Eliminating oppression and injustice in the workplace is not a single goal but rather, a continuous journey. It’s important to reflect and ask yourself if your organization is still the same as it was a year ago and what progress you’ve made towards DEI.
Accountability is not the same as blame, shame, or punishment.
Accountability requires visibility, transparency, and trust. There are 5 key practices you can start to build accountability into your organization’s culture.
It’s been a little over a year now since the murder of George Floyd spurred an estimated 15 to 26 million people to take to the streets, transforming Black Lives Matter into one of the largest movements in our history. For businesses, this marked a drastic shift in how they approach activism in the workplace. In a Glassdoor Door Diversity Hiring Survey, for example, 57% of employees believe their employers should be doing more. Ultimately, this indicated a public shift in seeing efforts towards equity in the workplace as no longer marginal but essential.
While many felt this was a watershed moment, there was also huge criticism of some big name companies for what HBR refers to as “woke washing” - “using the language of social activism for marketing purposes while glossing over internal inequities.” This might look like having no Black employees in leadership, poorly funded DEI work, and unexamined, exclusionary policies. Paired with the over saturation of solidarity statements, many employees began to express statement fatigue, a skeptical “level of disinterest, ambivalence, and outright outrage towards companies talking and not doing the work”.
At that time, every statement was a promise and one year later, folks are checking in on how companies are doing. The question organizations face today is not whether they’ve eliminated oppression and injustice altogether, because we know this is a lifelong journey, not a single goal to hit and be done with. Today, we ask ourselves, are we the same organization as we were a year ago?
What Accountability is NOT
The literal definition of accountability is simply a willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions. So why do employees at all levels seem to flinch when it’s mentioned? Accountability is an essential tool that’s gotten a bad reputation, and that’s hugely in part due to the way many people view accountability as punishment - a "gotcha" moment that will negatively brand them forever, and not as an opportunity to learn or an invitation to grow.
Many organizations associate DEI with the negative consequences if they mess up - lawsuits, class actions, or, at the very least, terrible publicity. Because of this, the attitude they take in pushing DEI initiatives can be more threatening than encouraging. HBR found that three quarters of diversity trainings use negative messaging - stories of lost legal cases and huge settlements that carry the implicit threat: “Discriminate, and the company will pay the price.” But negative incentives don’t motivate employees to care - five years after instituting required training for managers, companies saw no improvement in the proportion of white women, Black men, and hispanic people in management. The number of Black women and Asian Americans actually decreased significantly. We cannot punish people into accountability.
When someone inevitably makes a mistake, accountability is not interested in the blame and shame game. The benefit of blame is ensuring you are not the one at fault. The drawback of blame is that it breeds defensiveness and ego, which don’t coexist with growth very well. This kind of atmosphere shifts focus away from achieving joint goals as employees focus more on hiding their mistakes and the “punishment” that they might suffer without realizing how their actions may deter progress. . .
On an institutional scale, accountability is not being more concerned with appearances than impact. For example, an organization can highlight DEI in their company values and make it a regular part of their messaging but not examine why their turnover rate for employees of color is so high. While both are important, the latter has a much greater impact on the experiences of your current employees as there is obviously a problem that demands addressing.
Defining what accountability is NOT is just as important as defining what it is. In summary, some key traits of non-accountability include:
Blaming and shaming attitudes when someone makes a mistake
Punishment as the natural/expected consequence
Concern more about appearances than impact
Making excuses rather than apologies and solutions
Defensiveness, secrecy, and fear
Social contracts naturally emerge in any community as an agreement to cooperate for social benefit. Leaders can do their employees a great service by making the implicit explicit and defining these social contracts, at the beginning and as they change. To achieve group buy-in for DEI work, leaders can work together with their teams to define accountability in a way that works for everyone.
Accountability utilizes elements from both top-down and bottom-up models of leadership. For the bottom-up approach, finding a variety of ways - including anonymity - to listen and enact employee input is a necessity for building trust so employees have a better sense of ownership in the organization when they see their input has an impact. From the top-down approach, leaders lead by example, demonstrating how to take responsibility for mistakes and being mindful of their power. Leaders buy into the social contract that everyone does.
Finally, accountability can be shifted to a positive light, one in which employees encourage growth by holding each other to their word and helping them up if they slip. Take, for example, the simple change in language from calling someone out to calling someone in when they’ve made a mistake.
An employee makes a joke calling their spouse bipolar for being moody. Someone tells them, “I know you didn’t intend it, but that comment hurts people with mental illness.” In a workplace of positive accountability, both employees assume best intent, calling them in, and resolving to do better. “Oh, I didn’t know that. Thanks for correcting me!”
Accountability is a lot of things and, most importantly, will be defined uniquely by your organization. Some important factors include:
Shared values and principles that hold everyone responsible for the work of DEI
A bottom up approach for employees to take this mission onto themselves
Also a top down approach for leaders to lead by example, be transparent about progress and short-comings, and create a loop of accountability
A positive, growth attitude towards accountability
Building Accountability into Your Culture
The most important thing to remember is accountability and trust go hand in hand, and neither can be forced. Some concrete ways you can build a culture of accountability to ensure that in another year, you’re not the same organization as you are today:
Incorporate an anti-oppression framework
Anti-oppression practices work in tandem with DEI in that they are constantly striving to be more aware of what barriers exist for different groups of people so we can be better positioned to remove them. For example, if an employer wants to prioritize increasing LGBTQIA+ representation amongst their employees, they might start by asking what barriers exist for LGBTQIA+ people in the workplace and how do we work to remove them?
Ensure transparency in policies and practices
It’s nice to have policies and practices published on an internal website or in employee handbooks. It’s better to find ways to help employees understand and easily access policies and practices through trainings or frequent communication. It’s best, and truly transparent, to explain what research and input went into creating those policies and practices and why those decisions are the most equitable, just avenues. This also includes having strong feedback loops and regular check-ins between the various levels of employees to ensure progress is being benchmarked as your organization moves closer towards the goals it sets and that you are working as a learning organization, informed by input.
Make follow-through a part of internal company communication
Cultivating a culture of transparency and accountability starts at the leadership level. It’s not possible to have a successful change management process without an intentional internal communication strategy. Organizations that solicit employee feedback or ideas, should understand that most people will not take the time to provide their perspective unless they have faith that it will be taken forward. If your staff trusts you enough to share their honest perspective, do not take their input for granted. Follow through by acting on employee feedback and providing frequent progress updates. Communicate the context in which your organization is operating and how that impacts your DEI strategy and if there are delays, tell people why and give an estimated timeline of when employees can expect the next update or action step.
Create processes to safely hold leaders and peers accountable
While creating a psychologically safe workplace is essential to being able to hold each other accountable, it’s also vital to create processes to hold each other accountable, especially managers and company leaders. It’s natural for employees to be afraid to criticize their supervisor or higher ups, even if leadership has tried to offer open communication. When creating these processes, we consider, can the new, entry level employee hold the founding board member accountable without fear of retaliation? If these processes aren’t set up to hold the highest leadership to the same social contract as employees with less authority, they aren’t the great equalizer we’re trying to make them.
Develop a data-driven action plan with SMART goals
No employer would say their strategy for increasing profit was just “make as much money as possible!” so your strategy for DEI should not simply be “be as inclusive as possible!” Clarify and define your organization's plan for driving equity. As described in the organizational change book, The Four Disciplines of Execution, the same level of time, attention, and investment must go into creating a cadence of accountability. The important idea with a cadence of accountability is that there's a rhythm and a consistent pace towards your goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely.
As we reflect on the promises we make as individuals and institutions for justice, equity, and inclusion in the workplace, this is only the first of many anniversaries in which we’ll reflect on our progress and analyze our setbacks. Ultimately, we’ll ask ourselves, will we be the same organization in a year? Accountability answers with a confident no.