Culture from the inside...

(The second of a three-part series on Diversity & Inclusion in the Workplace)

By Alan Letton, PhD

You ask any organization to describe their culture and you’ll hear all the platitudes; “We are a driven high-performance . . . “, “We are a community of entrepreneurs focused on value creation . . . , “We are an organization that values the contributions of all . . .“ These are all great sounding statements that usually fail to translate into reality. Think about this:

  • Can you say you value individual contributions if you have a force-ranking system that stacks the perceived value of each contributor against another?
  • Can you be a progressive culture if your turnover among various groups is high– be they communities of colors or communities defined by their sexual orientation?
  • Do you have a high turnover organization? Does this suggest you do not have a fully functioning community?

I’ve worked in and with many organizations that have attempted to tackle the issue of diversity and inclusion in culture. I once entered an organization. a customer of the organization in which I was employed, and observed several indicators of a poorly functioning culture. During dinner, I was asked, “What do you think about our diversity and our success in forming a culture of inclusion?”  As an African American I was able to identify and illustrate the failure in what they saw as success. I have experienced the hidden signs and as a result know where to look for the meaningful metrics of a struggling inclusion culture. If, for example, corporate management tracks “score cards” of their design they often run the risk of not accurately representing their culture.

Let me offer a few personal experiences to give some insight: 

I served in the C-suite of two organizations–one a Fortune 1000® company and the other a successful $150MM manufacturing organization. I was told upon entering both organizations that they had . . . “friendly, team-oriented, inclusive organizations”. I had my doubts so I evaluated the organizations based on the KPI’s I’ve developed over my career. Initially, I look at all the organization’s HR related lawsuits and EEOC actions. The number and nature of these claims are on indicator of the failure in the organization’s culture. Secondly, I compare the organization’s representation of various groups (single mothers, people of color, age distribution, etc.) to the local community, the state, and the discipline on which they are based. For example, a manufacturing organization in the middle of Chicago’s south side where the workers are not representative of the surrounding community, and the management even less so, has a problem of inclusion and will have difficulty with the community. 

Almost all companies support the local community in one way or another. In both organizations I observed no significant investment in the various public aspects of the community (helping the school system, scholarships, etc.); but they did maintain memberships in the country clubs and elite golf clubs in the area. These were organizations that prioritized the executive culture as the company’s culture and not the other way around. Why did I join? Frankly, most organizations look like this for most Black executives. We step into these worlds because of the opportunity while setting for and accepting that the culture may not be ready to accept us. In each of these organizations, my colleagues were friendly but not one invited me to lunch, not one invited me to dinner at their home. Yet, the communities of colors, the LGBT communities included me in their community, church and personal activities often. I was always in attendance at senior executive retreats, but that was the limit of our social interactions. Why? Because the perception was that my interest may be different! Of course, they are different–I am from a different background! That single act of risk avoidance unconsciously defines the culture as being non-inclusive, unwilling to incorporate new perspectives, and as a result, unchanging.

The following are examples of the KPI’s referenced above, that I use to evaluate cultures:

  • Number and type of litigation and EEO complaints
  • Turnover amongst various demographic groups
  • Degree of non-company-organized social interactions among colleagues at all levels
  • Demographic refection of the community, state, discipline, and market segments in the organization and in leadership; and
  • Number of company-organized social events designed by various segments of the organization’s culture.

I can promise you that most organizations have few if any of these KPI’s as measures of their culture. There are others that directly tie to the company’s finances, but until you can clearly understand your culture from the inside, you will always misunderstand your culture from the top.


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