Employer practices
Changemaker Q&A

New Insights on Advancing Equity in the Workplace: A Q&A with Samuel Bradley, Jr

Gillian GaynairJuly 26, 2023

In an effort to reframe fundamental perspectives of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Work Equity, an initiative of the Center for Social Innovation at the Boston College School of Social Work, partnered with SHRM, the world’s largest human resources organization, to conduct the National Study of Workplace Equity. One of the first of its kind, the study aimed to understand the state of equity in US workplaces using a nationally representative sample of 1,062 workplaces in the United States.

The study found that 64 percent of organizations say that DEI is important or very important, yet 62 percent devote little to no resources to promoting the fair treatment and full participation of all people in their workforce.

Instead of conceptualizing equity as a constant, the study recognizes that equity can vary across a workplace. Authors suggest that employers can rectify inequities by identifying and addressing them on a system-by-system basis—both within and across the following 10 “employment systems:” job structures, recruitment and hiring, compensation and benefits, orientation and onboarding, supervision and mentoring, training and career development, performance assessment and feedback, employee resources and supports, promotion, and separation.

Samuel Bradley, Jr., assistant professor at the school of social work and a principal investigator shares more about the study, including practices employers can start to adopt to advance equity in the workplace.

What inspired the National Study of Workplace Equity and what did the research team seek to understand?

My colleagues Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes and  Kathleen Christensen were inspired in the summer of 2020 to begin interviewing leaders of local, state and regional chambers of commerce around the country.

In the spring of 2020, the onset of the pandemic, you might recall how everyone was sort of saying, “We're all on this together.” And then slowly, but surely, we started to realize, actually no, we’re not. Depending on a whole host of identity characteristics, you could have wildly different experiences in the workplace. And so that, along with the murder of George Floyd, propelled us into action and wanting to do something meaningful that we thought would be actionable by employers.

So the idea was to start first by interviewing chambers of commerce to get a sense of what equity was like in those workplaces?

Yes, we had been considering the creation of a survey, and this was prior to me being brought on board, and Marcie and Kathleen spent time interviewing some chambers of commerce leaders to derive some idea of what their member companies thought were the most pressing issues were inside of DEI practice. And a couple of things that kept coming up was that folks really were unsure about the measures around DEI, what they could use, and what would help them understand not only the state of equity within their own organization, but also, they wanted to know—because they’re in business and they’re competitive—how they stacked up against other folks working on DEI issues for their employees. And so right away, we started to understand how important it was. Folks would talk a lot about the importance of diversity and inclusion, but [didn’t feel] like they were getting at all the issues around equity or fairness at the workplace with regard to policy and structures. And so that’s really where we [began].

Ultimately, you surveyed more than 1,000 workplaces. What was the makeup of the organizations and what did you hear?

Everything that you can imagine from health care to retail to education, both for-profit and nonprofit. The survey participants came from a panel that was created by SHRM, called Voice of Work Research Panel.

First, it was reaffirming to hear that most of the people with whom we spoke indicated that, for their organizations, equity was viewed both as a business as well as a moral imperative. Most of these leaders shared comments such as, “We really can’t afford to not respond to today’s inequities.”

However, most of the interviewees expressed some frustration with the ways that their workplaces currently think about DEI and, therefore, what they are doing.

Several people noted that they wanted to consider innovations in their DEI programs that would energize four sets of more-or-less standard activities: analysis of workforce demographics, training, inclusion assessments, and organizational equity assessments. Let me share just a few of their frustrations.

Workforce analytics: It is common for employers to either formally or informally track the demographics of job applicants and employees. In part, this metric helps employers gauge whether they are making progress with workforce diversity. Our interviewees indicated that they were concerned if their organization’s efforts stop with recruitment and hiring.

Training: As you are aware, a number of consulting firms specialize in different types of diversity and anti-bias training. Most of the interviewees said that this training is “necessary but not sufficient.” Furthermore, a few of the business leaders with whom we spoke indicated that once training was completed, the organization tends to leave change up to the individuals rather than continuing with innovations in organizational systems.

Inclusion assessments: While the interviewees seemed to recognize the value of inclusion assessments (particularly as they relate to retention), they were less clear on what action steps they might take—other than training—to improve employees’ perceptions of inclusion.

Equity assessments: Recognizing that some equity assessments provide companies with a sense about “How well are we doing?” The connections between these assessments and action steps could be vague. Importantly, the workplace leaders who participated in our interviews expressed skepticism that overall assessments of the organizations motivated leaders in different departments to view equity as relevant to their work.

One feature of the study is that it focuses on advancing equity, when many employer diversity, equity, and inclusion programs place more emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Why zero in on equity and how did the study define equity in the workplace?

Our team believes that while there has been a strong focus on diversity and inclusion in topics such as workforce analytics and inclusion programming, there has been less focus on equity at the workplace.

Equity at the workplace refers to the fairness of organizational systems and the absence of systematic and persistent disparities in the opportunities and resources available to employees, regardless of their demographic and social identities.

In practical terms, what does increasing equity look like for a worker and what employer practices must change?

Our study was designed to gather information from a single key respondent from organizations. However, while we did not have an opportunity to survey employees, there are a number of ways employees can communicate their assessments of the equity of employment systems. For example, employers can examine relationships between employees’ sense of inclusion and important measures, such as levels of employee engagement or intent to leave the organization.

Some things we have learned along the way are it’s good to have a policy or procedure related to issues of fairness, diversity, and inclusion in the workplace. What I mean by that is, are employers’ policies and procedures advancing equity specific to each of the 10 employment systems so that employees understand what they can expect when they’re going through a hiring and recruitment process, when they’re going through a promotion process, when they’re seeking out employee resources and supports? It’s really important that this information be available to them. It’s also important that organizations make a concerted effort [to communicate] institutional policies to workers, what is the policy for and how it's happening. And then I’ll also add, it’s important that those policies be fairly distributed across the organization.

Overall, our team found that one way that organizations can work to increase equity in the workplace would be to simply start by measuring the state of equity across employment systems within the organization … which is to say that on a regular basis, organizations should be auditing the fairness of these systems, the equitability of them, and they should do so in a team format with a mix of folks from across the organization, both vertically and horizontally, so that they can hold themselves accountable for making changes that are needed to really enhance equity in the workplace.

I try not to become super prescriptive about this is because it feels like we have a whole bunch of promising practices and maybe we are not quite yet at best practices or evidence-based practices. But what I will say is having a robust set of DEI activities is a really important way to get to equity because one program might be helpful to support a specific group or a specific employment system, but it’s not sufficient to work across all 10 of the employment systems we've identified or useful to various groups of employees that might exist at the workplace. And so, employers should consider how they’re constructing a robust set of program practices that are DEI focused and consistently monitoring those against other kinds of audit measures.

Tell us more about an equity audit. How would it work? What systems would need to be in place within an organization to effectively measure equity and respond to an audit’s findings?

The Work Equity team has been working on designing employer-friendly toolkits. These toolkits include an audit that would be conducted by the organization to audit the equity of each of the 10 employment systems. This is a key respondent survey, so it doesn’t require all employees to respond. Rather, the focus is on bringing in key employees who are familiar with the systems within the organization. Employees such as HR, senior leadership, and employees across departments who have experienced navigating through employment systems.

In order to implement an organizational audit, I suggest that the senior leadership make an institutional commitment to accountability, organizing a diverse array of employees to lead the audit from across the organization, and a focus on institutional improvement.

Findings from the National Study of Workplace Equity informed the founding of the Equity Innovation Lab at Boston College. Who does the lab engage with, how does it work, and what are you testing or hoping to identify and achieve with these employers, which I understand are currently in the human services and social service space?

Yes! The Equity Innovation Lab is something that we are particularly excited about. The lab focuses on working with small and medium sized organizations that want to take the use of our employment system model to the next level. In order to do that we combined data from the National Study of Workplace Equity with a useful set of employment system audits to learn about organizations. We then use design thinking to help organizations see how they can further evolve their equity practices. 

Can you tell us more about what’s unique about the workplace challenges the human service and social service sectors face?

Human service organizations are mission driven. Their values often reflect concerns related to social justice and equity. However, these organizations often face both constraints and uncertainties related to sustainable resources. Therefore, it can be difficult for them to implement long-term strategies for strengthening the equity of their employment systems.

What are three things from the Lab’s work that you have learned so far about workplace equity and policy changes that can advance it, that might be applicable in both nonprofit and for-profit workplaces?

Lean on your strengths: Many organizations have done a good job working towards a climate of inclusion. Continue this focus while considering how you can strengthen this work across employment systems.

Take your work to the next level: Focus on regular audits of employment systems and tie the performance of those systems to business practices.

Keep an open door: Allow for a continuous improvement process that is transparent and open to employees who want to be involved or know what’s going on.

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