Blog Post

3 ways to embrace intersectionality in the workplace

Dream Chua (they/them)

Product Marketing Manager, Corporate Social Responsibility, Cornerstone

Standardization in the workplace has long been championed for the sake of productivity and efficiency. Whether it’s compliance training, a company’s approach to performance management or even a company’s “normal” working hours, having one policy for all is seen as fair.

But as the most diverse generations yet enter the workforce, the need to recognize intersectionality in the workplace is growing exponentially. These long-held, one-size-fits-all standards are not equitable for everyone — so they’re starting to break down.

What is intersectionality in the workplace?

The term intersectionality was coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how different individual characteristics (race, gender, sexuality, etc.) overlap. An individual’s different “intersecting” identities impact how they are treated and how they are perceived.

For example, we know that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women. But think about how this experience may be different for Black women, who have statistically experienced higher rates of job loss and how a Black woman’s experience may differ even further if she is queer or is a person with a disability.

Recognizing the significance of each layer of identity, and how they create disparity, is a crucial step in creating more equitable systems.

The lack of intersectionality in the workplace today is a source of strain for many employees. According to this survey from The New York Times, a majority of employees of color reported being highly on guard in the workplace. Many employees are exhausted from the mental and emotional toll of code-switching at work or enduring microaggressions and sexual harassment.

HR practitioners can embrace intersectionality in the workplace by evaluating three key areas of opportunity:

  1. How data is collected and analyzed
  2. How the leadership approaches diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) initiatives
  3. How individual employees are valued across all aspects of the employee experience

The goal is to create space for more individuality and personalization. It’s a feat that might not have been possible at scale a decade ago, but today, we have the technology to make it happen.

Reevaluate how and why you’re measuring data

Managers and department leads are tasked with making their teams as efficient and productive as possible.

But by measuring things like productivity and output, we’re not taking a human lens to employee assessment. This disproportionately rewards employees who fit into the existing system — and makes it more difficult for those who don’t to truly be successful.

Some companies, including Cornerstone, are starting to shift from measuring performance scores throughout the year to measuring performance based on career development progress.

This changes the lens from quantity (measuring individual output) to quality (measuring individual growth). It shifts the conversation to assess each employee based on their individual context — and positions companies to support employees based on their needs and circumstances, rather than existing standards.

There are a host of opportunities to rethink metrics like this.

Technology, including machine learning and AI, can make it easy to measure more nuanced workforce data and help companies identify blind spots. For example, using AI to collect detailed data can reveal whether companies have particularly high turnover among certain employees, or whether certain groups of employees are more likely to be promoted than others.

Once issues like these are identified and validated, companies can update their existing processes to drive change. However, it’s important to recognize AI algorithms risk producing biased outputs after seeking patterns that reflect outdated practices. And because humans who write AI algorithms have their own bias, it’s critical to use clean data and provide human oversight to maintain equity and ensure ethical use.

Make time for DEIB — no exceptions

There’s ample research to suggest greater team diversity is better for business. But whenever teams are under pressure — rushing toward a deadline or juggling many things at once — DEIB initiatives are generally the first things to fall by the wayside.

But setting DEIB to the side invites unconscious bias into the workplace. It allows employees to not only set aside their personal DEIB goals but also slip back into old habits (like using offensive language or not giving everyone in a meeting the opportunity to speak). Reverting to the status quo in this way can cause companies to backslide in their efforts to embrace intersectionality in the workplace.

DEIB needs to be prioritized on a regular basis, from the highest levels of the organization. It’s this work — from learning to evolving existing policies — that makes room for intersectionality.

Leaders and managers must consistently take opportunities to proactively be involved in DEIB: Address topics like the bystander effect or how to be an ally in all-hands meetings, for example, or sponsor ERGs that celebrate parts of people’s identities and encourage leadership to participate in events hosted by these groups.

Prioritizing DEIB from the top displays inclusivity, and as a result, helps all employees feel empowered to participate.

Another way to demonstrate a longstanding commitment to DEIB is to give employees access to engaging, impactful learning content that they can return to for continued development. Here again, technology plays a critical role in helping intersectionality make its way into the workforce.

The broader availability of on-demand learning opportunities means companies can easily give employees the resources to access training and work together to create a more inclusive environment. A critical component of closing the gap between access to learning content and employee participation is ensuring engagement begins at the leadership level. After management teams share their commitment to learning, employees will understand the importance of education, too.

Access more information, resources and best practices for mitigating unconscious bias in the workplace, try our free Cornerstone Cares DEIB learning courses

Personalizing the employee experience

Overall, intersectionality in the workplace means moving away from standardization and toward personalization. And managing your employees’ unique needs goes hand in hand with promoting DEIB, which must be present across recruiting, performance, learning content and career management.

A decade ago or more, it wasn’t possible to understand — much less meet — the needs of each individual employee at scale. But by infusing data and tools like AI into the employee journey, it’s possible.

The Cornerstone Skills Graph is an example of an AI-powered tool that can drive equity and inclusion throughout the employee experience by gathering information about employee skills, interests, learning history and aspirations. It can parse employee data and make recommendations about learning opportunities and new skills to develop. It can also help employers understand who on their team they should tap to tackle a new project or step into a new role.

Overall, the Skills Graph weaves DEIB into talent management across all touchpoints, including learning and recruiting, by ensuring managers and leadership teams can meet their employees’ unique needs on a regular basis.

If employees at every level don’t feel safe to grow, take risks and thrive, companies won’t see the full benefit of their workforce — and innovation will continue to come only from a small group of top leaders, who often lack diversity in thought and represent only a portion of an organization’s population.

In the coming years, companies need to lean into technology tools to embrace intersectionality and meet individual employee needs at scale, whether it’s to deliver tailored learning programs or help employees develop their interests, skills and overall careers. It’s this relentless approach to people that will drive productivity and growth — not the other way around.

Related Resources

Want to keep learning? Explore our products, customer stories, and the latest industry insights.

Taking A Company-Wide Approach to Learning & Development

Blog Post

Taking A Company-Wide Approach to Learning & Development

There’s a lot of coordination that goes into a company’s learning and development programming, from identifying skills gaps and creating engaging content to scaling initiatives company-wide. And because there’s so much complex planning involved, organizations can sometimes get caught up in the details, and overlook how L&D fits into broader organizational goals. A recent survey—titled "The Revolution is Now: New-Skill Your Workforce to Catalyze Change"—from Cornerstone People Research Lab (CPRL) and the Human Capital Institute (HCI) found that only 55% of organizations believe their L&D programs are well-aligned with their company’s overarching strategy. But CPRL and HCI’s survey reveals two logical ways to overcome this challenge. First, there’s a need for L&D executives to participate in strategic conversations around organizational goals to ensure that L&D planning aligns with broader business plans. And second, it’s important to share responsibility for learning effectiveness. If facilitating continuous learning is a part of everyone’s role, it becomes easier to integrate it organization-wide. Promote Cross-Departmental Collaboration and Responsibility To better align L&D efforts with overarching business goals, learning executives have to participate in strategic conversations about organizational direction. For instance, when business leaders gather to discuss goals and KPIs for the coming year or quarter, HR and L&D leaders should be involved in those conversations. And the opposite is also true: Business leaders need to help direct the learning outcomes framed against those goals. According to the "Revolution is Now: New-Skill Your Workforce to Catalyze Change" survey from CPRL and HCI, only about half (51%) of learning leaders report being involved in these discussions. During these business planning discussions, it’s important to establish accountability, especially among people managers. CPRL and HCI found 67% of people managers report being involved in the creation of content, but only 47% are involved in the accountability for the results. By holding more people accountable to the success of L&D programs, it can be easier for a company to spot pitfalls or opportunities for improvement. It creates shared goals for measuring effectiveness, and establishes a process for making changes. For example, by getting people managers involved in L&D initiatives, L&D leaders can work with them to get a better understanding of a specific team’s skill gaps or what reskilling or new skilling solutions will work best for them. All leaders in an organization, in fact, should be eager to participate and own their team’s newskilling, reskilling or upskilling efforts. Ask a people manager in the IT department to reiterate the importance of learning to their team, and track the amount of time their employees spend on learning content. This approach will not only create a shared commitment to continuous learning, but can also help leaders outside of L&D and HR get a better idea of what content or formats work best for their teams and recommend adjustments accordingly. Continuous Learning Is Everyone’s Responsibility Aligning overarching business plans and strategy with learning and development efforts can improve each’s efficacy. The more cross-departmental collaboration that exists, the more information that HR and L&D leaders have about their workforce and its needs, strengths and weaknesses. And with more accountability, all stakeholders in an organization can become more involved in ensuring the successful partnership between L&D and a company’s overall strategy. To learn more about the findings from Cornerstone’s "The Revolution is Now: New-Skill Your Workforce to Catalyze Change" survey and its recommendations for using cross-departmental collaboration and accountability to help with L&D efforts, click here to download and read the full report.

Why supporting neurodiversity is essential for any successful workforce today

Blog Post

Why supporting neurodiversity is essential for any successful workforce today

When we think of diversity in the workforce, we typically think of it along the lines of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender. But focusing only on those four is its own sort of constraint. To truly create a successful and diverse workplace, you need to ensure you're also embracing neurodiversity too. Understanding neurodiversity In the late 1990s, a single mother in Australia named Judy Singer began studying Disability Studies at University of Technology Sydney. Her daughter had recently been diagnosed with what was then known as “Asperger’s Syndrome,” a form of autism spectrum disorder. As she read more and more about autism as part of her studies, Singer also suspected that her mother, and she herself, may have had some form of autism spectrum disorder. Singer describes crying as she realized that her mother, with whom she'd had a tumultuous relationship throughout her childhood, wasn’t purposefully cold or neurotic as she had thought. She just had a different kind of mind. In her honors thesis, Singer coined the term “neurodiversity.” For Singer, people with neurological differences like autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or dyslexia were a social class of their own and should be treated as such. If we are going to embrace diversity of race, gender, religion, sexuality, etc., then we must embrace a diversity of the mind. The following video is an excerpt from the "Neurodiversity" Grovo program, which is available in the Cornerstone Content Anytime Professional Skills subscription. Neurodiversity in today's workplace Recently, neurodiversity has become a trendy term in diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging spaces. And many organizations are working to hire more neurodivergent people, as well as give them opportunities to thrive at work. That’s why, at Cornerstone, we recently produced a series of lessons on neurodiversity. If your organization hasn’t prioritized neurodiverse inclusion yet, here are some reasons why it both supports your people and organization. 1) Neurodivergent people are underemployed Neurodivergent people, especially people with autism, are widely under-employed, regardless of their competence. In the United States, 85% of college graduates with autism are unemployed. According to a 2006 study, individuals with ADHD have higher rates of unemployment than individuals without. However, there is no evidence that neurodivergent people are less competent or less intelligent than neurotypical people. Organizations are missing out on talented people. 2) Neurodivergent people are more common than you may think Neurodiversity manifests in many different ways. It can encompass autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, Tourette syndrome, and many other conditions. And as scientists have learned more about what makes someone neurodivergent, they're identifying more and more people. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 160 children have some form of autism spectrum disorder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in every 162 children have Tourette Syndrome, and roughly 8 percent of children under 18 have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. And that's just children. How many adults, like Judy Singer's mother, have struggled their whole lives without a diagnosis? People who are neurodivergent are everywhere. Diverse organizations are stronger Diverse organizations and teams not only have better financial returns than less-diverse ones, but they also perform better. Having the different perspectives presented by people who are neurodivergent can help your team solve more difficult problems. Different perspectives and different ways of thinking lead to creativity and innovation.

Why Selecting a Leadership Development Program Is Way Too Complicated

Blog Post

Why Selecting a Leadership Development Program Is Way Too Complicated

Many organizations face a leadership gap and cannot find the talent needed to grow. We could blame the retiring baby boomer phenomenon, the free agent nation, or the lack of investment made in developing leaders. But since blame is a lazy man’s wage, I will not entertain that debate because there are too many options out there for developing leaders. There are many leadership development programs in the market. In minutes, with a simple Internet search or over coffee with your head of human resources, you can discover myriad high-quality leadership development programs that you could use in your organization to develop leaders. The problem is not finding a good program, but in choosing one. Answer the Right Questions So how does one choose? The problem we face in evaluating leadership development programs is that we get caught up in evaluating the content rather than asking a simple question, "What do we want our leaders to be able to do?" Each organization is unique in how it answers this question. And that is where the secret lies. If an organization can select a program that matches the answer to the question above, the selected program will likely be the right one. After all, each leadership development program is very good in some way. It is not so important which one you select. It is important that you use the one you select. In other words, the key is to not let it become another un-opened binder on the bookshelves of your management team. Be An Effective Leader Let me give you an example: If an organization’s answer to the question above is, "We want our leaders to be proactive and focused on the things that drive results," your choices are narrowed down to only a few programs that would deliver on that answer. And if I had to pick one program that would deliver on that answer, without hesitation, I would choose, "The Effective Executive" by Peter F. Drucker. It is a classic, and all five of the behaviors of effective executives taught in the book remain vital skills that any leader should practice if he or she wants to be effective in his or her organization. In the book, Drucker teaches that effective executives: Know where their time goes Focus on contribution and results Build on strengths Concentrate on first things first Make effective decisions This is not a book review or a plug for "The Effective Executive," though I do believe if you had to choose one set of skills to teach your leadership, it would be the five from Drucker’s book. This is a challenge for every organization to simplify the selection of leadership development programs, and ask, "What do we want our leaders to be able to do?" Answering this question clearly will help you choose the right program. After all, many programs are excellent. The secret to success is not in which program you choose, but that you get people to apply the program you choose. Photo: Can Stock

Schedule a personalized 1:1

Talk to a Cornerstone expert about how we can help with your organization’s unique people management needs.

© Cornerstone 2022