When Words Are Not Enough

In this episode I talked to Dr Tara Van Bommel about her research and a recent report she has co-authored full of data-led policy insights to support diversity and inclusion professionals in their organisations.

For this conversation, I was joined by a fantastic guest, Dr Tara Van Bommel. Tara works for an organisation called Catalyst, based in the United States. Tara has co-authored a fascinating report called ‘Words Aren’t Enough: The Risks of Performative Policies’. I thought that the report is incredibly helpful for diversity and inclusion practitioners covering some of the key things to think about when running diversity and inclusion programmes within organisations.

We started with Tara introducing herself and telling me a bit more about her professional background and why she wrote this report with her colleagues.

‘I’m a Statistician and Senior Director of Research at Catalyst where I lead our research initiatives on women and the future of work. More broadly, I’m a social psychologist by training with a specialisation in stereotyping and prejudice and my passion is social justice. So, at Catalyst, I’m able to bring both my training as a scientist and my passion for equity to effect real change by creating cutting-edge research that helps leading companies and CEOs around the world create more equitable inclusive workplaces for women and for everyone.

The report was co-authored with my colleagues Dr Kathrina Robotham and Dr Danielle Jackson. The roots of this report began a few years ago, when we started crafting the survey from which these data are drawn, in the spring and summer of 2020. The backdrop was the pandemic sweeping across the globe. Companies were sending people home to work or trying to figure out how to keep their front-line employees safe while they performed essential work to keep our economies afloat. And then here in the United States, George Floyd was murdered by police, and that sparked a global outcry for racial justice.

Some would say it’s brought a racial reckoning. Actually, I don’t think we have a reckoning yet, but the renewed calls for justice and equity were heard by company leaders in a way that we hadn’t seen before.

Companies made bold, albeit necessary and long overdue, bold pledges to double down on racial equity and DEI more broadly. Some took bold action, but many more simply made bold statements. So, this was the backdrop of what was happening in the world.

Furthermore, we believed that this moment in time reflected a critical period for organisations and their leaders and that employees, customers and other stakeholders were carefully watching how companies were responding to these events. Part of our hypothesis was that people would take their money and their talent to companies that responded by doubling down on DEI work, by expanding remote and flexible work and ultimately responding fairly, with concern for their employees.

In other words, by using this disruption we were experiencing to build more inclusive, empathic and equitable workplaces, we wanted to test these ideas and really understand what companies were doing in response. Were they implementing policies to support their employees during COVID? Were they implementing policies to improve racial equity? Even more importantly, did these actions seem genuine to employees? What were the benefits of genuine responses to these crises, and conversely, what were the risks of performative policies?’

What Tara said resonated with me. A lot of my firm’s clients were also talking about how they should respond to George Floyd’s murder. Asking how they could support their staff and how to become anti-racist organisations. I asked Tara to introduce some of the key findings that feature in the report.

‘We surveyed nearly 7,000 employees from 14 countries around the globe. On the whole, we found that most employees did not view their company’s policies as genuine. In fact, only 32% perceived their company’s COVID policies as genuine, and even fewer, only 25% viewed their company’s racial equity policies as genuine.
Our data showed that this was consequential because when employees did perceive their organisation’s COVID policies and racial equity policies as genuine, they had better employee experiences. Specifically, we found that employees who perceive their organisation’s COVID-19 policies and racial equity policies as genuine, experienced more inclusion and more engagement at work. They reported greater feelings of respect and value for their unique life circumstances. They reported a greater ability to balance life and work demands and they reported greater intent to stay with their organisation.’

So those striking numbers highlight why it’s worth investing in diversity and inclusion improvements within the organisation. I asked Tara, ‘What are the risks associated with having performative policies?’

‘When employees don’t see their company’s policies as genuine, when they see them as performative, we see the converse of what I’ve just described. Employees are less able to balance life and work demands. They say they don’t feel respected by their company. They’re not engaged in their work and ultimately, they’re not having an inclusive workplace experience. Altogether this leads them to be more likely to think about leaving their job. All of these factors combine to create a serious risk for negative employee experiences and to, ultimately, impact organisational success.’

I was curious to know how employees viewed the COVID-19 policies and what the research surfaced in terms of examples of performative COVID policies.

‘Quite a few employees told us that they didn’t think that the policies were genuine. However, we had some open-ended data from our respondents, where we were able to find out a bit more about what looked good in the organisation as well as what were some examples of things that were more performative. And as it relates to COVID-19 policies, some examples that we see of un-genuine COVID-19 policies included things like allowing remote work but not providing flexibility for employees who must manage caretaking and schooling from home as well. For front-line businesses, putting COVID precautions in place for workers but not enforcing social distancing or providing personal protective equipment or conducting things like temperature checks and implementing a self-care wellness programme, for example, to mitigate burnout but without actually doing anything to address unmanageable workloads and an always-on culture. These were a couple of the things that really came out time and again with the COVID responses.

Then some examples of disingenuous racial equity policies included pledging funds to support racial equity but not actually following through and sending those funds. Something we saw pretty immediately after George Floyd’s murder was organisations putting out black squares on Instagram and tagging Black Lives Matter but then making no meaningful changes or commitments in workplace equity and inclusion. We saw companies hiring a chief diversity officer or a DEI expert but then giving them no real power or resources in the organisation, not implementing the changes they recommended or not addressing the problems they identified. Lastly, making one-time anti-racism or bias training mandatory for all employees but not taking claims of bias seriously or thinking about how the organisation could be anti-racist in daily interactions with employees and customers. I think across the COVID-19 policies and the racial equity policies and these examples, what really stands out for me is words without actions or doing something once and then not following through to make that commitment felt throughout the organisation and for individual employees in their daily lives.’

What Tara said sounded so familiar. Speaking to some employees within some of our organisations that we work with, they might be saying that they felt initially the chief exec or the senior leadership team were making positive statements about anti-racism, but then they felt like that senior leadership team was leaning too much on staff from an ethnic minority background. That made it feel like it was the responsibility of those employees to fix the issues rather than the chief exec and the senior leadership team being accountable and taking responsibility for addressing anti-racism within the organisation.

It’s not just around race. We also saw it recently with the World Cup over in Qatar and brands who, on one hand, say that they’re LGBT inclusive and they changed their logo to be rainbow colours, but then they were publicly endorsing the World Cup football, which was not very LGBT inclusive over in Qatar.

We moved on to hear more about what Tara thinks are the key lessons that we’ve learned over the last few years when it comes to racial equality, particularly following George Floyd’s murder and what we’ve been through in the pandemic.

‘I think one of the big lessons learned is that employees and customers are looking to leaders and to organisations to respond in meaningful and impactful ways during times of crisis. When companies do so, it benefits both employees and the companies they work for. At the collective macro level, it benefits society. However, we’ve also seen that we still have a lot of work to do to achieve equity in the workplace and in society more broadly. In our data, we saw that although genuine policies are associated with an almost two-fold increase in the experience of inclusion, the initial numbers were so low that even with genuine policies, still fewer than half of employees are experiencing inclusion at work.

I think George Floyd’s murder had the effect of bringing these long-standing and pervasive issues of injustice and oppression back into the global spotlight, as did the pandemic, but it also exacerbated existing inequalities, especially for the most marginalised in our society. I think the silver lining in moments of disruption like we’re currently experiencing is that they provide the greatest opportunity for change and progress. Although there’s so much work to be done, there’s also an unprecedented opportunity to leverage this disruption to rebuild and redefine the future of work. I think by leading with empathy and implementing policies that create real change, we can create an equitable workplace of the future, one where everyone can belong, contribute and thrive. That’s one of the biggest important takeaways we can take from these crises over the past few years is that there is a great opportunity here.’

I find it really interesting that the report identified empathy as one of the key themes or recommendations around inclusive leadership. I asked Tara, ‘What is the role of empathy for leaders?’

‘In our line of future work research, we see empathy as a critical leadership skill and a business imperative in the times that we’re in right now. It was important for us to take that into consideration, especially as we thought about how empathy would be important to respond to these events. When we looked at the role of senior leader empathy, we looked at it in combination with genuine policies. For example, with COVID policies, we found that the presence of genuine policies and senior leader empathy was key to decreasing burnout, which refers to the feelings of overwhelming emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a diminished sense of efficacy at work.

Specifically, when employees perceive their organisation’s COVID policies as genuine and they had empathic senior leaders, they were less likely to have high levels of general workplace burnout, and less likely to have high levels of COVID-19-related workplace burnout compared to employees with senior leaders who had low empathy and un-genuine COVID-related policies. So, these data here are telling us that when there’s this individual empathy from leaders and then organisational empathy in the form of policies that demonstrate care and concern for employees, they were better able to handle chronic stress.

We think this finding is especially important for women, who have on average, experienced greater levels of burnout during the pandemic than their male counterparts. And with regard to the racial equity policies, again, we found that senior leader empathy was critical to crafting genuine responses.

We found that empathic senior leaders were more likely to create genuine racial equity policies, and this in turn led to greater experiences of inclusion among people of colour. Thus, this data pinpoints senior leader empathy as really one key driver of genuine policies. And then lastly, one last finding that I’ll highlight is that interestingly, we also found that the benefits of racial equity policies extended beyond the target group of people of colour to women across race and ethnicity. So specifically, empathic senior leaders were more likely to create these genuine racial equity policies and this in turn led to greater work engagement among women and it also led to greater feelings of being respected and valued by their company for their unique life circumstances.

This finding aligns with previous research showing that this transfer of benefits may occur because establishing policies that benefit one marginalised group signals to other marginalised groups that the organisation promotes equity more broadly. So that’s further evidence to support what I was talking about earlier about how these genuine responses and having empathy and doubling down on diversity equity inclusion has so many broad benefits for organisations and for employees.’

In the report, Tara and her co-authors make the statement that this should be a ‘wake-up call for chief executives’. I wondered why Tara and her colleagues had put it like that.

‘That’s a great question. We believe this is a wake-up call for CEOs. We’re in an era of high-end disruption and a paradigm shift in the world of work. There’s a new social contract of work being constructed. A key part of that, both broadly and especially as it relates to responses to crisis and disruption, is the shifting expectations for ethical leadership and CEO activism. Employees and customers are looking to leaders to take a stand and make a difference on the defining social issues of our time. Our data show that those that cannot do so genuinely risk perhaps becoming obsolete as employees will take their talent elsewhere.’

What Tara said rings so true with the clients that I work with as well as what new talent coming into the marketplace is looking for within the organisations that they work for. I wanted to know how employees differentiate between genuine and performative policies when they are looking at their current employer or maybe a new place to work.

‘In our survey, we collected some qualitative responses in which we asked employees to describe what aspects of their company’s racial equity initiatives were most or least meaningful to them. And when we look at employees who say that their company’s racial equity policies are not genuine, one of the biggest themes we see across responses is that there are words without actions.

Some examples include announcing a policy with no follow-through or expressing concern without taking any follow-up action or announcing training or a new policy but failing to implement it. Conversely, among employees that did find their company’s responses to be genuine, they named consistency, such as taking a stand internally and externally, being transparent and admitting that the company is not as diverse or inclusive as it should be, taking corrective action such as empowering ERGs or removing bias from hiring practices and diversifying leadership.

Importantly, we see that employees aren’t seeking perfection or a quick fix from leaders, they understand that DEI work is complex and ongoing and they also understand that systemic issues like racial and gender bias require systemic solutions. Transparency, communication and implementing policies and other changes that impact the workplace climate are important qualities of genuine policies.’

Since there are a lot of heads of HR and senior business leaders listening to this podcast, I asked Tara to tell me what her number one recommendation for action the audience can take away and start to implement within their business.

‘I think I have a couple. One of the big takeaways from our report was that senior leaders who leverage their empathy skills created genuine responses to crises. In order for organisations to respond genuinely, they need to invest in building the empathy skills of their senior leaders with empathy training. Empathy is a skill that has cognitive, emotional and behavioural components. And many people mistakenly understand empathy as a purely emotional phenomenon and that’s inaccurate. Therefore, it’s really critical for leaders to leverage cognitive empathy skills, to listen and learn what employees need to thrive and then take those learnings and act on them as a demonstration of behavioural empathy.

The second thing I would recommend is to embrace ethical decision-making. As I mentioned, the shifting expectations for ethical leadership and CEO activism mean that it’s important to commit to social issues, because it’s the right thing to do. This means focusing on ethical and fairness-based arguments for supporting social issues. Prior research shows that making the business case for diversity and inclusion can appear insincere because your support for these issues is dependent upon their profitability, which further implies that if it’s not profitable, a climate of bias and discrimination is perhaps financially better for the organisation. So, leadership providing fairness-based rationales for policies and research shows that organisations that support social policies for ethical reasons are perceived as more sincere, honest and trustworthy than those who do so for economic reasons.

I would remind and encourage our practitioners and leaders out there to think about constantly evolving their equity initiatives. What this means is that equity is not a one-and-done endeavour, it’s not just a check box, we did it. It’s important to regularly audit and re-assess the success of DEI programs and use the data and employee feedback to pivot and re-adjust as needed. I also think because we’re in a time of rapid change and disruption, issues of equity will be emergent and evolving so it’s important to be adaptable and to allocate sufficient resources and support to these endeavours to ensure their success over the long term.’

What Tara says sounds brilliant. I’m pleased that she highlighted those three things and the last point about making it sustainable is magic to my ears. In our work with clients, we make sure that they embed diversity and inclusion into the DNA of their organisation, so it isn’t just a box-ticking or a window-dressing exercise. It’s something that will make an organisation a much better place to work. Before we wrapped up the conversation, I asked Tara ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘To me inclusive growth means bringing curiosity and a humility-based mindset to being an advocate for equity and inclusion. I think it’s so important to acknowledge that there’s always more to learn and more ways to grow. It’s through this openness to growth and change in our understanding of what equity and inclusion works and looks like that we’re able to effect real change. It’s sort of the opposite of a zero-sum mindset. It’s not that bringing more people to the table means everyone’s slice of pie gets smaller, it’s actually that the pie gets bigger. So that’s what I think of when I think about what inclusive growth means to me.’

To get a copy of the report, ‘Words Aren’t Enough: The Risks of Performative Policies’ go to catalyst.org and download a copy. Catalyst has released a new future of work report at the beginning of December 2022, on the skill of adaptability called ‘Adapt or Fail: How Managers Can Enable Everyone to Thrive’. This highlights that adaptability is a critical skill and shows that it helps advance gender and racial equity.

Alternatively, if you’d like to reach out to Tara directly with any questions about the research you can do that via her LinkedIn page.

When Words Are Not Enough - Mildon