The push for greater representation and fairness in the workforce has sparked important conversations about what equality means, and while most organisations will say that they are making positive steps toward increasing diversity and inclusion in their workforce, the hard work doesn’t stop when there is more diversity at the table. In 2024 leaders need to embrace what equity in a working environment looks like, rather than simply focusing on equality.

Embracing equity in a diverse workforce

Rather than treating everyone equally, equity acknowledges the unique challenges and barriers that different individuals face. In a diverse workforce, not everyone has had the same opportunities or experiences. When businesses prioritise equity, they recognise that individuals may need different resources, support, or accommodations to reach their full potential, and to push the business forward. This approach not only fosters a more inclusive and supportive work environment but also sends a powerful message to employees that their individual needs are valued and understood.

Focusing on equity allows leaders to address systemic inequalities and biases that may exist within their organisations and while it aims to create a level playing field, the reality is that systemic barriers can prevent certain groups from fully participating and succeeding. By fostering a culture where these barriers can be talked about openly, organisations can work to dismantle these barriers and create a more equitable playing field for every member of the team – not only benefiting individuals from underrepresented groups but also contributing to a more innovative, creative, and dynamic work environment.

The impact of equity on employee morale and retention

This isn’t just a ‘nice’ thing to do. Adopting an equity-centred approach to diversity and inclusion can have a positive impact on employee morale and retention, both major problems facing UK businesses in 2024. When employees feel that their unique needs and experiences are recognised and supported, they are far more likely to feel a strong sense of belonging and this in turn, can lead to increased job satisfaction, higher productivity, and lower turnover rates. By strategically addressing where there may be blind spots in our organisations, we can adapt and create cultures where everyone feels empowered to speak up and deliver their best work.

To make progress towards an equitable environment, managers and leaders need to get comfortable with the fact that some of the conversations you have to have to make progress might be a little, well, uncomfortable and force you to examine some hard truths about your business.

We will often hear the phrase ‘authenticity’ being used in job adverts and 121 sessions, but if, as a leader, you are asking people to be ‘authentic’ at work, but then shutting down conversations or opportunities when they express opinions or needs that are new or different, then you are not asking people to be authentic, you are asking them to be like you, which defeats the point entirely.

Creating a truly thriving team, takes psychological safety and that means creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable to have opinions, raise concerns, or ask questions. The first step towards creating a psychologically safe culture for every team member is to acknowledge that, while a vast amount of people have good intentions, most of us have blind spots or areas where we are unaware that we need to develop.

There can be a tendency to hide our heads in the sand when it comes to sensitive issues that make us feel uncomfortable but even with the best intentions to create a positive and supportive workplace culture, we should acknowledge that for some members of your team, it will be inequitable, either because of something within your business or because of societal norms. Once we have admitted this, we can then be mature enough to hold our hands up as leaders and admit we can learn and do better, with no judgment or fear.

So what are the practical steps that we can take to start building truly equitable workplace cultures?

Leadership awareness 

The role of the leader is crucial during this process and organisation leads need to lead by example when it comes to expressing humility, admitting where things may not be perfect currently, and being prepared to have open and honest conversations. A leader who is wracked with guilt about where culture is currently imperfect is more likely to ignore the problem in favour of smaller, more comfortable issues. Create space for open conversations where people can share questions or admit that they don’t have a full understanding without fear of judgment. Forward-thinking business leaders show a visible commitment to making positive change, and are deeply curious about those around them, seeking to lead and understand with empathy.

Create structure 

Go beyond good intentions and big promises and formalise a process or network that can be championed by senior leaders in the business. Team members should be a diverse group from across all levels of the organisation and should be invited to participate, sharing ideas in a safe space and feeding learnings into the network champion and create real change. The senior leader championing the project should participate in 360 feedback to showcase what real-world changes have been actioned on the back of these conversations.

It’s also important to note that this should not be something that you volunteer to be part of on top of your day-to-day role, as this often puts an extra burden on people from minority groups and heightens inequity. Not only will this approach challenge actions, but it will also broaden awareness across the organisation as colleagues see time, money, and resources – not just words – being allocated to making change.

Advancements don’t just come from behaviour and belief change, investment in structure and policy change will embed your commitment across your organisation and create a platform for growth.

Reverse mentoring 

Creating equity is not a top-down project, it needs the voices of people from marginalized groups to be given a platform to be heard. Reverse mentoring pairs leaders with a mentor from a background that does not reflect their own lived experience. Active listening, active empathy, and honest conversation are crucial during these sessions. Leaders should feel comfortable admitting when they don’t have all the answers and asking for help in developing their understanding of certain topics.

While taking these steps is an important part of the journey towards creating equity, this is not a problem that can be solved overnight. Investing in equity and building psychologically safe cultures is a long game – but it is worth it if you want thriving teams delivering their best work while maximising the talent pool that you can recruit from.

Ivan Hollingsworth
Ivan Hollingsworth
Founder at Centric Consultants | Website

Ivan Hollingsworth is the founder and director of Centric Consultants - a business founded in a bid to tackle ‘culture-washing’ and support business leaders to build strong, sustainable, high-performing teams based on trust and psychological safety.