How Leader Intervention Shapes Workplace Culture and Drives Inclusion

In this interview, Elizabeth Bille, SVP, Workplace Culture at EVERFI, and Jesse Raney Bridges, Deputy Director of Global DEI Learning & Development at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 
discuss how leader intervention shapes workplace culture and drives inclusion.

Hi Elizabeth and Jesse, for those of us who are not familiar with your work, can you please introduce yourself?

Jesse: Hi! I am a global diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategist and currently lead DEI learning and development at a global foundation. In this capacity, I shape the foundation-wide learning agenda on core topics of diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as support the development of key leadership stakeholder groups. Prior to this position, I served as the inaugural Head of DEI for three separate organizations (most recently as the Senior Vice President of DEI at EVERFI). In those capacities, I served as the principal strategist, trainer, and consultant to drive strategic outcomes that create inclusive and equitable learning and working communities.
Elizabeth: I am the Senior Vice President of Workplace Culture at EVERFI. a digital education company. My work involves monitoring workplace trends, sharing effective workplace practices, and helping create training programs for companies that not only help them stay compliant with workplace laws, but also foster diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging, and support thriving workplace cultures. Before coming to EVERFI, I was the general counsel and chief ethics officer for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM); I’ve also served as a legal and policy advisor to a former Vice-Chair of the EEOC, and as an employment law attorney at a global law firm.
You talk a lot about how leader intervention shapes workplace culture and drives inclusion. How can HR professionals ensure that leaders can effectively intervene in situations with potential harassment, ethics or safety implications to reduce risk and improve culture?

Elizabeth: Employees look to leaders as guides and role models in the workplace. What leaders say or don’t say, do or don’t do, is noticed and has a tremendous impact on their team’s and colleagues’ behavior. What’s more, how leaders act in the toughest moments - like when faced with disrespectful, harassing, or unsafe behavior - speaks volumes to their teams about whether the organization means what it says in its policies and values statements. In addition, leaders are often involved in designing, approving, or implementing processes and policies, and thus are well-positioned to proactively flag decision-making in these areas that could be biased, exclusionary, or unethical.

But speaking up in the face of harassment or bias isn’t something that comes naturally, even for leaders. It’s a skill that must be learned and practiced. So it’s really critical for leaders (and their teams) to be trained in bystander intervention techniques, so they have the tools in their toolbox to address issues quickly and effectively - and, by doing so, model their organization’s policies and values. It’s equally important for leaders to encourage and recognize other team members when they speak up, creating that “tone from the top” that reinforces a positive and psychologically safe workplace culture.

How can HR and other leaders equip themselves to speak up when witnessing culture failures?

Jesse: To Elizabeth’s earlier points, the first step in being equipped to speak up is to learn the foundational concepts and build skills to intervene when situations arise. One of the cornerstones of effective intervention training starts with raising your awareness to understand when intervention, direct or indirect, is needed. You may think that problematic behavior would be obvious. However, we as humans often don’t notice troubling behavior if we’re not directly impacted. 

Some examples could be that we don’t notice a lack of curb cuts if we don’t use a wheelchair, mobility support, or push a stroller; or we are not aware of remote employees being spoken over in meetings if you’re physically in the room with a group. So creating awareness requires exploration, and sometimes expansion, of the people and groups you identify as deserving of your support. What do I mean by that? More simply put, sometimes the biases that we hold based on our lived experiences limit our view of what scenarios require intervention. Therefore we need dedicated learning experiences and training to raise and expand that awareness.

But awareness isn’t enough - leaders must also cultivate a sense of personal responsibility to act and identify the barriers to stepping up when they observe behavior that erodes a culture of inclusion and/or well-being. These barriers can range from fear of being seen as “too sensitive” to assuming that the observed behavior isn’t problematic because no one else is acting. Developing a sense of personal responsibility, addressing barriers, and intervening all take practice. 

With that HR and other leaders should create a community of practice with other leaders, and dedicate time and a safe forum to hone these skills. This can take the form of allotting time in regular leadership meetings for skill-building on bystander intervention techniques. Additionally, consider reviewing your organization’s anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies so that you know how to support a standardized, consistent and equitable reporting process.

You’ve shared that speaking up is especially hard if the perpetrator is a colleague, superior, or client. What is a simple step to take to help put a stop to workplace misconduct?  
Elizabeth: Yes, these situations can be very challenging to navigate, particularly if the person is someone with whom you work closely. If the person made an inappropriate comment during a meeting, for example, you could address it directly by saying something like, “I’m not comfortable with how this conversation is going,” “Did I hear you correctly?” or even giving the person a surprised or disapproving look. Doing one of these things will signal to both the person who made the comment and others witnessing it that the behavior was noticed and is not acceptable. 

Then, after the meeting, consider having a private conversation with the person. You could mention how much you respect them, that you know that they work hard to be a great leader--but that the behavior you just witnessed made you and possibly others uncomfortable, and it wasn’t them at their best. If it is a client, this could be an especially hard conversation, but it’s equally important to address: employees who work in client-facing roles are at increased risk of harassment, and employers can be held liable for a client’s harassing behavior if they don’t address it promptly and effectively. 

And of course, showing your employees that you have their back no matter who the source of misconduct is will foster employee trust, engagement, and safety.

For those who can’t attend your Saturday afternoon session in Las Vegas, what are your recommended actionable steps for developing the leadership competency of bystander intervention for ourselves and the leaders with whom we work?

Jesse: Beyond what we discussed above, there is a pull through between the competencies of leadership intervention and inclusive leadership that is important to highlight. Leaders have both a great opportunity and great responsibility to shape and model a culture of inclusion, for all. 

Being aware of one’s biases is a shared competency of both bystander intervention and inclusive leadership. By communicating your commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, sharing how you are continuously learning and practicing the skills of bystander intervention, inviting feedback on where you’re making progress and how you can continue to grow; you create a space where employees feel psychologically safe to share concerns, observations, or seek your support. 

Very practically, I would recommend engaging in training on how to disrupt microaggressions - which are slight, sometimes unintended, words or acts of disrespect toward someone based on one or more dimensions of identity. Microaggressions are one of the most common acts of harm that occur in the workplace and can negatively impact the physical and mental well-being of the people who receive them. 

So with the frequency, pervasiveness and harm that microaggressions can cause; accepting that they are likely occurring in your workplace and developing the skills to interrupt them is a great starting place to develop the competency of bystander intervention. 

Switching things up - the entrepreneur in me has to ask a question about implementing harassment and discrimination prevention programs in a small business of less than 25 employees. Where does a small business owner even begin to implement a program like this, and how do they measure success?   

Elizabeth: It can be tough to stand up such a program when you don’t have a team of HR or L&D professionals to spearhead it. But it is very important. Most laws prohibiting harassment and discrimination apply to small employers too, so it’s important to take some key steps: policies, training, and data. 

First, a company should ensure it has a policy that not only prohibits all types of harassment and discrimination (not just sexual harassment), but that also goes beyond the law to prohibit behavior that is inappropriate, offensive, and disrespectful. Be sure to also include a statement against retaliation, provide more than one channel for employees to report concerns (not just to their manager), and address any reported concerns promptly and objectively. 

Second, training: even if the state where a company has employees does not require anti-harassment training by statute (although several do), training is critical for prevention. It tunes employees into warning signs and teaches them what to do when they witness them--and ensures leaders understand their obligation to respond appropriately on behalf of the company. 

Then, measure success by gathering data: you can survey employees anonymously to gather information about their willingness to intervene in or report incidents, for example, and whether that’s changed since taking the course. If not, follow up with additional messaging. You can also track changes in complaints received (types, frequency); keep in mind, though, that complaints may initially go up following training or policy implementation, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: it demonstrates employee trust in your system.

Alright, last question (thanks for hanging in there). For anyone who won’t be able to make it to your talk about how leader intervention shapes workplace culture and drives inclusion in Las Vegas, what do you want them to know? 

Jesse: Well, we would want them to first know that they’ll be missed! In addition to that, we hope that readers will explore and commit to developing the skills of bystander intervention as a core leadership competency, both for themselves and other leaders. In this acute phase of The Great Resignation, and beyond that, a workplace culture of inclusion, safety, and well-being is critical to employee engagement, retention, and productivity. And as research has shown, leader behavior has a causal effect on workplace climate, so it is imperative that leaders are equipped to model these behaviors that cultivate a work culture where everyone can thrive. 

Learn more at Elizabeth and Jesse’s SHRM session:

It’s On Us: How Leader Intervention Shapes Workplace Culture and Drives Inclusion
In-Person and Virtual Saturday, September 11, 2:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m PT


The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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