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5 ways employees can help shape company culture

Making a positive impact requires knowing when (and how) to speak up.

5 ways employees can help shape company culture
[Photo: Ezra Bailey/Getty Images]

We’ve all heard the expression, “You can’t change the world by being nice.” To me, I’ve seen that by merely being polite doesn’t always equate to change.

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As a chief people officer, I’ve never been accused of being nice. I try to be thoughtful, patient, and kind, but I aim higher than nice. I’m direct with those I have the privilege of managing. I encourage them, but I also let them know how they could do better.

At Facebook, I pushed for greater diversity and equity. And it didn’t always sit well with folks in tenured leadership. I made people mad, which was okay because, in the end, it was the right thing to do.

Moving businesses forward often gets messy. As a leader, it means making the hard calls. As an employee, it involves speaking up—and sometimes, making tough calls yourself. You may have to leave a company if the issues are pervasive. I left a career in tax accounting when I realized my firm would never make a Black woman a partner.

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But the critical thing never to forget is that you have influence, no matter if you’re an individual contributor, a middle manager, or just starting your career. Doing something is better than inaction. So when it’s time to channel your energy into making your workplace more fair and more equitable, here’s my advice.

Make ERGs a sounding board

When I started at Facebook in 2010, there were 11 Black people. We shared things we could only say to each other, like how we were raised to believe we had to be better than everyone else because of our skin color.

Fast forward a few years, and our tiny group grew to 200 strong. Black at FB became a safe haven to talk about issues, such as what it means to be your authentic self or how, as people of color, we can play different roles but still be ourselves. We could talk openly and honestly about our lives because we weren’t putting on a show for anyone else. We became each other’s sounding board.

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We also used our collective power to bring questions or problems in front of leaders who looked like us and hear their feedback, advice, and stories of how they succeeded.

I’ve found the most powerful way to initiate change is to join with others who may have similar goals. If you don’t belong to an employee resource group (ERG), join one or two today. Or be an ally. If your company doesn’t have ERGs yet, raise your hand and volunteer to lead one.

Push for a diverse recruiting team

What you see is what you get. Representation and inclusion start at the recruiting level. Honestly, if your recruitment team lacks diversity, how can you expect diverse talent to want to join? With this first contact, candidates will make judgments about whether they see themselves succeeding at a company.

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So how do you influence your recruiting leader? Let her know that representation across the board at the company—and especially in recruiting—is vital to you. Then, tap into your network and pass along those you know. Keep those referrals coming. It can’t hurt to be on the recruiting team’s radar.

Weed out bias through training

What happens after an employee joins a company is just as important as getting them through the door. A lot of unconscious bias goes unacknowledged, which leads to attrition.

You’ve watched those in-flight safety videos that tell you to put on your oxygen mask before helping others? Same concept here. Take that quarterly or monthly harassment or bias training seriously. Make sure you know how to recognize your own unconscious bias so you can help others do the same. Then, talk to your coworkers about it. Having candid but respectful conversations makes bias less taboo and helps you live out what you’ve learned.

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Feedback on the training is also critical. How can it be better? Do you prefer live interaction or online courses?

Finally, this may be the most challenging step: calling out managers who aren’t setting a good example. Tread carefully and respectfully but don’t shy away from doing what needs to be done by speaking directly to the manager or HR. Creating an inclusive environment and a sense of belonging starts with individuals. How we talk to coworkers, build teams, and decide what to praise or call out—these things matter.

Know your compensation cycle

Every employee deserves a consistent compensation philosophy that removes as much bias as possible. A fair comp plan should be formulaic, which means it’s not managers deciding whether they like you enough to give you the highest percentage.

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Current research shows that women, usually the caretakers, are at risk for proximity bias, which will disproportionately impact them over the next few years. At my current company, Envoy, we comb through our data to understand our behaviors. When have women been promoted compared to men? How many women are remote, and what opportunities are they getting?

We also do what’s called a pay-equity audit. By looking at how our URT (underrepresented talent) is faring compared to their peers, we can ensure that the performance calibration works. The process is based on data and applies the rules equally to everyone.

To push for better in your own company, you need to understand how your company approaches merit increases and performance calibration. At one company I worked for, people of color during calibration time would often come in with lower ratings. I would push back on the managers because I knew the people. Why was Anna a “meets all” and Mary is an “exceeds,” yet Mary didn’t have as much impact as Anna? What’s your thought process here? Over time, we flagged enough cases to foster a culture in which managers took time to reflect and question assumptions.

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Having a formulaic and fair compensation plan is table stakes. So if your company isn’t working towards this, lean in hard. The truth is that most companies are more focused on outbidding for talent than reworking their compensation cycles for the better, though I wish more took comp equity seriously.

Show up in person

No one wants to hear this, but you’ll have greater influence and more opportunity to be heard working from the office.

It doesn’t have to be five days a week. Two to three days on site will make a difference. Face time is essential for collaboration, sharing, and problem-solving. Being together in a workplace helps us build closer-knit relationships and develop leaders at every level. When you’re present and engaged, you’re seen, and thus, have a more significant influence. So, if you can, show up IRL (in real life).

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Final thoughts: If you want to see change, don’t wait for upper management to take the first step. Be thoughtful, empathetic, and persistent. You may need to nudge your fellow employees or business leaders to do the right thing. You may even find yourself having to take unpopular positions.

We all deserve workplaces where we can thrive. Believe me, it’s a worthwhile fight.


Annette Reavis is the chief people officer at Envoy, a workplace platform focused on solving the complexity of hybrid work. Before Envoy, Reavis worked at startups, as well as spending a decade at Facebook leading HR.

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