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Part 2: Mitigating Discrimination With Corporate Culture

Last week, I wrote up a situation of a friend of mine who was enduring gender discrimination and harassment in “Is Your Culture Fostering or Mitigating Gender Harassment?” The company she works at is not a startup, but coming from my point of view, it’s important to start culture early to prevent gender discrimination later.

Last week’s article was largely the set-up, where today, I’d like to share what’s worked for various companies as well as share some points from my former business school professor taking a look at the grander subject of discrimination with some focus on the gender bias.

To get some more professional insight, I wrote to one of my former business school professors, Brandon Smith, who specializes in workplace dysfunction. In fact, he runs The Workplace Therapist. He provided a couple points to look out for when joining a company.

  • Recruit People With High EQ. Per Brandon Smith, EQ directly translates to greater cultural and gender awareness and sensitivity. Not to mention, people with high EQ can “sense” when people are growing in discomfort. The higher the level of “analytical” ability necessary for the job, the higher the probability of recruiting a group with low EQ. Note, it is not impossible to have both high analytical ability and high EQ, it is just more uncommon. As a result, bad environments re: sexual harassment include (but are not limited to): Engineering, construction, IT, finance / IB, medical offices, and my favorite for the irony, law offices.
  • Recruit People With Diverse Backgrounds – age, gender, ethnicity, etc… Brandon Smith has seen this as a solid strategy that causes smaller blips as people try to navigate working with different people (small accidental offenses), but it will prevent a culture of certain behavior being “o.k.” (Ex: if you recruit all frat boys, you’ll get a norm of frat boy behavior, etc…).
  • Hiring Who We Are… Creates a Dangerously Homogenous Workplace. Ray Hennessey wrote in Entrepreneur.comWhen Company Culture Becomes Discrimination” about a lunch he had with a midwest financial-services firm where the execs were all physically fit. “Health is a big part of our culture,” the CEO told Ray. “If you don’t work out outside the office, you won’t work out inside our office.” When you do hire like this, though, you obviously start to not only weed out those upfront, but your culture is then self-sustaining — good and bad. Ray also talked about the importance of hiring diversity not just in the way to satisfy laws, but also to promote diversity in ideas and innovation. This is largely a generic case of discrimination/ bias in the workplace rather than gender-specific, but it can foster an exclusivity club (like the “boys club” at my friend’s workplace).
  • Champion for Flexible Policies and Encouraging Workplaces. Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, champions better staffing/ recruiting efforts that not only find the right candidate for the role, but the right company culture for the candidate — see her article in thestaffingstream.com. Parsons believes candidates (especially women) should look join companies with flexible work policies and encourage qualified women to stay in the workforce. 
  • Finding the Right Mentor/ Mentee Relationship. To say “create an open, inviting environment for safe communication” would be easy, but a little hard to implement… mostly because of trust and the ability for a mentee to truly open up. This is why a strong mentor/ mentee relationship can be a great way for women, for example, to openly communicate about what is happening at work, good or bad. However, the right mentor should be someone high up the corporate ladder, so if there’s a problem, action can be taken. In a Harvard Business Review article “Why Men Still Get More Promotions Than Women“, HBR dives into how men form more bonds with senior execs, whereas women tend to build relationships with middle management. And of course, come promotion time, those with higher ties get the more frequent bumps… and the cycle continues.
  • At the End of the Day, It’s About Balance. The Fiscal Times has an article on how men and women are different in the workplace — “How Men and Women Differ in the Workplace” (pretty straight forward, right?). Biologically, we think differently from male to female and vice versa. For example, New York research group Catalyst found that women leaders are typically judged as more supportive and rewarding, whereas men are judged better at behaviors such as delegating and managing up. The theme of the Fiscal Times article was that men and women create balance in the workplace with complementary skill sets and ideologies. For a proper working company, there should be balance in the workplace through complements.
I was/ still am a consultant with focus in supply chains. That, is a very male-dominated industry, and following my post last week, I spoke to one of my former bosses about the topic. He was intrigued because it’s definitely an area he and the company are trying to address in not only recruiting talented women, but also retaining them. I wouldn’t say it’s an ongoing struggle as much as it is an ongoing initiative. As much as culture is a largely sustainable machine, it needs to constantly undergo refinement and adapt to the needs of the organization. 
Corporate culture can indeed be a sticky area where gender, age, race discrimination is left untouched and ignored. So it’s important to start instituting the right policies early as a startup before the culture of the company is so large and ingrained it’s difficult to make drastic changes.
What are your thoughts on discrimination and bias in the workplace? What policies, steps would you implement in the company culture to prevent discrimination?