Make Workplaces More Equitable – Five Things Leaders Can Do

Hardly anyone disagrees that equity is a good thing; the question is how to make it real in the workplace and what leaders need to do to ensure it is happening. 

What’s your definition of equity?  

Ours is: 

Equity (noun): The policy and practice of accounting for the differences in each individual’s starting point when pursuing professional development, or a goal or achievement, and providing them with the resources necessary to achieve success.

As this definition describes, we believe that organizations should apply equity through policies –  the ideas or plans to make decisions – and through the behavioral actions of the people in the organization. As we begin to discuss the five things that leaders can do to make workplaces more equitable, it is helpful to keep asking two questions:  

  • What policies do we need to create or enforce that improve the likelihood of people in the organization being treated equitably?
  • How do we expect employees within the organization to behave and act equitably towards each other, our customers, suppliers, shareholders, and others? 

We gathered extensive data on the inequitable or unfair experiences employees in a wide swath of organizations have had. Then – considering the two above questions – we identified five areas that, if addressed, significantly increase equity for people in organizations.

To get a clear sense of how the treatment of employees varied in our data gathering we interviewed employees of all stripes and types, not just members of underrepresented groups. As a result, we also heard stories of how and when employees felt treated fairly and equitably. Doing so made it possible for us to learn about both the advantages and disadvantages people feel at work in each of the five areas, which we call “Factors” since they can be advantages for some and disadvantages for others:

  1. Choice – Allow people to choose how they want to be identified and recognized for their uniqueness at work: 

Employees who felt they had a lot of choice at work commented, “I can blend in or stand out at work as I choose.” We can summarize those who felt they didn’t have this advantage with comments such as  “I am often singled out for something people notice about me, not for who I am, nor what I do.”

What organizations can do: 

Create policies and practices that respect privacy and disclosure, acknowledge identity, and enable employees to choose and curate how people at work see them.


Do the roles, assignments, or jobs in your organization identify people first, or are they first noticed as being “the only” (woman, person using a wheelchair, youngest etc. person) in the department or on the team?

  1. Safety and Security – Take reasonable steps, even if they are unique – to allow each employee to feel safe at work

Employees who feel safe and secure at work commented, “It’s easy to travel, live, and work where I want when I want with few if any social or practical encumbrances.” Those who felt disadvantaged in this area commented: “The level of safety and protection I feel limits where I can work, live, or travel.”

What organizations can do: 

Support employees in choosing where they live, work, and travel in ways that take into account and attempt to accommodate their specific situation to increase their sense of safety and belonging.


Does your workplace have travel policies that allow employees to only stay in hotels that have rooms off of the first floor or help them avoid the threat of assault and harassment?

  1. Credibility – Be aware of bias in how people are listened to, respected, trusted, and treated:

Employees who felt their credibility at work was assured commented: “People assume I am capable, qualified, and trustworthy without having to prove or achieve anything.” Those who don’t feel it made comments such as, “My credibility is tied to the stereotypes and biases others have about people like me.”

What organizations can do: 

Create policies and practices that acknowledge the inherent biases and limitations in traditional meritocracies. Promote the balanced and equitable assessment of everyone’s gifts, achievements, weaknesses, and experience.


Does your organization take the extra steps – or even know what the steps are – to eliminate or reduce the likelihood of bias in promotion or hiring decisions?

  1. Access to Power, Networks, and Authority – Take the necessary steps to ensure each employee has a capable senior sponsor, mentor, or advocate who is more senior than they are. 

Employees who feel this factor is an advantage commented, “I have access and an open invitation to participate in networks, resources, and with people who can financially and practically benefit me and my career.”

Employees who felt the opposite said, “I am not invited or included in forums that give me an affinity to the organization’s decision-makers, owners, or influencers of power.

What organizations can do: 

Create policies and practices designed to level the playing field and increase affinity and access to the same power, networks, and decision-makers as insiders in the organization.


Do people at work talk about or notice cronyism or a “bro culture”? Do hiring and promotion decisions disproportionately favor people from the same grad school, social circle, religion, or political party?

  1. Self-Efficacy – Create an organizational culture where people are seen and believed when discussing their work difficulties.

Comments from employees who feel this factor is an advantage can be summarized by comments like:  “I experience a world in which I have abundant agency, self-determination, and acceptance. Those who don’t feel they have as much or any of this factor can be summarized by comments like: “The way I experience the world is consistently disbelieved, disregarded, and called into question by members of the dominant group.”

What organizations can do: 

Create and address organizational cultural norms that require underrepresented employees to defend, justify, and continually explain how and when they experience discrimination, hate, or bias.


Is “quota hiring” discussed at work? When people from underrepresented groups talk about when they experience bias, are they regularly disbelieved or believed? Do people make off-the-cuff comments about people “playing the gender card” etc. when they feel mistreated?

Ensuring equity in the workplace isn’t easy, but it IS possible. Use the Five Factors of Equity as a starting point to bring equity goals to prospect through actionable policies. Start by picking a Factor and examining how it shows up in your organization as an advantage for some and a disadvantage for others. Instead of correcting people when they misstep, ask yourself: “How might we shift a policy or practice in our organization to change how ALL of us behave around this?”

And one more thing: notice and measure the satisfaction, engagement, retention, trust, and commitment people feel in your workplace. As equity increases, so will each of those measures.

Contact us at for a copy of the complete discussion document describing the Five Factors and our Equity in Action (™) model for how to make equity a reality in your organization. We also conduct a three-day retreat-based learning laboratory to help organizations go from zero to sixty in enacting equity.  

Get in touch for more information.

Note:  Endless thanks to my colleagues Noah Prince and Maylon Hannold for their contributions to developing the Equity In Action process.

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