Diversity Presentation at New York #SHRM Explores Employer Challenges

Welcome to Lake Placid highway road sign trees grassAgainst the backdrop of the Empire State’s Adirondack Mountains, stunning lakes and fall foliage that was just beginning to peek through this week, I had the privilege to speak at the New York State Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Conference, “HR Going for the Gold,” in Lake Placid, New York.

Mirroring the diverse and rich colors of the leaves that were starting to change, my session explored diversity trends and offered insights to help organizations benchmark diversity efforts and results. I discussed both the legal requirements underpinning diversity and provided guidance on ways to make workplaces more inclusive. Also featured was XpertHR’s Diversity and Inclusion Survey which was based on more than 600 responses from both large and small employers in all 50 states across a wide swath of industries. Here are some key takeaways:

Is Tolerance a Bad Word?

Audience members felt strongly that the word “tolerance” had a negative connotation as it denoted merely tolerating those individuals from other backgrounds and cultures and felt it was important to focus more on words like “inclusion,” “acceptance” and “celebration” of differences to welcome other cultures in a diverse and inclusive workplace.

There is definitely some truth to this as the first definition in the Merriam Webster Dictionary for “tolerance” is “the capacity to endure pain or hardship.”

In today’s workplace, it is critical to reach out to individuals of different cultures, faiths, beliefs, backgrounds, thinking and learning styles and show recognition, respect and appreciation for what each individual brings to the table. In the modern workplace we must move beyond merely tolerating other individuals in order to effect real change.

The Battle of the Bathroom

There has been a lot of news coverage lately concerning equal access to restrooms in the workplace, and it has become a battleground when it comes to transgender rights. The private issue of restroom use has become a very public matter as a number of states have enacted laws permitting individuals to use the restroom or locker room that corresponds with their current gender identity. Some cities such as New York City have even gone so far as to mandate that all single-occupant bathrooms must become gender-neutral to ensure equal access for all.

On the other hand, there has been backlash with North Carolina and Mississippi enacting legislation to the opposite effect, seeking to protect the religious and moral rights of certain citizens.

So, what’s an employer to do when many women in the workplace are already struggling to use the multi-occupant restroom that has only three stalls, and it has a single occupant restroom designated for individuals with disabilities? Is it able to designate this restroom for female use only in order to provide women with more restrooms? Doesn’t an employer have to comply with OSHA’s requirement that an employer provide all workers with sanitary and immediately-available restrooms?

I would suggest making sure that all single-occupant restrooms are available for anyone to use and not limit them in any way. In accordance with guidance from the EEOC, OSHA, the Department of Labor and a significant number of state and municipal laws, individuals should be permitted to use the restroom or locker room that corresponds with their current gender identity without proof of gender. Perhaps the most economical suggestion would be to designate all restrooms to be unisex and available for anyone to use, thereby eliminating the issue and avoiding any claims of discrimination or unfair treatment. It’s a step some employers have already started to take.

Employee Resource Groups – Do They Exclude?

Also discussed during the presentation was the idea of employee resource groups or affinity groups which provide individuals who share common traits, characteristics or interests (i.e., working mothers, LGBT individuals, veterans, Hispanics and individuals with disabilities) with the opportunity to meet, network and discuss workplace issues and provide a safe haven to air their workplace challenges. Such groups can be a valuable tool in creating a diverse and inclusive workplace culture.

These groups can reduce feelings of isolation and increase employee morale and retention by allowing employees to exchange valuable advice and practical solutions with others who have had similar experiences. However, as some audience members pointed out, it is essential for such groups to be inclusive and include individuals outside the protected group. Otherwise, they run the risk of being divisive and possibly violating federal or state antidiscrimination laws.


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