Equitable Work Environment

Want to Create an Equitable Work Environment? Look to an unlikely place – your business systems.

November 18, 2021
by Anna Prow

Practically every day in our work as Term Executives, we hear how difficult it is to maintain a fair and welcoming workplace when society is rife with racism, inequity, injustice. Even when a nonprofit is tackling these issues through its mission, the organization itself is not immune from their impacts. The social sector – and each nonprofit within it – must lead the changes that are imperative to create safety, equity, inclusion, diversity, and well-being for the workforce. Easier said than done, say many nonprofit leaders. I have some thoughts on a place to start and how to design structures that will support the equitable culture you want to define your organization.

One powerful solution lies in an unlikely place within nonprofits: business systems.  I recommend that my clients focus on building equitable business systems — standards, policies, and procedures – that lay the foundation for an inclusive, accountable culture. Otherwise, if your business systems – intentionally or unintentionally – enable inequitable conditions, there is no amount of sensitivity training that will dismantle these defaults to sustain an equitable, diverse workplace.

Inequity is Pernicious

Inequity manifests itself in the day-to-day in today’s nonprofit workplaces: in actions and decisions large and small that can have the – often unintended – effect of demoralizing the workforce and reinforcing inequitable power structures and norms. Our busy, hectic nonprofit communities, many still with underdeveloped infrastructures and core functions, can be fertile environments for inequity to germinate.

Inequity flourishes in confusion and ambiguity, where it lurks in mixed messages. It exploits neglect and lack of diligence, allowing for disproportionate burdens on some populations and careless microaggressions. It gains momentum when things “fall through the cracks” – thriving when we don’t have the time or guts for accountability.  And it loves when we can’t be bothered to make decisions according to just and reasonable standards.  “Busy-ness” and inefficiency just exacerbate inequity – leading to hasty decision-making, which often results in quick fixes that perpetuate the status quo.

One Place to Start: Fair and Efficient Business Systems

Having served in leadership roles related to nonprofit operations for 20 years, I have strong evidence that internal inequity can be positively impacted by maintaining fair and efficient organizational business systems.

When organizations establish user-informed, equitable administrative practices, they create conditions that ensure day-to-day decisions do not reinforce the status quo at the expense of stakeholders who have historically been undermined. Carefully designed operational systems stop inequality in its tracks – and create openings for engaging in new ways that sustain a fair work environment.

Actions You Can Take

Think about the ways your organization operates and the many opportunities that may already exist to interrupt inequity in the policies and practices of the day-to-day.

  • Organizational policies – Have you assessed whether or not internal policies and procedures are documented, up-to-date, accessible, compliant, and just? Are managers accountable for helping staff navigate organizational policy?   Are documents, such as handbooks, policies, forms, and templates, duly inclusive?  Pronouns? Accessibility?
  • Resources – Do all staff have equitable access to the technology required to do their jobs?  Do hardware assignments take into consideration the needs of the differently abled? Are workspaces designated based on an equitable standard?  Are these standards assessed, documented, and accessible?
  • Management and leadership – Does the organization provide ongoing justice-informed management training and development for managers? Do you articulate expected just and compassionate management competencies – and are managers held accountable for modeling them?  Do you have a diverse, collaborative senior team that is responsible for decisions to keep internal-facing and external-facing values in synch, and ensure the physical and psychological safety of the workforce?
  • Role transparency – Do all staff have access to/understand salary ranges and title ladder, along with role core competencies and expectations? Are promotion and merit increase policies articulated and shared?
  • Performance management – Do you have frequent, effective performance feedback mechanisms, including multi-level reviews and 360s, in place?
  • Compensation and benefits – Are compensation and benefits policies justified through regular market analysis?  Do you consistently conduct internal equity audits on employee compensation? In addition to organizational rules and regulations that require employee compliance, do you also have fair and reasonable employee-centered policies like flex time, parental leave, employee development, and remote/virtual work?
  • Recruiting, hiring, onboarding – Do you post salary ranges on job announcements? Are you clear about requirements and qualifications? Do you blind review applications?  Do you utilize a Rooney Rule or similar practice? Do you consider diversity when you think about “culture fit”?
  • Finance – Are internal financial and accounting policies clear, published, and equitably enforced?  Do you test assumptions underlying financial policies and decisions that affect staff members?

These are just a few improvements that can be accomplished in days, weeks, or months.  What others can you think of?

A Bright Future

By checking your organization’s operations for inequitable practices, you begin to make measurable progress toward defeating injustice inside your organization. The suggested actions above remind us how important it is to invest in operations, which serve as the scaffolding for organizational equity.

“Baking-in” equity to your operational and administrative infrastructure fosters confidence and security in staff, reduces opportunities for microaggressions, and strengthens accountability and professionalism. Operational practices that are just and inclusive can lay the groundwork for safe, challenging conversations that confront and sustainably resolve the inequities that hurt us, our organizations, and broader society.

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