transparency: 43%
Transparency was highly correlated with perceived fairness— much more so than race or gender. So what’s stopping all companies from being more transparent around things like compensation decisions? Fear. There are plenty of companies who are doing good work around workplace equity, but who aren’t making that work known to employees. They’re worried if they talk about something like pay equity, they’ll open themselves to lawsuits. In practice, though, we see the opposite. It’s the companies who do the work behind closed doors who make themselves susceptible to issues.
Here are some ways leaders and organizations can navigate these issues transparently and effectively.
How to be more transparent
Share that you’re tackling the problem. Most importantly, share how. What methodology are you using? How do you know it’s best? This doesn’t mean you have to share everything such as individual salaries. There’s a spectrum to transparency, and progressive companies are ensuring they are answering questions like:
- What am I paid and how was that determined?
- What is my pay range?
- Where am I in the range?
Share how you expect to fix the issues you find. You will find some. Every company that embarks on a pay equity evaluation will. But you can do more than fix it with a check. You can look at policies and find ways to tackle underlying bias. Tell your employees about those intentions.
Cultivate belonging through buy-in. communicate in regular intervals, at every step of the process, and always ask for feedback.
Listen. Then listen some more. Provide clear methods for people to voice concerns, ask questions, and raise issues, and make sure responses are elevated to leadership.
Exercise empathy. Fairness is not just a strategy—it’s a feeling. Take the time to find out what it’s like to be in your employees’ shoes and what small and large decisions affect their day-to-day.
If you have news to share about workplace equity, don’t rely on email alone! These are human-centered issues that ideally should be delivered in person, and by leadership.
What not to do
Don’t forget your history. Inequities don’t exist in a bubble—they are built on centuries of unequal structures, supports, and systems.
Don’t refer to employees as “you” or “you all” when communicating about these issues. Opt instead for “we” or “all of us,” which can feel more authentic and inclusive.
Don’t rely on historically excluded groups to champion the cause. These are company-wide commitments that should be led at a senior level.
Don’t get distracted. This is long-term work, which means it can often be swept aside in the face of a new opportunity or emergency. Resist that. Make this core to your company’s daily operations.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. This is messy, critical work. If you do misstep, own it, share it, and improve upon it.
In the end, now is the time to kick the elephant out of the room. Workplace equity doesn’t exist unless we can see it, and we can’t see it if we don’t discuss it. When we do the work well—using a best-in-class methodology to analyze areas like pay equity and identify the gaps—it’s a huge opportunity for authentic progress and participation. Talk to your employees. Have the difficult conversations. Be a part of the solution, together.
These are the ways we set our companies up for higher engagement, lower voluntary attrition, and a happier workforce. Workplace equity isn’t an obligation—it’s an opportunity, one that must be measured all the time. It’s also the key to future success and durability for modern 21st-century companies.
Maria Colacurcio is the CEO of Syndio.