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Workplace Equity: The "E" in DEI and Why It Matters

Workplace Equity: The "E" in DEI and Why It Matters

Story Highlights

  • Leaders who want a successful workplace need to ask, "What is equity?"
  • At its most basic level, workplace equity is about fairness.
  • DEI programs should prioritize equity as much as diversity and inclusion.

Do you consider your workplace fair?

According to Gallup, less than three in 10 employees (28%) strongly agree that their organization is fair to everyone. This is concerning, as it's hard to imagine a team being productive or effective when unfair treatment is commonplace.

Clearly, most organizations have a long way to go to achieve a fair and equitable workplace where everyone feels like they are treated with respect. In fact, it may be a major reason diversity and inclusion efforts flounder. But what exactly is equity? And how do we practice it in the workplace?

What Is Equity?

Gallup defines equity as fair treatment, access and advancement for each person in an organization. This definition considers the historical and sociopolitical factors that affect opportunities and experiences so that policies, procedures and systems can help meet people's unique needs without one person or group having an unfair advantage over another.

Gallup defines equity as fair treatment, access and advancement for each person in an organization.

Equity often involves issues related to fairness in pay, opportunities for advancement and fairness in daily work experiences. For example, an organization might have a diverse workforce overall, but because of traditional job selection criteria, such as having a mentor or sponsor for candidacy, historically disadvantaged groups struggle to be promoted.

In addition, an organization may have an inclusive culture, but pay and benefits favor men over women. How organizations and their workplace cultures treat child care, maternity leave, work-from-home flexibility and family obligations can create an unfair workplace environment. Office rules or norms may be the same for everyone, but those rules may benefit some while harming others.

Why Equity Matters in D-E-I

Some organizations consider equity an aspect of inclusion. But even if your organization uses the phrase "diversity and inclusion," it's still worth discussing equity in your D&I efforts.

There are two main reasons why equity may be the missing piece in many organizations that are struggling to improve diversity and inclusion:

Your diversity problem may be an equity problem. Organizations struggling to retain and promote diverse candidates may need to be more proactive about investing in training, mentoring or networking connections for historically marginalized groups. If organizations want a more diverse executive team, they may need to start leadership development programs earlier and support historically underrepresented groups to give them the relationships and experiences necessary for success. This may even precede selection into a leadership program -- starting with daily feedback, coaching and mentorship or sponsorship.

Your inclusion problem may be an equity problem. Respect is the foundation of inclusion. If people do not feel respected, they don't feel like they belong. Equity -- fairness -- is innately tied to respect. Unfair pay practices, promotions or recognition naturally create insiders and outsiders. As a result, trying to promote warmth, trust and authenticity in an organization that feels structurally inequitable will inevitably fail -- and likely backfire.

Equality vs. Equity: What's the Difference?

Equality and equity do not mean the same thing. Equality refers to treating each person the same; equity refers to allocating resources based on need because everyone has different circumstances. Equity considers historical and sociopolitical factors that affect opportunities and experiences, and it designs policies and systems to meet the unique needs of others without giving an unfair advantage.

When it comes to the workplace, consider an organization that posts a job opening for a leadership position. The job posting is open for anyone to apply, and applicants will be judged based on their merits. In this way, there's equality -- everyone is treated the same.

However, the "merits" required may tell a different story:

  • A college degree. Candidates selected based on university admissions decisions from decades ago.
  • Ten years of industry experience. Candidates selected based on the biases of hiring managers, hiring practices or industry cultures from a decade ago.
  • Employee referrals. Candidates may receive a special status based on social relationships unrelated to work performance.
  • Leadership experiences. Candidates need to have had mentors and advocates who granted them access to previous leadership roles.

Long before the selection process begins, discrimination may have occurred, allowing some to achieve merit and others not. So "equal access" does not necessarily mean an equal playing field.

Long before the selection process begins, discrimination may have occurred, allowing some to achieve merit and others not. So 'equal access' does not necessarily mean an equal playing field.

In contrast, an equitable approach considers the broader context of people's experiences. For example, the organization may provide alternative forms of leadership experience, proactively seek referrals or invest in training programs that provide the education necessary for leadership roles.

How to Demonstrate Equity in the Workplace

Organizations committed to equity take a proactive approach to address unfairness in the workplace. They accept that there are broad, historical and ongoing disparities and attempt to mitigate these inequities through positive action.

Here are a few things to consider when approaching equity in your organization:

  • Connect equity to your culture and values. DEI programs require a firm, long-term commitment in the face of challenges. For this reason, organizations shouldn't tack equity on to daily business; it needs to be at the heart of your organization's identity. Leaders should reflect on how achieving greater equity will unleash the very best version of their organization.
  • Do an equity audit for your organization. It can be hard to see how people move into, through and out of a large organization. Who gets hired? Who gets promoted? Which teams feel fair? Where is disrespect hurting productivity and retention? Moreover, doing demographic analysis in an organization is sensitive and complex. Organizations should have reputable third parties with scientific expertise conduct an equity audit.
  • Recognize that policies in practice may differ from policies on paper. Subjectivity and gray areas are part of any human institution. Policies may appear fair on paper, but how employees experience them in real life may be different than intended. Leaders need to truly investigate equity guidelines to make sure they understand what's actually happening.

Want to know more about Gallup's insights into diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace?


Ryan Pendell is a Senior Workplace Science Editor at Gallup.

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