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Cultural Audits Support Workplace Equity

A woman cringes as her co-worker places a hand on her shoulder

A report calling for a “reboot of workplace harassment prevention efforts” was published in 2016 by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

More research data using a racial justice lens, customized training tailored to the specific workforce and workplace and to different cohorts of employees, as well as the identification of workplace risk factors, were recommended.

For KC Wagner, chair of the Equity of Work initiative at the Worker Institute, the report summarized the complexities and evolution of the study of workplace sexual harassment, an area she has worked in for four decades

“What is so invaluable about the report is that a seasoned and eclectic group of advisers came together to identify benchmarks for promising practices,” Wagner said. “This is an authoritative source that can be referenced for courageous and innovative short- and long- term workplace strategies to support meaningful and enduring cultural change.

“In doing training and education as part of prevention strategies, and as part of settlement agreements, it became increasingly clear to me that I needed to center the work around the feedback of worker voice before I was going to embark on any training.”

This instinct by Wagner has been validated by a recent report from the National Employment Law Project and the Worker Institute that indicates that more than one in three working New Yorkers, or 34%, reported that potential employer retaliation could prevent them from reporting workplace sexual harassment, as compared to 25% in the rest of the country.

From Wagner’s early years of practice as a counselor and advocate with targets of harassment, she noticed there was a four-point calculus that survivors used to determine their course of action: (1) the individual’s conflict style, later to include a trauma-informed lens grounded in their perspective as a survivor and experience with systems of inequality; (2) a cost benefit analysis of “speaking out’ or “keep quiet”; (3) the track record of the organization in addressing these issues and (4) the efficacy of and confidence in organizational policies and procedures – and protection from retaliation.

Fitting the approach to the specific organizational cultural context is essential, she said.

“My team’s approach is participatory research and customization,” Wagner said. “And, we partner with the organization based on their commitment to a culture change process. Some recent examples of change include building on a union resolution for racial and gender equity; or an organizational mission statement or commitment to organizational equity, inclusion and diversity.”

In 2008, Wagner worked with a major private-sector union in New York City that agreed to conduct an educational needs assessment before training occurred. That assessment turned into a three-year project in which Wagner and her team customized training based on region and voice, designed a curriculum, trained key departments and created a facilitator’s guide to train in-house staff to introduce the sessions.

Since then, Wagner has worked with a progressive philanthropic group and two private-sector unions to expand the 2008 model into the current cultural audit and educational needs assessment survey model.

“This is a participatory process with all stakeholders; it is an essential building block for the current model of a cultural audit and educational needs assessment survey,” Wagner said. “The engagement starts the minute the first focus groups, randomly selected cross-sections of employees, provide feedback as the survey instrument is designed, tested, piloted and implemented. This process challenges a common misperception that only when the survey is finalized, released, with the data collected, analyzed and put into report that the ‘real work‘ has been done.”

“We really encourage organizations to be innovative, creative and embrace some of the promising practices that are coming out of the anti-violence movement, such as restorative justice and engaging men as allies,” said Wagner.

A key element Wagner and her team have identified is the importance of a third party – such as a university unit, like the Worker Institute at Cornell – doing the research.

“It allows a greater degree of trust,” she said. “People become engaged in this process through centering their voice, but only when they see that their voice is being heard and that they can trust that participating won't result in some kind of identification or retaliation. This is accomplished by the Worker Institute’s strict adherence to human subject research ethics in our practice, as well as the fact that each participant is assigned a confidential link that directs all data to a secure and confidential site at the Worker Institute.

“So, we are really leveraging the neutrality of Cornell as an educational institution. Frankly, if a university unit conducts the surveys, it gives it a measure of credibility.”

Wagner is currently working with three organizations – two private sector unions and a social justice foundation – and hopes to do follow-up surveys a year after they implement their cultural change strategies to see what institutional changes have happened.

“I hope the organizations will agree to that because it would really address the question of what impact their efforts are having, get a ‘snap shot’ of the cultural climate to better understand the efficacy of training impact, policies and procedures and it allows us to see what worked and what didn't in order to inform ongoing interventions and strategies to support workplace equity .”

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