Editor’s note: As we ended a difficult and unique year and entered a new one, the Training Industry editorial team asked learning leaders to write in with their reflections on 2020 and predictions for 2021. This series, “What’s Changed and What Hasn’t?: Taking Stock of 2020 and Planning for 2021,” is the result. Plus, don’t miss our infographic, “5 Tips for Turning 2020 Disarray Into 2021 Direction: Insights From Learning Leaders,” which shares insights from the series.

To say that the year 2020 has been like few others might be the understatement of our lifetime. Challenges ranging from civil and social unrest to the coronavirus and its resulting economic tsunami make 2020 to stand alone in what feels like daily waves of financial, political and civil headwinds. Like few times in our collective memory, workplace cultures are a microcosm of what is happening in society at large.

The Current Environment

From the striking of the match that began with #MeToo to the Black Lives Matter movement, employers cannot be blind to the fire burning inside the hearts and minds of employees who comprise their workplace culture. The work environment is a reflection of society at large, and the developing anxiety due to the uncertainty generated by these events is reflected in the employers seeking solutions to address that anxiety and balance the importance of workplace culture.

All too often, employers institute knee-jerk diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) policies that don’t stand a chance of achieving their intended impact. In seeking to address these issues, employers allow their well-meaning intent to be hijacked by shades of distrust in hastily appointing DEI officers without first obtaining an unvarnished assessment of their current workplace culture. Historically, employers have turned to expensive and time-consuming measures involving employee surveys, select interviews, internal focus groups and legions of consultants to provide insight into their cultures. Now, with DEI at the forefront of workplace cultures, it seems that a new DEI specialist is appearing every day.

Unfortunately, this new and dizzying executive-level engagement is generally met with enough employee skepticism to effectively destabilize any and all efforts. Furthering this asymmetry, executives and human resource (HR) departments often operate at a much different frequency from their employees. This disconnected — if not disjointed — management framework places HR professionals in the classic “squeeze” felt by mid-management since the beginning of time.

Fortunately, the unprecedented nature of 2020 produced a wave of leadership that seeks to reconnect with its employees. These leaders understand that an organization’s self-reflection can yield both financial and cultural benefits well into the future. Relying on employee feedback on issues ranging from flexible work schedules to centralized communication, employers can reconnect with their employee base by acknowledging their voice and providing an opportunity for it to be heard.

Addressing Discrimination and Harassment in 2021

Critical to this sentiment, employers can also gain a greater understanding of the harassment and discrimination their employees may face. When employees cannot express their concerns in a safe, transparent and responsive environment, employers have no chance of positively impacting the critical metrics of profitability, productivity and retention.

This year, employers are faced with the undeniable reality that they must address the workplace environment, whether it’s remote or in the office. In either “location,” organizations must address legal risks and trends in the right tone and manner. Otherwise, they will be left with managing an increasingly polarized and litigious workforce.

Under U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requirements, for example, in resolving an issue related to DEI and Title VII issues, an employer must provide employees with an administrative way to resolve the incident or issue. Recently, the EEOC issued guidance (which, as of Dec. 2020, was pending with the Office of Management and Budget), for employers implementing administrative remedies for handling workplace harassment and discrimination issues. This guidance includes the following:

    • Reliable and accessible incident/complaint procedures, including prompt and thorough investigations of the workplace harassment or discrimination issue.
    • Being fully resourced and able to respond promptly, thoroughly and effectively to complaints.
    • Including third-party investigators who are neutral, independent and well-trained to perform these critical functions.
    • Appropriately documenting every incident, from initial intake to investigation to resolution, using guidelines to weigh the credibility of all relevant parties.
    • Preparing a written report documenting the investigation, findings, recommendations, disciplinary action imposed (if any), and corrective and preventative action taken (if any).

Today, most employers cannot meet these requirements, or they fall short in doing so, exposing them to increased risk and liabilities.

History shows us that most employers provide the “check-the-box” anonymous hotline or the ubiquitous “open door policy.” However, according to data from the EEOC, retaliation claims are significantly higher than any other filed charge of job discrimination nationwide. As a result, employers addressing DEI and workplace misconduct must ask themselves whether these solutions actually work and whether they mitigate legal risk. The answer is a clear “no.”

So, how do employers mitigate their risk, with a polarizing and litigious workforce, while protecting and improving their culture and enabling employees’ voices to be heard?

To answer these questions, we must first understand how the current system is broken. When employees feel harassed, discriminated against or that their voice is not being heard, they may be required to report it to their manager, supervisor or HR department or to call an anonymous hotline. The question they are left with at the end of the conversation with the anonymous hotline is usually, “Do you want us to send this to your employer so they can investigate it?” It’s no wonder so many incidents aren’t reported; those employees don’t want an investigation, because they are afraid of retaliation.

How do we move from a culture of fear to one that promotes DEI? Simply put, we must remove the employer from the investigation of any incident. This simple act not only removes the fear of retaliation but helps ensure that every issue is addressed and that there is always a clear path to resolution. Lastly, with the right partner, employers can ensure compliance with EEOC’s new guidelines and requirements, thus mitigating the legal risk.

In 2021, employers have the opportunity to get DEI right while protecting their culture, their employees and themselves. Will they learn from the current broken system to make employees’ voices heard (the basis of this great cultural movement that employees are experiencing)? The answer lies within ourselves.