How lack of equality contributes to declining employee engagement

Just mentioning the word “equality” gets people going. Some men roll their eyes and moan, “Here comes another feminist to tell me what I’m doing wrong.” Some women (especially millennial women) insist that inequality doesn’t affect their careers. Some baby boomer women remark that it’s only real if you let it be. This range of opinions presents quite the challenge for business communicators.

Misinformation about equality, vehement denial that inequality exists or frustrated surrender have brought us to this point. We are seeing an unengaged workforce at its peak, while opposing views are angrily shouted from both sides. I argue that our current levels of equality, diversity and inclusion are reasons why employee engagement is declining.

What I find fascinating about the corporate world is that the very thing you are hired for (in my case it was for being “like a fresh breath of air”) is the first thing you are scolded for: “We want your new ideas and we want you to bring yourself fully into the fold, and then we will beat your uniqueness out of you as quickly as we can.”

Corporations, while trying to communicate the importance of innovation, creativity and inclusion, beat independent thinking out of you through regulations and employee handbooks, and by desperately trying to be politically correct, because they need to reduce risk exposure and arrive at a baseline of diversity (which often resembles a flat line).

Why is there such lack of engagement?

Lack of engagement has a lot to do with employees not feeling seen, heard or valued. Too often, an employee’s response to this scenario is to get by with doing the minimum. Because if you can’t see me for who I am in all my colors, why should I invest all of myself only to get shut down?

When we are evaluated against, and forced to follow, the tried and proven way, it’s a continuation of the dreaded school system that most of us didn’t fit into and couldn’t wait to leave behind.

For the company, it means getting only more of the same. The entire system is set up to have the same type of people hire the same type of people (who are just like them) to get the same everything, advance the same way, with the end result of the completely “normal” white male brotherhood of ruling corporations.

For the business communicator, it’s a big challenge to get everyone on the same page, to satisfy the need for political correctness and rules while at the same time allowing individual expression and contributions to shine.

How can it change?

A Dale Carnegie study shows only 29 percent of employees are engaged, 45 percent are not engaged, and 26 percent are “actively disengaged.” A Gallup poll shows that 51 percent of employees remain unengaged and of those who are engaged, 3 percent are looking for new jobs. And Glassdoor says the average U.S. worker stays in a job role just 15 months. While the numbers can be confusing, let’s focus on knowing that engagement is low, and that with all the effort we are putting toward diversity, inclusion and equality, most companies are barely making a dent. The needle is not moving.

Yet some organizations, like my client Merck and Co. Inc., and other progressive companies like Chevron, are trailblazers in equality, inclusion and diversity. They have put many programs in place and invest a lot of time and money to keep things moving toward balance. They understand that people are their biggest capital.

This commitment is reflected in statements like the following from Merck’s chairman and CEO, Kenneth C. Frazier:

“At Merck we believe there is strength in differences. Our ability to continue delivering on our mission of saving and improving lives around the world relies on having globally and locally diverse teams of talented employees at all levels. Their varied skills, experiences, backgrounds and cultural perspectives help us better understand the needs of diverse customers, healthcare providers and patients who ultimately use our products. That’s why we are deeply committed to fostering an inclusive environment that embraces different perspectives and values the contributions of each individual.”

The evidence for how diverse teams improve the bottom line is supported by research. There is no way around getting on board with equality. And really, there is no way around embracing inclusion and diversity too. Our clients are mixed. Our businesses serve everybody, so it’s only fair to ensure the people who provide our services are diverse as well.

So how are you going to communicate this to your clients?

Imagine the organization you work with is a luxury cruise ship. Before it can leave the dock to start the journey, you must prepare the ship, stock supplies, sell cabins, chart the course and hire crew.

You want a plan and you must put time, resources and money behind it, and people literally have to get on board.

There has to be a well-thought-out plan along with money and resources behind an initiative before you throw bodies at the problem, because they won’t stay long if the culture doesn’t change. And communicating the plan clearly and concisely and stating what is in it for leadership and for the team alike is imperative.

You want to explore

Equality, diversity and inclusion training are buzzwords. Many still wait for the tried-and-tested way to achieve better engagement because they don’t know how to start. By the time that epiphany occurs, the ship may already have left the harbor without you. Communicating the importance of balanced, diverse leadership is up to you, the business communicator.

Make your voice heard by:

  • Presenting a compelling case for the connection between  equality and diversity and engagement, along with numbers.
  • Taking persistent, small actions like sharing studies, reports and insights papers that will get more and more people on board because facts are hard to argue with.
  • Identifying the company champions who are ready and willing to lead the change.

Remember, the explorers we learned about in school didn’t have proof their ideas would result in anything significant. If you want to be an explorer and discover uncharted territory, you’d better get that ship ready and take a risk. Otherwise, someone else will get all the glory for pushing boundaries.

Written by Beate Chelette for CW Magazine.