Overcome the 4 barriers to building a “for all” culture

May 03, 2024

Overcome the 4 barriers to building a “for all” culture

Everyone should be involved in equity issues, from the CEO to the front-line staff.

BY Brian K. Reaves

In today’s workplace, equity for all should not be relegated to the mantra of the month or treated as a “nice to have” for organizations. A recent Great Place To Work study shows that companies that build a “for all” or “innovation by all” culture generated 5.5 more revenue growth compared to less-inclusive peers. The “for all” culture also leads to greater numbers of high-quality ideas and faster implementation. 

What this means for businesses is that achieving equity for all employees of all identities and all abilities—which I define as equity of representation, opportunity, compensation, and well-being—is a business imperative and a critical responsibility of all leaders. 

Creating great workplaces is critical to tapping into the vast energy, resources, creativity, and solutions within each employee, no matter who they are or how they work. However, this goal requires a conscious commitment and accountability at all levels to overcome the four main barriers to creating a culture that fosters empowerment and inclusivity.

Barrier 1: Lack of skills: “I don’t know how”

A recent Gallup poll study found that only 28% of employees strongly agree their organization is fair to everyone. Surveys also show that almost 80% of employees want to work for companies that value equity, diversity, and inclusion. So where is the disconnect?

Many organizations lack the skills and knowledge needed to build truly equitable organizations. Leaders and employees often don’t understand how to embrace and exhibit inclusive behaviors. To overcome this barrier, organizations should invest in hands-on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) and social impact experiences and interactive, peer-to-peer foundational learning programs. 

DEIB and social impact requires cultural humility, challenging structural inequalities, and awareness of one’s own social identities and biases. By increasing DEIB and social impact understanding, curiosity, and openness at all levels—and I stress all levels—employees can develop a common understanding of the complex topics of intersectionality and unconscious bias. This education empowers individuals to better understand themselves, learn from others’ experiences, practice allyship, and cultivate a culture of inclusion.

Barrier 2: Lack of will: “I don’t want to”

According to a survey conducted by Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), 45% of chief diversity officers (CDOs) say slowing momentum around DEIB keeps them up at night. But like many initiatives, success will require leaders who are ready to lead from the front. For equity initiatives to be a success, CEOs and other executives must serve as internal and external champions. 

And the business case for executives making equity a priority has already been made: In a 2019 study by McKinsey, companies determined to be in the top quartile for diverse leadership were 36% more profitable than businesses placed in the bottom quartile. Another study by Deloitte Insights demonstrated that those companies whose employees trust their organizations to keep their commitments to equity and inclusion efforts saw an increase in worker performance and operational success. 

By prioritizing equity for all, CEOs can inspire confidence and maintain momentum in creating an inclusive workplace because they know it’s the best thing for the business. 

Barrier 3: Lack of opportunity:I don’t think it’s part of my title”

The most successful organizations in the world understand the importance of fostering a culture built on trust, equity, and belonging. Research from Great Place To Work shows these organizations outperform others by as much as 400%, and that’s true in good times and bad. 

Overcome the 4 barriers to building a “for all” culture

At thriving companies, five key employee groups were having positive, high-trust experiences around inclusivity, innovation, fairness, and integrity. The key groups of employees are women, front-line workers, hourly male workers, long-tenured employees, and people of color. Consider this: The S&P 500 experienced a 35.5% stock performance decline from 2007-2009. However, companies where key employee groups said they had very positive experiences gained 14.4%.  Ignoring the need to create equitable workplaces can be acutely felt during an economic downturn. 

Yet, companies often fail to hold all their leaders accountable for their DEIB efforts or their lack thereof. Another survey of CDOs conducted by MLT says that, while 70% of their CEOs and 60% of executive leadership are held accountable for DEIB, accountability decreases significantly at middle management, as only 34% of middle and frontline managers are being held accountable. And a Gallup study confirms the important role that middle managers play in a team’s engagement and performance. The study found that managers are responsible for 70% of the variance in team engagement, meaning their individual approach significantly impacts team performance. This includes their efforts to contribute to creating an equitable environment for all. 

Recognizing the business benefits as well as the impact on people, all leaders—including middle managers who often lead frontline, and hourly workers—are responsible for prioritizing and evangelizing strategic initiatives that foster equity at work. To hold leadership accountable, action plans must be created for each business unit, which includes agreed upon goals, and built into performance reviews to get people managers involved to maximize impact. It’s also a way to celebrate successes. After all, what gets measured gets done. 

Barrier 4: Lack of trust: “I don’t trust my leaders”

Trust is the number one critical factor in the relationship between a worker’s performance and operational success. Building trust and transparency is crucial for employees to fully embrace the idea of an equitable culture. 

So how can companies build a high-trust relationship between leaders and employees? 

Managers play a significant role in this process by actively listening, being honest and supportive, modeling desired behaviors, and being accountable. Companies must measure trust levels within their organizations and have a deep understanding of what trust means to their employees. The Great Place To Work Trust Model helps companies understand where they are today and provides a roadmap to becoming a great workplace for all—with trust at the center of all relationships. “For all” means everyone can innovate, everyone can make deep and long-lasting connections, and everyone can contribute when they are at their best. The companies that fully embrace a “for all” mindset, will win. 

Building equity at work requires a purposeful shift in organizational culture and will require effort, input, and accountability from everyone. By addressing barriers such as lack of understanding, will, opportunity, and trust, companies can create an environment where all employees feel empowered and valued, which will unleash innovation, productivity, and advocacy. By taking these steps, organizations can pave the way for a future where equity is the norm, not the exception.

Brian K. Reaves is EVP and chief belonging, equity, and impact officer at UKG.


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