September 1, 2020

Employers Can’t Take Meaningful Action on Social Justice Without Active Listening


A whopping 82 percent of Americans report that it is “very” or “somewhat” important to them that companies work to make a positive difference in matters of racial equality, according to The Harris Poll. Unfortunately, only 21 percent of Americans say companies have actually made a “very positive” impact.

How can employers prove they’re serious about the causes their employees really care about? A bright light is currently being focused on the racial injustice that exists in our society, and employees are looking to their employers to take a stand. Companies are responding to employee concerns about complex societal issues in a variety of ways. For example, Walmart is creating a new center dedicated to racial equality, while Google has committed $12 million to civil rights groups.

However, taking a stand for social justice cannot be a one-off effort. Rather, it must be an ongoing commitment an organization makes. Businesses large and small must commit to comprehensive strategies to support social justice issues that benefit their communities, their employees, and society as a whole.

As of March 2020, Achievers’ 2020 Engagement and Retention Report indicates that 64 percent of employees had plans to leave their jobs. Given the heightened awareness of social justice issues in the past few months, employees are now holding their employers accountable for how they respond to issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ+ discrimination, and more. This increased awareness has pushed individuals to invest in and promote equality, and it’s likely these topics will come up more than ever before during the hiring process.

As the COVID-prompted shutdowns lift and organizations begin to ramp up hiring, candidates will likely be reviewing corporate actions on social justice to determine whether their values align with an organization’s. Businesses must take a stand on the issues that matter most to their employees, thereby creating cultures that allow employees to feel heard, understood, and supported, regardless of their personal backgrounds or orientations.

Today’s employee expects their employer to be in tune with what’s happening at a local, national, and global level when it comes to social justice causes. Above all, they expect their employer to actively participate in driving solutions to some of the most pressing issues our society faces. Here are a few ways employers can show employees that their voices matter during these challenging times:

Find Out What Matters to Employees

Simply put: Talk is cheap. Employees pay attention to the ways in which their organizations respond to societal issues. To demonstrate support for the issues that matter to employees, it’s important to have a strategy in place that outlines your commitment, the steps you’re taking to drive change, and the ways in which you will continue to evolve and improve your efforts moving forward. Employees want not only visibility into social justice strategies, but also to be involved and contribute along the way. Inviting employees to engage in authentic conversations related to social justice strengthens organizational culture, builds trust, and ensures that your employees’ voices are heard.

Creating Feedback Streams to Inform Action

While we’ve seen organizations step up to more powerfully impact systemic racism over the past few months, we also know from The Harris Poll that most Americans are still not satisfied with corporate action on this front. While corporate financial contributions are certainly admirable, the lack of employee approval for companies’ social justice efforts signals a huge disconnect between the promises being made by leaders and the actions employees observe. To truly turn the tide, employers must seek feedback to understand what actions matter most to their people. It’s nearly impossible for employers to support the issues employees care about if they don’t know what they are, or what meaningful contribution looks like to their employees.

While some companies conduct yearly surveys to understand sentiment, annual data collection fails to provide an accurate story regarding what matters most to employees, the ways in which social justice struggles are impacting everyday reality, and how employees perceive company action. Instead, employers must find ways to actively listen and conduct regular pulse checks to gather continuous employee feedback, an important building block in creating a positive culture of trust and respect. It’s important to ask employees directly for preferences or suggestions before fully committing to a partnership with or donation to an organization.

Implementing continuous feedback systems or holding regular focus-group discussions can help employers spot critical areas that need improvement, take action faster, and more effectively measure the success of their impact. Rather than leaving employees on the sidelines, organizations need to empower regular communication between employees and leadership, giving everyone a voice in driving a culture of inclusion and equality.

Instituting frequent progress check-ins with managers, who have a more direct line to employee sentiment, is another powerful way to evaluate the overall impact of corporate social justice initiatives. When company leaders listen and take data-driven action, employees feel confident in the impacts their companies are making on society as a whole.

Aligning Actions to Company Values

Taking action inspired by employee feedback shows employees that they are being heard, recognized, and valued by the company. Most importantly, it shows workers that their opinions really matter. In addition, employees are 1.4 times more engaged at work when they are aligned with their company’s purpose. People support initiatives they care about personally, so employers should provide opportunities for their workers to get directly involved in what matters most to them, especially when it comes to social justice efforts.

Fostering a workplace culture where employees have a voice on issues that matter to them is critical to driving organizational health and, thus, employee retention and achievement. Plus, delivering on a strategy that tackles societal injustice allows employees to be a part of the solution to the systemic issues we face as businesses, as a nation, and as a planet.

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner is chief workforce scientist at Achievers.

Read more in Organizational Culture

Dr. Natalie Baumgartner has spent her career advising companies of all sizes, from entrepreneurial startups to Fortune 500 firms, on issues related to company culture. Specifically tackling key hire assessment and portfolio due-diligence issues, she has found success analyzing what most overlook: the human element. Natalie holds a PhD in clinical psychology, with a specific focus on assessment and additional training in strength-based psychology. She serves on the board of the Society of Consulting Psychology of the American Psychological Association. She is a popular speaker on culture and recently did a TEDx Talk on the importance of culture fit. Natalie is a culture evangelist and is passionate about the power that culture fit has to revolutionize how we work. If you can't find Natalie in the office, odds are good you'll bump into her sprinting up mountains in her hometown of Denver, CO.