Benefits Planning a Must to Enhance Diversity in the Workplace

By Rita Pyrillis

Aug. 28, 2018

When EY had an opening for a new manager, it was expected that the role would be filled with a candidate similar to those who had held it in the past — white males with auditing experience. But Karyn Twaronite, the firm’s diversity officer, questioned that assumption and suggested a different approach.

benefits and diversity

“It’s not that anyone said, ‘Hey let’s get a white male from Texas to fill this,’ but it had been a tradition and it was highly successful,” said Twaronite. “I said, ‘Does the role have to be filled by someone with auditing experience, or can we put other technical acumen on the slate?’ That opened up a whole new frontier. The role ended up being filled by a man, but he is a lawyer and Latino. We weren’t searching for the diversity, but by broadening our search we had far more candidates to choose from.”

For the past two years the global consulting firm has been encouraging employees to confront their personal biases. The method, dubbed PTR (preference, tradition and requirement), is a decision-making strategy launched in 2016 that challenges employees to examine their preferences for those similar to themselves and to rethink the status quo in hiring and promotion. It’s a way to confront bias without pointing fingers, according to Twaronite.

At a time when social justice movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter are pushing issues of race and gender into the spotlight, and companies like Nike and Uber are being asked to answer for their dearth of female and minority leaders, employers are looking for more effective ways to promote workplace diversity and inclusion. While corporate diversity programs abound, the numbers suggest they are missing the mark. Women continue to be hired and promoted at lower rates than men and are underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline, particularly at the highest echelons, according to the study “Women in the Workplace 2017” by McKinsey & Co. This is especially true for women of color, with fewer than 1 in 30 making it to the C-suite compared to 1 in 5 non-minority women, the study showed. In addition to a lack of women and minorities in leadership roles, the pay gap hasn’t budged in 15 years, with women earning around 80 percent of what men earned in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center.

Often, employers are unaware that their company policies and practices can undermine even the best efforts to address the problem.

The typical approach to diversity involves offering a one-time sensitivity training workshop, or launching a woman’s initiative, like a mentoring program, or establishing an employee resource group that focuses on women’s issues, according to Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. She calls these methods “the basic tools of the diversity industrial complex.”

Bias has an impact on hiring, promotions and compensation and can determine who has access to opportunities; more often than not, women and minorities are overlooked, Williams said. In fact, according to a study of women engineers co-sponsored by the Center for WorkLife Law, women were 29 percent more likely than white men to report doing office housework than their colleagues. And in a similar survey of lawyers, women of color were slightly more likely than white women to report the same.

In order to tackle these disparities, employers must approach diversity and inclusion like a business problem through data and metrics, according to Williams, who developed a toolkit that helps companies do exactly that. The kit, called Bias Interrupters, guides employers in identifying disparities, developing metrics to measure them — such as tracking women’s assignments before and after maternity leave — and then implementing an approach to fix the problem.

For example, Google’s analytics showed that women were promoted less often than men. Google employees must nominate themselves for promotions; presumably, the women were more modest than the men when it came to self-promotion, according to a Harvard Business Review article authored by Williams. The solution was to include women leaders in workshops on how and when to pursue a promotion at Google, making it clear that they were expected to take the initiative.

At Cooley LLP, a law firm in Palo Alto, California, leaders use data to locate weak spots in their talent pipeline, according to Amie Santos, the firm’s diversity and inclusion director. Women attorneys account for just over 30 percent of lawyers at the nation’s 200 largest firms by revenue, according to ALM Legal Intelligence, a digital media company. While they make up nearly half of associates at big law firms, they account for only 17 percent of equity partners, according to ALM data.

Santos said that after surveying its attorneys, Cooley found that more men than women were on the partnership track, in part because women were waiting to be tapped on the shoulder. To improve this problem, Santos created a list of high-performing women throughout the firm and asked the partnership nominating committee to meet with them and encourage them to toss their hats in the ring.

Creating an inclusive workplace culture takes time and a willingness to confront difficult issues such as bias, but employers have other tools to help support their efforts. Policies and programs that support work-life balance and address gender pay equity can go a long way in creating a diverse workforce.

“Flextime is an amazing reasonable accommodation for families caring for a disabled child or elderly parent and low-hanging fruit for employers,” said Nadine Vogel, founder and CEO of Springboard Consulting, a firm that supports people with disabilities and their families in the workplace. “But employers need to make clear that this benefit can be used for a myriad of reasons, including caring for a child with a disability, because people are often reluctant to use it for those purposes. Just acknowledging that says to me is ‘wow, my employer gets it.’ That can make a big difference in how I feel about my workplace.”

In order to better support caregivers who transition back from leave, employment law firm Ogletree Deakins launched a ramp-up policy this year that allows attorneys to reduce their billable hours quota by 20 percent for up to 12 weeks without impacting their pay, according to attorney Trina Ricketts Le Riche, co-chair of a newly launched employee resource group focused on work-life issues. The firm offers 16 weeks of paid parental leave, launched a back-up child care program and began offering Milk Stork, a service that makes it easier for traveling mothers to mail their breast milk home from the road.

“The goal is to support our people in times of family transition and stress to make sure that we retain great lawyers,” she said.

Responding to Realities

Bias still exists beyond the walls of the office and employee homes, so seeking employee feedback and being open to candid conversations about race and gender is critical in getting to the root of the diversity problem, according to Dnika J. Travis, vice president of research at Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive workplaces for women. She said that day-to-day bias and discrimination is often subtle and hard to detect but is deeply felt by the employees who encounter it.

“You don’t know it’s happening, so how do you manage what you can’t see?” she said. However, those experiences can affect job performance and lead women and minorities to quit.

She calls the weight of these experiences an “emotional tax,” and according to Catalyst research, 60 percent of women and people of color are paying it in the workplace.

“It’s the experience of waking up each day, the constant feeling that when you go out in the world you could potentially be discriminated against,” she said. “It’s bracing yourself for insults and unwarranted commentary on your race or gender and deciding how to respond or if to respond. It’s changing your appearance to cover aspects of your identity, to protect from the potential of bias. All that has real implications for employee productivity and health and well-being.”

An increasing number of employers are talking about race and gender issues at work in an effort to create a workplace that feels safe and welcoming to everyone, according to Lisa Lee, head of diversity, inclusion and community at web platform company Squarespace. With police shootings of black men, high-profile sexual harassment cases, changes to immigration policy and other events that exacerbate racial tensions, employers are struggling with how to respond, she said.

“I see companies perking up a bit more in terms of wanting to understand more about their workforce,” she said. “The challenges of the external environment that they live in, from police shootings to #MeToo, is pushing them to have those conversations. We tell employees we want you to bring your whole self to work, but employers have to step up.”

In July 2016, Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman of accounting giant PwC, stepped up in a big way. In the wake of the fatal shootings of five police officers in Dallas by a sniper, he launched a series of employee meetings to talk about race, which made national headlines. A year later, Ryan helped to launch the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, an alliance of large employers focused on eliminating bias in the workplace.

“We know that xenophobia is at an all-time high, and that’s creating a lot of stress for our employees,” said Twaronite, adding that EY’s diversity and inclusion holds monthly employee meetings to discuss issues of race. “I don’t know how many D&I emergencies existed in the past but now they come up, whether it be immigration concerns, safety or well-being, or racism or sexism or the need to address what’s happening outside of our walls. It’s very difficult for people to separate how they feel in their communities when they come to work each day. In the last couple years, we’ve felt the need to respond.”

This story originally appeared in Workforce’s sister publication, Talent Economy. Rita Pyrillis is a Talent Economy and Workforce contributor. Comment below or email

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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