HR Administration

Companies Can’t Win with ‘Air in the Chair’

By Staff Report

Mar. 27, 2012

I spoke recently with a senior executive at a major company whose innovative products and services are known around the globe. Since she is responsible for talent management, we were discussing the issues of diversity and inclusion. She asked me something I hear all the time.

“The real issue for us is how we can prove to our bottom-line business leaders that having people from different backgrounds will help us develop better products, seize new markets and continue to lead in our hyper competitive marketplace?”

This is a challenging question. I know that a diverse workforce alone does not guarantee that a company will be more competitive. But I also know that having a uniform workplace doesn’t guarantee creativity or insights either.

For example, I was working with an executive team for a large utility company a few years back. All of the executives were white men. All were very bright. But the CEO was condescending and dismissive. One of the executives told me that he had gone into one of their meetings with a serious concern about a $2 billion investment. But he hadn’t spoken up because he didn’t want to be insulted or humiliated.

There are only two ways to explain this situation: Either the executive I talked to was the wrong person for the job because he couldn’t speak up when it mattered, or the company was at fault for creating an environment that was toxic toward sharing ideas and opinions.

This company clearly fell into the second category. It wouldn’t have mattered who was sitting around that executive table. The company was shelling out big dollars and perks in executive compensation but for all the good it did them, when it mattered most, they were paying for “air in the chair.”

When you think of air in the chair, it is really saying, “nothing but air is there.” Have you sat in meetings when colleagues say or do nothing except take up space when you have them there and in general not just to do their work but to contribute to the betterment of the organization with their ideas and insights? Every organization has it to a degree; that’s air in the chair.

In today’s world, intellectual capital—creativity and insight—are distinguishing requirements for success. But those capabilities are of little value if they are not expressed in ideas, dissent, discussion and at times, professional friction and disagreement.

Many brilliant ideas throughout history have been either left unsaid or completely dismissed—sometimes because the person who came up with them was the wrong gender or had the wrong skin color or social background or accent, but sometimes because whoever was in charge simply wasn’t interested in hearing anyone else’s ideas. By the same token, many catastrophes have occurred because the people who could see them coming were not able to speak up, were afraid to do so or were not given consideration when they did.

The way I see it, organizations have two responsibilities. First, they have to make sure their company hires people with the talent and creativity to help it succeed at being hyper-competitive.

Second, they have to make sure their organization can take advantage of that brain power and talent. That means both stopping things that keep people from speaking up—such as the fear of being insulted, the butt of jokes, discriminated against, or punished—and instilling behavioral standards tied to values like respect and inclusion that ensure people have the chance to contribute to the fullest.

In today’s fast-paced, challenging world, if you’re not doing everything possible to avoid having air in your chairs, then you are ceding the game to your competitors rather than having people who can help your organization grow, thrive and head off disasters.

Stephen Paskoff is a former EEOC trial attorney and the president and CEO of Atlanta-based ELI, Inc., which provides ethics and compliance training that helps many of the world’s leading organizations build and maintain inclusive, legal, productive and ethical workplaces. Paskoff can be contacted at

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