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Equality At Work: 5 Ways To Keep Fairness Front And Center

September 22, 2020

The basic tenant of Equal Employment Opportunity is, “Those with an equal probability of success on the job have an equal opportunity of obtaining that job." In my 40-plus years as an Industrial and Organizational Psychologist, I have yet to encounter an organization that opposes this view. Occasionally, there are individuals who offer a counter opinion, but fortunately, they are the exceptions. Currently we are seeing evidence that the goals of Equal Opportunity are proving problematic in areas ranging from how organizations make selection decisions to how certain organizations conduct business. 

Equality at Work: 5 Ways to Keep Fairness Front and CenterWhat we call "unfair” ranges from selection and promotion programs that do not provide equal access to all candidates, to preferential treatment in doling out organizational rewards, to exclusionary processes that result in unequal access to leaders as a function of sex, to racial profiling and differential treatment of citizens by police departments. 

As a discipline, I/O Psychology has focused on equity, fairness, and equal employment opportunity. Recently, the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) launched three programs, each designed with a different focus but all converging on issues of organizational fairness. 

SIOP's Initiatives Focus on Issues of Organizational Fairness
  • Diversity & Inclusion: A group of Chief Human Resource Officers and Academic Researchers are working together to identify programs that have had a positive impact on more complete workplace representation and those initiatives that are emerging and potentially effective in a wider variety of settings. The next step is to both outline these effective programs for implementation and to develop new programs that we can apply and evaluate to help all organizations who want to have more diverse and inclusive work environments. By pairing those in a position to make this happen with those who are conversant in theory and research, we believe very positive outcomes can be achieved. The immediate goal is to identify programs and program components that work and then implement various programs in several organizations interested in joining this initiative. 

  • Policing & Police Reform: Currently, SIOP is preparing a briefing for lawmakers to inform them of capabilities as they relate to issues faced by police departments. The goal is to work with funding agencies, police departments, and the agencies within the Department of Justice to provide technical support in areas ranging from recruiting, selection, promotion, training, and union-management relations. In this way, I/Os can bring these capabilities to those organizations who are chartered to protect and serve. 

  • Anti-Racism: On July 1, SIOP and the SIOP Foundation launched a call for proposals to deepen our understanding of racism at work and move toward meeting needs for social justice in the workplace. Milt Hakel, SIOP Foundation President said, “Racism in the workplace has become a flash pointResearch won’t end racism. But racism won’t end without research. I/Os need to seize the opportunity to direct our talents toward promoting equal employment opportunity as a path for addressing systemic racism.” Thirty-five proposals were submitted and the five rated most highly by a team of reviewers were awarded funding. Research in areas including workplace responses to racism, bias in automated video interviews, and the effectiveness of anti-racism initiatives will be conducted and reported on through this program. 

Initiatives like these will help keep us focused and move us forward. They have the potential to build a foundation for various approaches to impact how we make organizations fair, inclusive, and just for all. Additionally, over the past several months we have witnessed widespread corporate responses from CEOs taking a stand to condemn racial inequity and to prioritize diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

There is, however, a difference between emerging theory, new research, and corporate statements addressing change versus tangible practices that will make meaningful progress. Only the latter will have observable difference in the near-term in ending systemic inequity. We have worked with many organizations to develop practices designed to cultivate a culturally agile and inclusive workforce. Here are five examples of that we believe help organizations in their quest for equity.

Read More: Diversity And Inclusion: 5 Tips To Provide More Inclusive Leadership


Equality At Work: 5 Ways Organizations are Keeping Fairness Front And Center
  1. Attention: “What gets measured, gets managed” is true in all aspects of business, and is also true for equity, inclusion, and cultural agility. You can survey employees, learn from focus groups, and informally gain knowledge from individual employees willing to raise awareness. Through whatever method works best in your organization, be sure you have found ways to measure perceptions of racism, sexism, ageism, or any other-ism that keeps people from believing they belong. Also measure positive perceptions, whether employees feel they can bring their full and authentic selves to work each day. You might have pockets of excellence that could be modeled throughout the organization.

  2. Deliberation: Leaders can champion longer deliberations and promote an openness to feedback when actions are directly or indirectly excluding a diversity of people and thought. Organizations with a high-speed performance cultures tend to have the greatest challenge with this practice because moving more slowly and gathering a wide range of perspectives is viewed as a weakness. However, dialogue is critical and making sure those conversations take place is important. It is also critical that you provide methods to educate those in your organization who may not feel comfortable or capable of this type of dialogue.

  3. Connection: Increase connections among employees by fostering ways to increase perceptions of similarity on just about anything. This one change will increase liking among employees. If you do not believe us or the decades of research that has been compiled, observe how quickly connections happen when two strangers realize they have same-age children, drive the same model car, or were born in the same year or in the same hometown. There is an instant connection, a warmth that fosters empathy that might not have been there previously. According to our research, positive outcomes emerge when perceptions of similarity are present. Finding those similarities is a skill, a practiced act. In your organization, you can structure ways for employees to find commonalities to help foster social ease. While the current isolated environments may make this more difficult, it is not impossible through on-line meetings, newsletters, expanded communication channels, and other clever uses of technology.

  4. Selection: Select employees with cultural agility. These individuals have actively sought out experiences which placed them in multicultural situations and have honed their ability to control their split-second subjective perceptions. Having more culturally agile employees in your organization will begin to create a comfortable climate of inclusion. The mounting evidence is that cultural agility can be measured reliably and it is a valid measure of job performance in many settings. 

  5. Ejection: Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for anyone engaging in acts of overt bias and anyone allowing structural and systemic biases to continue under their leadership. Change cannot happen without strong leaders modeling equity and inclusion. Every time bad behavior is ignored it sends an explicit message that this behavior is permissible in your organization. Organizations terminate individuals for stealing, for breaking rules and violating norms, intolerance of others should be seen as an equally unacceptable action.    

We fully understand that initiatives like those at SIOP and changes in companies' business practices are only the first steps in ending systemic inequity everywhere and for everyone. It is a behemoth of a problem. Nonetheless, we can move in the right direction with focused and consistent programs. We have the practices that rely on science (not fad) to successfully foster cultural agility, inclusion, and workplace equality.  We can make a positive difference.   

What are you doing at your organization to enhance fairness? We would like to know what programs you have advanced. We would like to create more knowledge in this area by cataloging successful programs and the evidence showing efficacy. Please reach out on LinkedIn and let us know about the work you are doing to promote fairness. We want to create a movement that is both scientifically important and practically possible. 

This piece was written in collaboration with Paula Caligiuri, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of International Business and Strategy at Northeastern University. 

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Rick Jacobs, Ph.D. Rick Jacobs, Ph.D. is Senior Vice President of Advisory Services for PSI Talent Management and Education. Rick Jacobs is also professor of psychology at Penn State University. At PSI, he serves as a senior scientist and consultant, developing selection programs that are valid and consistent with legal guidelines. He has extensive experience in assessment centers, individual assessment methodologies, and has developed numerous executive assessment programs. Rick holds a bachelor’s degree from UCLA, a master’s degree from San Diego State University, and a Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. He is the author of over 60 research articles and book chapters, and a fellow in the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society.