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The National Study of Workplace Equity revealed that about one-quarter of organizations employ people who have experienced some form of bias at work since the COVID-19 pandemic threw social inequities into stark relief. Photo by iStock.

Most organizations say that diversity, equity, and inclusion are important, but almost as many fail to invest a meaningful amount of time, energy, and money in policies and programs that promote a welcoming and supportive workplace.  

That is one of the key takeaways from a new study that paints a nuanced picture of workplace equity in the United States today. 

The National Study of Workplace Equity—published Friday by the Work Equity initiative at the Boston College School of Social Work and SHRM, the world’s largest HR association—found that 64 percent of organizations say that DEI is important or very important, yet 62 percent devote little to no resources to promoting the fair treatment and full participation of all people in their workforce.

The study, one of the first of its kind, also revealed that about one-quarter of organizations employ people who have experienced some form of bias at work since the COVID-19 pandemic threw social inequities into stark relief:

  • 28 percent of organizations reported that their employees have experienced gender bias in the past two years. 
  • 27 percent of organizations reported that their employees have experienced racial bias in the past two years. 
  • 26 percent of organizations reported that their employees have experienced bias against older workers in the past two years.

“Organizations and employees alike have turned their attention toward addressing the social inequities in the workplace made starkly visible by the pandemic,” the report said. “While much progress has been made in this space, this increased attention has also led to increased recognition that diversity, equity, and inclusion programs can stall, fail, or even backfire if not implemented thoughtfully.”

Samuel Bradley, Jr.

Samuel Bradley, Jr.

The study focused primarily on the importance of the “E” in “DEI,” recognizing that levels of equity vary across the workplace whether it’s a factory, office, or construction site.

Here’s how it worked: A team of six researchers at BCSSW and SHRM surveyed a nationally representative sample of more than 1,000 organizations in the United States, looking to find out how inequities are embedded within 10 employment systems that span the employee lifecycle from recruitment to promotion to separation. 

They asked more than 100 questions—“What is the approximate percentage of employees who have access to paid family and medical leaves?” “To what extent does your organization provide applicants with equitable access to information related to their application?”—and then developed an index to rank the level of equity in each employment system based on the responses.

They found that many organizations struggle to maintain equity throughout the employee lifecycle, from when an applicant gets recruited to when they leave. The study—funded by the Center for Social Innovation at BCSSW, SHRM, and WorkRise, a research-to-action network on jobs, workers, and mobility hosted by the Urban Institute—revealed that the three employment systems with the most equity were:

  • Recruitment and Hiring
  • Compensation and Benefits
  • Orientation and Onboarding

The three employment systems with the least equity were:

  • Resources and Supports
  • Job Structures 
  • Supervision and Mentoring

The researchers said the study gives organizations a detailed road map to pinpoint where inequities occur and identify the steps needed to rectify unfairness in employment systems. “We haven’t always given HR professionals and DEI practitioners a straightforward lens to see where it might be possible to begin planning interventions,” said Samuel Bradley, Jr., an assistant professor in BCSSW who teamed up with professor emerita Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes and faculty fellow Kathleen Christensen to create the Work Equity initiative, a research and training program to improve equity in the workplace for women, people of color, and other marginalized employees. “Simply by constructing this survey and putting out this report, we’ve created a kind of road map to help practitioners really enhance the work that they’re doing.”

Ragan Decker, the lead researcher for SHRM, echoed Bradley, saying the report provides organizations with a framework to follow when studying workplace equity within their own organizations. “Many organizations find the process of improving their DEI strategies overwhelming. Some struggle with deciding where to focus their efforts, and others are just beginning their journey towards developing a more equitable workplace,” she said. “We aim to inspire organizations to take a more targeted approach to workplace equity and thus effectively pinpoint the areas with the most inequity.”

Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes

Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes

Recruiting and hiring, which refers to both formal and informal practices related to disseminating job announcements, screening applications, selecting applicants for interviews, and making job offers, received the highest equity score among the 10 employment systems with a mean score of 3.03 on a 4-point scale. But the numbers suggested that there is still plenty of room for improvement. While nearly three-quarters of respondents reported that their organization welcomes diverse applicants during the recruitment and hiring process “to a great extent,” only one-fifth said that their organization routinely audits the fairness of recruitment and hiring “to a great extent.”

Job structures, which refer in part to when people work, where they work, how much they work, and the extent to which they have some choice over these variables, ranked second-to-last in equitably among the 10 employment systems with a score of 2.55 out of 4. More than 50 percent of respondents said that fewer than 25 percent of their employees have control over the times and days they are expected to work, according to the survey. Over 70 percent of respondents reported that fewer than 25 percent of their workforce can compress the work week by working longer hours on fewer days.

“I want to be sure that employers understand the importance of recognizing job structures as a part of the equity conversation,” said Pitt-Catsouphes, who co-founded the Center on Aging and Work at Boston College in 2005. “Employees in all sorts of situations, including parents and other caregivers, want some choice in when, where, and how they work. After the pandemic, I think that a lot of people had their fingers crossed that they would have more flexibility, but this study shows that it’s not at all clear that this is the case.” 

Overall, the equity of employment systems was stronger among: 

  • Organizations with at least 50 employees
  • Organizations with higher percentages of women employees 
  • Organizations with higher percentages of employees of color

The researchers also found that organizations with more overall equity in their employment systems had higher levels of organizational resilience, making them better able to respond to disruptive forces such as the COVID-19 pandemic. “Organizations with higher equity indicators also reported that, during the past two years, they have been able to make changes and even innovate in response to changes in the business/organizational environment,” the report said, “and they have remained agile and expect their organization to thrive in the future.”

As part of their study, the researchers identified seven pathways to change that employers might pursue to strengthen employment systems. These pathways to change, or “Levers for Change,” are: 

  • Policies
  • Practices 
  • Planning and evaluation
  • Roles and accountabilities 
  • Culture 
  • Climate
  • Communication 
Kathleen Christensen

Kathleen Christensen

The researchers found that promoting a climate of inclusion was the strongest pathway to change, writing in the report that many organizations are fostering a climate of inclusion during recruitment and hiring and orientation and onboarding. 

Bradley, who studies the future of work, said some organizations are promoting inclusion by forming DEI committees for employees and creating opportunities for workers to give feedback without repercussions. “Employees have to feel safe to speak up when the thinking within their team becomes a little bit too narrow,” he said.

On the flip side, the study found that few organizations regularly evaluate the equity of each employment system or hold leaders accountable for monitoring their fairness. The findings show that organizations are least likely to assign roles and responsibilities for the equity of job structures and supervision and mentoring—two of the three least-equitable employment systems. 

Bradley and his colleagues suggested organizations take four steps to improve accountability:

  • Involve leaders in setting goals
  • Define and measure success, including all 10 employment systems
  • Tie fairness of these systems to business goals 
  • Choose accountability partners 

He said the Work Equity initiative is currently building a survey tool that organizations can use to audit their employment systems. After organizations perform an initial audit, they could build an intervention aimed at boosting equity in, say, job structures, and then perform another audit to see if their program worked.

“There is a lot of excitement around this because DEI practitioners are looking for evidence-based tools that wouldn’t need to be made boutique at a consultancy,” said Bradley. “A lot of folks are hungry for tools that will help them to accurately arrive at conclusions that lead to good business decisions.”

The researchers plan to partner with SHRM and WorkRise to disseminate their study. Christensen hopes it finds its way into the hands of HR professionals and small business owners. “I think that this research really provides important directions for subsequent research and action on equity in the workplace,” she said.