The First Step to Creating an Equitable Company Culture Is Asking the Right Questions

I recently asked my Facebook friends, many of whom are in staffing, if they noticed that leaders in recruiting are disproportionately male. I explained that what I had experienced wasn’t that there were necessarily more men in recruiting leadership roles than women, but that the percentage of men in leadership roles exceeded the percentage of men in recruiting. In my last corporate position, my leadership chain was men, three-deep.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the women responding to my Facebook post said that they had also experienced this, the men responding were sure they had not. All right then.

Most of us have seen the research on gender differences at work: that women are less likely to negotiate, that men apply for roles when they don’t meet all of the qualifications and women do not, and that personality traits seen as primarily assertive, and therefore “masculine”, are the de facto standard for what is deemed successful business behavior (not ironically, mostly when they are exhibited by cisgender men). We hear about companies working to address this, primarily in tech, with programs, initiatives, diverse slates of candidates and the like. But it seems like we in staffing should be leading change in this area, by example. Instead of exhibiting leadership, we fall into a lot of the same patterns that other organizations do.

I want to make clear that I am not assigning bad-guy (or bad person, as it were) status to anyone. I notice that many folks get mighty defensive when anyone suggests that they have been on the receiving end of an undeserved advantage. We are all on the receiving end of some privilege based on where we live, what we look like, or how we present ourselves (to name just a few factors). That privilege is what creates an inequitable workplace, and we can only address it if we are willing to do some serious (and likely uncomfortable) introspection on our culture, practices and processes.

Now I suspect that when many of you think about workplace gender issues (of which we are only scratching the surface here) you think your company does a pretty good job, maybe because issues related to gender haven’t impacted you personally. If that is the case, talk to some people you work with; ask them if they ever felt overlooked for a new opportunity or questioned why a particular person was promoted instead of them. Ask them to describe who gets rewarded in your culture. Even if my Facebook conversation — which I acknowledge is anecdotal — is an outlier, what percentage of your organization would you be comfortable with having disagree with your promotion and reward criteria and the degree to which it skews toward male leaders? Is 45 percent OK with you? Twenty-five percent? Ten percent? If you need to, proceed based on the premise that you can always make improvements in your leadership culture. If you don’t feel that promotion decisions are impacted by gender, I’m probably not going to successfully convince you here, but at least consider that your employees may hold this belief and that in and of itself is a problem.

As an employer-brand consultant, I think about culture a lot. I can’t tell you how many issues people feel can be addressed through branding which are really culture issues. Of course culture takes longer (and more effort and resources) to address, but if not now, when? Of course culture should be addressed. Seen any interesting articles recently about companies whose cultures have gotten them into hot water? Ever get the feeling that someone could potentially write one of those articles about your company? Ever had to have your company craft a PR-response to anything job, hiring, or career related? Yes? Then can we agree that even great companies could use a cultural tuneup?

Since people are resistant to change (and budget requests that are not tied to outcomes that are simply measured), the idea of diving head first into culture work might not tickle the fancy of your leadership. But there are a few discussion topics that I think can be reviewed with decision-makers to get them thinking about doing the more challenging work of culture change, specifically as it relates to gender issues. These discussion topics are in no way a substitute for real culture work, nor are they comprehensive. I am only touching on some related to gender because that Facebook conversation has been on my mind and I can’t help but think about what I would possibly say to convince a company or staffing leader to embrace the idea of investing in some culture work before focusing on branding as it relates to hiring women.

I am hoping that conversations kicked off with these questions will help you highlight some areas of opportunity for your senior decision-makers, and lead them down the path toward committing to some real culture work that will have long term results, including retention, equity, and more productive employees.

How can we evaluate the role confirmation bias plays on decision-making in our organization?

Confirmation bias is the tendency for people to embrace only the information that supports a particular view that they already have. You may have heard of its effect in the interview process when, say, a homogeneous group of interviews selects a candidate whose background and perspective most closely matches their own, because obviously the best software developers come from wherever the interview panel came from. <eye roll>

It’s worth looking beyond the interview at where confirmation bias impacts other decisions. It’s a danger to innovative companies and results in the dynamic I refer to as “the way we have always done things.” Internally, it discourages leaders from providing growth or promotion opportunities to employees whose backgrounds differ from their own and it leads to a kind of leadership echo chamber where “top performers” work late (sorry parents, students, volunteers, other caregivers) and empathy is seen as weakness (“try to stop being so sensitive”).

So discuss with your decision-makers the possibility of identifying where hiring, nurturing, and promotion decisions might be impacted by the decision-makers’ own backgrounds. This may open the door to some valuable culture work where you can explore ideas like creating a better experience for women returning to the work after having children, providing work-from-home opportunities so employees don’t need to leave if their spouse is transferred, or having email-free weekends so employees are refreshed on Monday mornings. Once leaders acknowledge the impact of confirmation bias, you can get to the business of identifying unconscious bias and create a culture that helps lessen the impact of all biases that create an inequitable environment.

What criteria do we use to identify when an employee is ready for leadership? How do we define our core leadership skills and competencies? How is our promotion process working for us?

Recruiting leaders: raise your hand if you were promoted into a leadership role as a reward for being a great individual contributor. Yeah, me too. Gosh, I can’t tell you how many times I have seen this backfire. When it does, not only is there a negative impact on the team, but you often lose a great employee who is exactly the type of performer you want to keep. Nobody wins.

When discussing this dynamic, there are two fairly obvious opportunities: one is to develop senior individual contributor career paths (more of this please), the other is to evaluate leadership competency before promoting employees into people manager roles. Opening the door to this conversation about leadership competencies can lead to a deeper analysis with the hopeful outcome of ensuring that those competencies aren’t biased.

The harder work here, at least as it pertains to gender, is actually developing a set of desired leadership qualities that embraces behaviors that are socially seen as feminine, in addition to those that are considered masculine. I don’t really like the idea of gendering leadership qualities, but unfortunately we have to deal with perception, if we want to create more equity. Of course, women can exhibit leadership qualities that may be considered more masculine, but please consider that many of us women, over our careers, have been encouraged to adopt more of these so-called “masculine” qualities and then were punished when we did.

Ultimately, this discussion around promotion criteria could help you get your leaders to buy into conducting an examination of your culture and how, instead of asking women to demonstrate behaviors that are more commonly exhibited by male leaders, we can help women develop (and be rewarded for) their own styles of leadership that doesn’t require them to act like somebody else. And all employees will benefit from more clarity on leadership expectations.

Do we have a succession-planning process for all management levels across the organization? Are we able to identify strong performers and leaders early in their careers and are we willing to nurture their talents? Do we offer development and mentoring plans to prepare future leaders?

Anyone in a middle- to upper-management role probably knows how this scenario goes: a new manager role has opened up in the organization and the conversation to discuss hiring internally for the role kicks off with this question: “who is ready for the next step in their career?” You know why this is the wrong question to ask? Because it means you have not prepared for the inevitable eventuality of another leadership role opening up in your organization. And this is when you dig into your list of top-performing individual contributors to decide who you want to reward with this promotion while patching a hole in your leadership team. Your promotion process pushes people up from the ranks and your succession planning pulls people up. Both require an analysis of leadership competencies, so which question you ask of your leadership — how they describe leadership or how they plan for leadership succession — depends on what process (promotion or succession planning) they are more amenable to having a conversation about based on their own perception of the organization’s needs.

As it relates to succession, a company’s inability to identify a diverse set of strong, early-career individual contributors with the potential of being future leaders results in a lack of diverse leadership candidates available to succeed departing executives. You need to feed the funnel at the top, knowing that not only is it leaky in general, but that your female leadership prospects are less likely to make it to the spout for a number of reasons.

The idea that leadership skills often need to be developed over a period of time and practiced to create proficiency should be news to absolutely nobody. Sending someone to a single leadership training isn’t going to prepare them for being a great manager. Could your organization identify employees who show an interest in and the beginning signs of effectiveness in managing people? Can you create a program to develop projects for them that allow them to grow leadership responsibilities now? Can you develop a meaningful leadership training curriculum, not just a boxed solution or a book recommendation? Can you match employees with mentors who will help them nurture their leadership skills, have difficult conversations, and hold them accountable in the areas they seek to grow? I see a lot of companies focus on doing just one of these well, which unfortunately isn’t enough to move the needle on gender equity in leadership. By creating a leadership enrichment program and a succession-planning process, you can ensure that you are producing leaders who represent the diversity you want to see in your organization by inviting them to opt in.

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If you need further justification: doing the culture work that defines what effective leadership looks like and then giving people the opportunity to grow those skills over time will allow your company to develop some bench strength that makes internal leadership hiring easier and reduces the risk for all involved. Leaders like risk reduction. Talk to them about that.

Have we identified opportunities to socialize and create clarity around what behaviors and results get people promoted? Are these behaviors being discussed frequently, in regular performance conversations and reviews, and when promotions are announced?

Already have a strong leadership culture (or leaders who think you do) but still feel like there is some angst around who is given leadership opportunities? Consider talking to your leaders about developing language around desired leadership qualities and using that language in performance conversations and promotion announcements.

One company that does an excellent job of articulating desired leadership qualities is Amazon (disclaimer: it is a client of mine). It has a set of Leadership Principles that highlights the core behaviors of effective leaders in their culture. Not only do these LPs (as they are called) come up in performance and promotion conversations, but they come up in most meetings and they drive business decisions. Employees hold themselves and their peers accountable to them. Now think about how much easier it is for Amazon to have conversations with employees as it relates to the growth needed to move into a management role. Promotion announcements are accompanied by a description of the achievements and behaviors of the promoted, using the language of the LPs. It helps remove assumptions about why someone got promoted as everyone is being measured against the same leadership yardstick.

You may have other questions that will help you launch a conversation with your senior leaders about culture, regardless of whether there is an acknowledgement that gender has a significant role in it. Much like the topic of privilege, a discussion of “diversity” can be met with resistance. You may hear things like “we don’t have a diversity problem” or “it’s not our fault there aren’t very many female software developers out there” or “we tried diversity training and nothing changed.” And so it’s helpful to align opportunities to address issues related to gender in the workplace under the broader category of culture assessment.

Because hiring and culture play such important (and intertwined) roles in the success of a company, it wouldn’t be surprising for an executive to pivot in favor of employer branding over culture work. We don’t have enough women leaders? Let’s do a recruitment advertising campaign. Let’s get some of our female execs on the speaking circuit. How about we donate to Girls Who Code and then share it on social? All good stuff, by the way. But also not a replacement for having a healthy, inclusive, and productive culture.

Focusing on brand over culture is like having a problem in your relationship and telling your friends everything is great, because you just don’t want to get into it. I mean, I hate to talk anyone out of doing employer branding work, especially when employer branding is so often understaffed, run by interns (“they understand social media!”) or neglected altogether. But rule No. 1 of employer branding is that what you promote needs to be authentic rather than aspirational. Nobody ends up happy when your actual employee experience differs from the experience candidates are sold. Can you do some great branding work related to some areas of your culture, when you need to change some others? Sure you can. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do whatever is necessary to evaluate and develop a healthy culture for all employees now. It’s the foundation that an effective employer brand is built upon.

Heather Hamilton

Heather Hamilton is principal consultant at Whiz Bang Solutions, an employer brand consulting firm she founded in 2011, but is probably best known for her pioneering work in recruitment blogging starting in 2004. Today, she helps companies understand their brand, find their voice online, and develop the strategies, frameworks, training, and tools that will help them create meaningful connections with the talent they wish to hire.