Margaret Sweeney, Chief Human Resources Officer, and David Greenberg, Special Advisor and former CEO at global professional services firm, LRN, discuss building an ethical workplace culture following George Floyd’s death and how their company’s support of ethnic minority talent goes beyond words.
LRN helps companies foster “ethical cultures”, what should an ethical workplace culture look like?
DG: Ethical culture is about having values and living to those values in an organisation. First, the company needs to set standards and communicate them. Then it needs to evaluate them and measure outcomes. What are the values of the company? How does the company assure its people are living to those values? Is the organisation signalling whether doing the right thing matters? Is it setting the expectation that how you do things is as important as what you do? Is its leadership modelling good behaviour and making the right choices, not just expedient choices? What training is available to teach about ethics and compliance with regulations? Do people feel empowered to speak up and to do the right thing? As one of our colleagues recently said, “ethics are the choices people make when no one is watching.”
Can an ethical workplace culture go hand-in-hand with better business performance?
DG: Absolutely. We’ve long believed establishing a culture based on values and transparency is more effective at reducing risk and preventing misconduct than a robust set of rules. A reduction in risk allows for greater reliability, better ability to forecast, and lower operating costs. We have an assessment process for this and have the data to support it. We work with organisations worldwide that have seen a shift in how their people handle challenges, conflicts of interest, corruption, and bribery by prioritising values every day.
Even more importantly, a purpose-driven, values-based culture has been shown to outperform other cultures across every single important business outcome, from financial performance to employee loyalty, to lower misconduct and more innovation. LRN has studied this relationship in 17 countries worldwide, and the result is the same everywhere; the relationship between culture and outcomes also holds true across the industry sector and company size.
How has being an HR leader changed in the past year since the rise of Black Lives Matter?
MS: At LRN, we are committed to racial justice, and we have been working steadily to deliver on that promise. We assembled a volunteer team internally to look at where we were and where we wanted to be. We set our agenda, a scope that included work internally, work externally in collaboration with our partners, and work in the community to help in healing.
Since then, we have launched new DEI training courses for ourselves and our partners on topics including anti-racism, microaggressions, LGBT+ allyship, and respectful communication. We also developed customised training materials for a U.S. non-profit called ‘THE INITIATIVE: Advancing the Blue & Black Partnership‘, founded in the wake of George Floyd’s death and aims to heal the community-police relationship and create communities where all are seen and heard.
As our small but international company grows, we are looking to ensure we’re pursuing diversity on several fronts, including racial diversity, age diversity, neurodiversity, and diversity of physical abilities. No organisation is perfect, but we honestly believe that most people want to do the right thing. Through a considered approach, it is possible to help make that happen.
What have been your firm’s most impactful D&I initiatives to date?
DG: Perhaps our greatest impact is with the DEI curriculum we just developed for our clients and partners. It outlines a three-year process for building a strong culture of belonging and has been extremely well received. It includes our courses like our latest release for LGBT+ allyship, but we’re also interested in sharing tips for creating an effective and meaningful DEI training programme with everyone.
Can you tell me more about LRN’s involvement with ‘THE INITIATIVE: Advancing the Blue & Black Partnership?‘
DG: We were fortunate that one of our LRN colleagues, Laura Danysh, introduced us to the leaders of the initiative which is rooted in an ethics and compliance-based approach to changing organisational culture. It is singularly focused on engaging all key stakeholders to develop a shared vision for effective, community-oriented policing practices and scaling those practices through programming, training, and data analytics.
They are working on the front lines to build greater trust, transparency, and collaboration between communities and police departments – recognising that black communities and police are joined together in a relationship that can lead either to safety and economic progress or to violence and a deteriorating quality of life. At LRN, we have committed to creating seven free e-learning modules for the initiative on topics ranging from mindfulness to procedural justice that will be available to law enforcement communities across the United States to encourage them to respond to situations mindfully instead of impulsively.
What other proactive strategies have you implemented to support racial minorities at LRN?
DG: In response to events last summer, we had a robust discussion about what we should say and what we, as an organisation, should do. Our Board of Directors published a strong statement by stressing our duty and commitment to combat racism against Black people in all its forms, from wherever it emanates. However, it is expressed, whether in police brutality, state-sponsored discrimination, or in conspiratorial whispers in private quarters. But we all knew that words alone were not enough. We had work to do—internally, on our own actions to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within LRN and externally, to help our partners on their journeys toward racial justice.
On the latter front, we built a new course for partners, ‘Anti-Racism: Taking Action‘, that engages learners in the journey we hope all will aspire to in the quest for racial justice. We wanted and needed to do more—in particular, we desperately wanted to give back by using our core capability in developing training to bring communities and police departments together in a joint effort to make a tangible and positive difference.
Since Floyd’s murder, did you see an increase in engagement with HR from minority groups?
MS: Yes, we did see a slight uptick in engagement and from a broad range of colleagues. Or maybe openness is a better word. Because of our clear stance on racism and the action in the streets last summer, more of our colleagues felt comfortable expressing their concerns, experiences, and observations with the People & Culture team. Equitable pay was clearly top of mind, and we did a double-check of our compensation practices. Simultaneous to this, we embarked upon a harmonising of job titles and pay bands across departments and developing a Principled Performance Review process that encompasses not just 360-degree reviews but assessments against our Leadership Framework.
What workplace mechanisms can help underrepresented groups feel supported?
MS: I would say a company’s size, values, and priorities come into play here. We are a small company, with less than 500 colleagues, and we are highly distributed, across three continents. We have been 100% remote for more than a year, so we tend to bypass committees and go right into action. The steps we have taken thus far have been as a team together, not as affiliate groups identified by region, gender, race, sexual orientation, physical ability, age, or other characteristics.
Our vision, literally, is for a world where we all thrive by acting on our shared values and informing all that we do. If anyone feels they are not prospering in the workplace, my colleagues and I would want to know about it right away and usually know about it. This is an advantage of our small company. I can see that for larger organisations or organisations that don’t prioritise a speak-up culture or a culture of listening, employee resource groups are vital to helping propel the organisation forward.
At LRN, how do you ensure minorities get a fair chance during the application process?
MS: Several improvements in our recruiting process have moved the needle. First of all, we aim for diversity in our candidate pipeline. Secondly, we want to ensure we have a diverse recruiting slate; we don’t want a candidate in the interview process to see a homogeneous organisation when they interview. Finally, we conduct work assessments, or skills auditions, so that the focus is on future work products and not the historical bits you find in a resume.
How can organisations get more underrepresented groups into senior roles while avoiding tokenism?
MS: The organisation has to commit to diversity. There is no way around that. You must make it a priority. You need to be willing to take the time to find the right candidates to bring them to the table. Then once you have them inside your organisation, you need to make career development, skill development, and ongoing education a practice that needs to be in place and a part of the company’s culture. Colleagues inside the company need to see a career path for themselves and that the company prioritises professional development.
Another important point is to make sure you’re supporting the organisations helping fill the pipeline of qualified candidates from underrepresented groups. Growing the future talent pool is important to us. Hence, we work with skills development programmes like ‘Per Scholas‘ and partner with organisations like ‘OurAbility‘ to further diversify our talent pool.