Toxic workplaces and problematic bosses are, as we've explored in recent days, difficult and complicated problems for employer and employees alike. Some experts recommend you confront your harasser, even if he or she is the boss. Others have suggested you should have an exit strategy ready to deploy.
But it turns out one way to stop toxic work environments may be to address another problem in workplace culture — lack of diversity.
Joelle Emerson is CEO of Paradigm, a consulting agency that works with companies to develop diversity and inclusion strategies. She spoke with David Brancaccio about why increasing diversity and inclusion in companies can help prevent harassment.
Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Brancaccio: So, when do they call you in ... when there's a hot mess at the office?
Emerson: Well, certainly a lot of companies are in a position like that, right? We're seeing a lot of stories of leaders saying racist things — discrimination and harassment happening in organizations. But I think what we're seeing is that another set of companies are asking, "How do we create an inclusive culture where these types of barriers are not as likely to emerge?" And beyond that, people actually feel empowered to do their best work. People feel included, people feel like they belong, and it's usually when companies are asking that type of question that they reach out to us.
Brancaccio: As opposed to places where the bosses are horrible and the workplace is toxic.
Emerson: Yeah, we have so many examples of that these days. And I think not doing that, creating a nontoxic workplace, I think that's table stakes, that's a baseline. I think every company needs to be thinking about that. But if you actually want to create an organization that attracts the best people, where those people can grow and develop and do their best work, where teams are high performing and capable of innovation — all of these things organizations think about — you have to go beyond not being horrible, right? I hope every organization is thinking that way. It's really about, "How do we build a place we can all be proud of?"
Brancaccio: And a place where every single employee doesn't look alike and doesn't come from necessarily the same class or background.
Emerson: Right, which is important for so many reasons. We work with a lot of technology companies, and part of what they're thinking about is so much research tells us that diverse teams are better able to innovate, they're more creative, they're higher performing. They're actually just smarter. And so I think companies that are in that kind of business of innovation care a whole lot about that. But I also think it's just important to think about what type of world we want to be a part of, what type of communities do we want to build and the access that people do or don't have to jobs in these types of organizations. So a lot of the leaders that we work with are also just thinking in that way. So I think there are a lot of reasons why companies are starting to prioritize, just simply, diversity. And I think, you know, a very simple one too is, if we're just trying to hire the best people, we need to cast a wide net. We need to build a culture that's attractive and appealing to people from the widest set of backgrounds so that the best people from all of those backgrounds want to work here.
Brancaccio: So you would argue that this term that we use a lot these days, inclusion, is part of the recipe for lowering the chances of a workplace in which people get harassed at one level or another?
Emerson: I do. I think inclusion is a core component to that for a lot of reasons. First, I think it's important to step back and think about what is inclusion all about? What does it mean? I think it breaks down into a lot of factors, but a couple of them that we see are most important in our work include voice. So is this an organization where people feel like they can speak up and their ideas are going to be heard and valued? And you can imagine why in an organization where that's the case, harassment is less likely to happen because you're going to have a culture where people are speaking up when they see things that are potentially problematic. Another aspect of inclusion is belonging, creating an environment where people feel like they can be themselves and they can bring their full identities to work. You can imagine why in an environment where everyone feels like they belong, people feel like they can bring their full identities to work ... these types of patterns — discrimination, harassment — they're less likely to happen, because it's just a different type of cultural norm and cultural context that you're creating.
Brancaccio: Joelle, I can hear in your voice that you're a person who believes in redemption, but help persuade the cynics among us: Can companies actually get better at this?
Emerson: One of our core values in our company is to embrace a growth mindset, and what that means is fundamentally to hold the belief that people, that organizations are capable of change. And it's helpful to us to see that actually bear out. Part of what keeps us motivated is seeing what's possible when companies commit to this and when they engage in really proactive and thoughtful efforts to drive change. And the exciting thing is, we have seen a number of the organizations that we work with start to change along a number of different lines. One is — probably the simplest — is representation. We've seen some of the organizations we work with, like Pinterest or Slack, we've actually seen representation numbers change in those organizations as they've been really intentionally focused on diversity and inclusion. We've also seen perceptions change. We've seen that people can feel differently about their organization when the organization invests in creating a culture of belonging, creating communication norms where people feel like they have a voice. So part of what leads me to believe that companies can change is I've seen it. I think at the end of the day, though, one of the things that we see come up a lot and one of the questions we get a lot is can companies change if leaders aren't bought in? Or another way to put that is, is it critical that leaders of an organization be bought in in order to see change? And I think that is the kind of single biggest factor that I've seen predict how quickly companies will change or whether they'll be able to change is if their leadership team is actually bought in.
Brancaccio: To what extent is it dependent on the senior leadership — the boss or bosses — really being on board this change?
Emerson: In my experience that the single biggest predictor of how quickly companies will make progress on diversity and inclusion is the level of engagement and by and of the leadership team. If the leadership team doesn't think this is important, and if the CEO doesn't think this is important, it's going to be really hard to make change. And the reason is pretty simple: Just like anything you're trying to do in an organization, you need to have accountability. You need to hold people responsible for whether they're advancing this particular outcome you care about. You need to make a call when you have to make tradeoffs. For example, if you're holding people in your organization accountable for only one thing and that thing is how quickly they can fill roles, then people will likely default to simplest hiring tactics, like looking around them and hiring their friends. We know that that's one barrier to creating a more diverse workforce, is when we only hire our own friends or people from our own small network. So leadership teams at the end of the day have to hold their organizations accountable for whatever the outcomes are that they care about. And if one of those isn't diversity and inclusion and building an equitable organization, I think we're unlikely to see a whole lot of change on that front.
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