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Low-cost first steps to improve equality in a workspace

Equality is many things, but essentially equality is about ensuring that every individual has an equal opportunity and is treated fairly. No one should have poorer life chances because of what they were born with, where they come from, or what they believe.

Equality in the workplace ensures that people are given equal opportunities and equal pay regardless of gender, nationality, ethnic/cultural/social origin, religion, ideology, age, sexual orientation, disabilities, gender expression or identity. Everyone deserves to get the same respect and to have the same opportunities.

Advancing equal opportunity is both morally right and benefits society as a whole.

There are many initiatives that have been shown to be efficient at improving equality. Initiatives such as fair wages, better hiring/application practices, and parental leave, to name a few, are of the utmost importance, and they must be addressed and implemented to secure a better and more equal workspace.

Many of these initiatives, however, are a bit expensive in terms of person-hours, time, and money.

Here I have compiled a list of inexpensive things that, in many cases, can be decided upon and implemented with fewer resources than the more expensive initiatives.

In academia, these can more-or-less be implemented at the departmental level, and fewer people need to be involved when deciding whether to implement them. They can help start the discussion of improving the balance between different people at the workspace and improve the work environment in general.

I welcome any suggestions and comments to this list.

Get an ombudsperson

Appoint an official ombudsperson

In my opinion, one of the most efficient ways of combating harassment is to appoint an ombudsperson. An ombudsperson is a neutral and informal person who any worker can approach and ask for help or advice.

As Charles L. Howard brilliantly summarises it in the Harvard Business Review: Ombudsmen exist for one simple reason: to help people and organisations. They help employees by providing an individual (or a team) with whom to have confidential conversations, whether about someone who is taking bribes, a supervisor who’s using drugs, sexual harassment, a personal conflict, or some other issue.

The responsibilities of the ombudsperson can be designed to fit the individual workspace. Consider for example if it would make sense to even have more than one ombudsperson-like person at your organisation or to separate different types of inquiries to different people.

One example I have from academia is how the role of ombudsperson was designed at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) when I was a visiting researcher in beginning of 2020. Their ombudsperson is a neutral, informal role with whom to have confidential conversations with, however, they had also specified that their ombudsperson is a science ombudsperson. This specification meant that their science ombudsperson is mainly in charge of confidential advice with regards to suspicion of scientific misconduct or other violations of the principles of good scientific practice.

Additionally, MPIA also had four so-called conflict coaches. Their roles were to help and advise in situations of personal conflicts at the workplace. These conflict coaches were at different levels of seniority, meaning that they were approachable for most people in the organisation.

This separation of different areas might not be applicable or the best choice for your organisation – there exists many excellent ways of having an ombudsperson-like system. For smaller institutes or organisations, one ombudsperson might be sufficient, while for larger workplaces multiple ombudspersons might need to be appointed.

The important thing is to formalise what an ombudsperson can do. That the ombudsperson:

Formalise the first step

Have clear procedures for bad scenarios before they happen

If you are in academia, ask yourself if you would know what to do if:

Chances are that you cannot answer these questions because your workplace has no clear policy of what to do.

One important thing is to formalise exactly how to report when something bad has happened at your workspace. For the most severe cases, the police need to get involved, but in many of these cases these reports just need to be handled internally.

It is not necessary to have a full, detailed flowchart of what to do in all cases: many cases are unique and require individual care. However, the first couple of steps need to be formalised so that people know who to talk to and what actions to take.

I have been surprised by how few of these procedures have been in place – even at big workplaces – and how poorly they have been implemented. Or at least how procedures can be designed to keep the company safe by just shutting up/ignoring employees (or students) in need instead of helping them.

After the #MeToo movement, I have noticed that more procedures have been formalised in the case of sexual harassment, but that is not the case everywhere (and the implementation is not necessarily great) so please check what the situation is at your current workplace.

Besides the who-to-contact information, also have the support for a victim in mind.

In the case of academia: if a student is harassed by a staff member, HR will most likely help the staff member, but who will be the support of the student? Does your university have a connection to a law firm to contact in order to obtain legal support for internal matters? Or is there another designated neutral party who can act as a helper/lawyer/simple-help-to-remember-how-meetings-went-and-what-was-discussed for the student?

Another thing to consider is: Who acts as a judge in these internal conflicts?
By design, would the judge have any reason to not be impartial and neutral? For instance, is it the case that the appointed judge is the immediate supervisor of one of the parties? In that case: would it be possible to change the current system so that it is a requirement that the judge(s) should not know or have worked with any of the parties beforehand?

This is difficult to formulate and I know this might be one of the most “expensive” items on this list of first steps. But starting the discussion is an important first step, even if it is difficult to visualise the final version of these new procedures.

… and let everyone know

Inform people that procedures are in place and what they are

Working procedures do very little if nobody knows they are in place, so make the very first step of who to contact clear and public.

This could be by adding it to internal web pages, bulletin boards, welcome-to-the-workplace email, newsletters, – you name it. Just make sure it reaches everyone in the organisation.

The best example I have seen of this is what they did at MPIA, which I noticed during my research stay there in 2020: On the inside of all toilet stalls in the building is a laminated, printed sign titled Help in conflict situations.

This sign

This is simply the most elegant solution to this information problem I have seen.

The placement of these posters are also brilliant. If you are in need of help, you might be less likely to stop in front of a public bulletin board and read this kind of notice, especially if there are other people around. If you are crying or otherwise in distress, the bathroom might be the only place where you can lock yourself in and be alone.

Furthermore, this placement of these sign also works as a daily reminder of how to obtain help, even if you do not need it at this very moment.

Bilingual emails/signs/information

Make it a practice to communicate BOTH in the local main language and in English

If your workspace is not located within a country where English is the main, national language or in a bi/multilingual country, the staff probably communicates using two or more main languages.

In all institutes I have been at, the technical/administrative staff primarily uses the local language (Danish/German/Italian/…), whereas the academic staff uses English as their primary language of communication. The language requirements when hiring are simply different for different positions.

This then means that if an email is written either just in the local language or just in English, then a rather large fraction of the total staff will not fully understand it or at the very least will need to do a bit of work to get the message. This is discouraging, makes it easier for a message to be unread or overlooked, and it sends an indirect message that you as a non-native or non-English speaker are not welcome at the workspace. Still, this has been the practice at most institutes I have had an office space at.

In this day and age, a plethora of translation services exists and the receiver of such an email can translate the message into a language they understand. However, in my opinion, the work of translation should be on the sender and not on the receiver. It should be on the sender to communicate a clear, concise message and not the receiver to properly decipher it.
It is in the sender’s best interest that the greatest number of people as possible read and understand the message. Sending the message in languages everyone understands also sends an indirect signal that you are welcome at the workspace and that you are a part of the community.

In practice, this practice can be implemented by making it a workplace-wide policy that all staff-all communication must happen in both languages.

Implementing the practice of bilingual communication for all written communication is rather straightforward to do, as the task of communicating in writing to all staff members is typically picked up by only a few staff members, who can then set a good example to anyone who only infrequently sends emails to all staff members.

Overall, this idea also opens up the discussion of how to be a better multi-language workplace. Maybe there are other easy goals easily within reach that would improve the environment for a large fraction of the employees?

Review the Code of Conduct

Implement an official Code of Conduct

A Code of Conduct is a written set of rules, laying out the organisation’s mission along with the moral and ethical expectations of its employees and third parties interacting with the organisation.
It formulates the values and principles that must be shared among the employees, at all levels, and it affirms that the activities of the organisation are founded on and cherish these values.

In my experience, many people’s first reactions to Code of Conducts are: Why should we have one? They are so trivial and do not say anything we did not know before.
However, a Code of Conduct formulates what is right and wrong, meaning that a breach of the obligations of the Codes can have more severe consequences than if the rules were just assumed.
Just writing down that harassment in any form because of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, physical ability, physical appearance, ethnicity, race, national origin, political aliation, age, religion or any other reason is prohibited can affect the outcome in more “grey” cases where some leaders might not think to discipline.

Some workspaces already have Code of Conducts policies in place but, again, check and see if it protects against harassment.

You can find help on what a Code of Conduct should include on the internet, but you can also start by having a look at Codes of Conducts of other workplaces. Today, many communities have formulated their sets of Code of Conduct’s and made them publicly available, so it is rather easy to find inspiration in order to formulate your own set.

Organise and inform

Start the work for taking the expensive steps

As mentioned earlier, there are many important initiatives to implement in order to really improve equality at a workspace. This work needs to start somewhere. This work starts with discussions, planning, and brainstorming, and furthermore with applying the pressure to do the right thing to the right people, typically higher up in the organisation.

My last first step is this: Organise and establish communities for discussions and actions.

This can be “Equality committees” or “Interest groups of Equality at the Workspace” or similar fora to generally discuss and problem-solve equality issues.

Get the approval to be an official body of your workspace (or not: be an informal lobby group).

Send around an email about the initiative and an invitation for a founding meeting so people can get engaged. Get the discussion of better equality at your workplace rolling!

It is difficult to be the first one to start the discussion, but it is important work. Honestly, I have been surprised to find allies in places where I didn’t expect them and it only gets easier when you are organised and people know how to get involved.

These steps might be low-cost, but none of them are completely free.
Still, I hope this list can provide some inspiration and some overview for where to start making changes, even if you are not in a position of power at your workspace.

These steps will not fix inequality issues overnight but I would argue that an organisation that has implemented the steps above is in a better place to tackle the harder issues.

Good luck to all of you!