"We don't have an issue with equality here!"--HR Director
The pay gap problem
A gender pay gap has been noted in the company. When bonuses are taken into account, women are earning less than men with the same job titles. The HR Director formed an investigation panel made up of members of both genders from the senior team. The panel went through the performance and pay records of all senior employees and evaluated whether the pay and bonus for each person was fair, and they decided that it was fair based on the individual's performance. Based on this investigation the HR Director now says loudly and often, "I don't think we have a problem with gender equality".
Many are unconvinced by the HR Director's proclamations. People are muttering behind closed doors that the HR Director has only taken a cursory stab at examining the problem and is even sweeping problems under the rug. A member of his senior team tried saying to him, "I think you might be invalidating the experience of individuals who feel they have experienced bias. Also it sounds like you are sweeping aside other factors that may have contributed." However, the HR Director only responded with, "My aim is to reassure everyone that there's no problem here!"
The communication gap
By saying the HR Director was invalidating the experience of some individuals and 'sweeping aside' factors, the attention was focused on interpretations of what the HR Director was doing to others. This could prompt defensiveness.
The HR Director did not seem aware (or had not acknowledged) that other factors could have contributed to the inequity. Without being more specific about what other factors that cause inequality may be, the HR Director did not grasp the possibility that other sources of inequality could exist.
We suggested the following be communicated to the HR Director instead:
I noticed several times you saying that "we don't have a diversity problem", and that there was a thorough review with a panel represented by both genders that established that pay reflects performance. You mentioned your intention was to reassure our staff that we are an organization with high equality. I'm concerned that the statement that "we don't have a diversity issue" can have the opposite impact. The reason is that, while the performance review is a great start, it doesn't acknowledge the other common sources of inequality, which include that women and minorities were given fewer opportunities and less support to develop and take on impactful work. Furthermore, performance metrics can be gender biased (we provided references to studies).
Because there are so many sources of potential inequality, I think it's tricky to make such statements about diversity. People who might have experienced less support or opportunity might feel quite alienated and upset by a statement like "we don't have a diversity issue" because they have a need for their challenges to be acknowledged and looked into. I'm worried that instead of being reassured by that statement people may feel unsafe and discouraged as a result.
The HR Director was able to understand that his attempts to reassure his organization had the opposite effect. They also now understood that there are many sources of inequality that need to be looked at and it was agreed that the panel would do a more thorough review of performance metrics, and also task forces would be established to support mentoring and support for more opportunities for women and minorities to take on impactful work.
Being specific is important. Don't assume the other person can fill in the gaps. It was important to be explicit about the impact that the HR Director's words had on the employees. Highlighting that people may have felt "unsafe" and "discouraged" because they "have a need for their challenges acknowledged" helped the HR Director's realize the unintended consequences of their attempts to reassure the company. It was also important to elaborate on specific other ways that inequality could present itself. A vague mention of "other factors" was not sufficient to get the HR Director's attention. Instead, it was important to spell out what these other factors might be (e.g., opportunity, support, biased metrics).
*Due to the sensitive nature of our case studies, names and details have been changed to be anonymous.