Dr. Angela Workman-Stark: Creating more inclusive workplaces
The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have highlighted that discrimination and harassment are serious concerns for organizations in Canada and in other parts of the world.
Dr. Angela Workman-Stark, a researcher with the Athabasca University (AU) Faculty of Business, has focused her work on identifying the factors that contribute to these harmful workplace behaviours and how they might be addressed.
Where it all began
Prior to joining AU, Workman-Stark spent 24 years with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, retiring as a Chief Superintendent in 2016. One of her last roles was to help shepherd the organization’s response to serious allegations of bullying and sexual harassment.
While the allegations of bullying and sexual harassment primarily originated from female employees, which prompted the organization to create more opportunities for women, she discovered through conversations with employees across the organization that minority members had experienced discrimination and harassment based on race, and in some instances based on both gender and race. There were elements of the RCMP organizational culture that were harmful to employees beyond gender-based experiences.
“What I found was that our focus on gender was much too narrow as it did not address workplace experiences involving different types of identities,” she said.
At the same time, she also learned that compliance-driven solutions, such as mandatory harassment or diversity training, which are often required for legal reasons, do little to address the actual problems. As a senior leader in the organization and someone who had been entrusted with hundreds of stories from employees, she felt compelled to do more. Ultimately, this led to her resignation from the RCMP to pursue an academic career in which she could focus on researching and teaching about these complex issues.
“In my work thus far, I have found that many responses to discrimination and harassment tend to assume that much of the solution involves dealing with so-called ‘rotten apples’ within organizations,” she said. “While this is important, so too is gaining a broader understanding of the factors that might be contributing to these harmful workplace behaviours. Is there an opportunity to address issues proactively by identifying aspects of the working environment, such as policies and practices, or other factors (both internal and external) that might be contributing these types of behaviours?”
We are more alike than we are different
Whether it is here in Canada or abroad, her research seeks to better understand the factors that either augment or diminish discrimination, harassment, and other harmful workplace behaviours. Although her main focus has been on the role of gender in male-dominated organizations, she stresses that all people, no matter their diverse identities, want to be accepted and valued.
According to Workman-Stark, people typically come into organizations with preconceptions of the ‘ideal worker’ and when organizational norms imply that certain employees are valued over others, such as white, heterosexual men, these norms can reinforce traditional ideas of social status, as defined by age, gender, race, and class. Therefore, when someone is experiencing some form of identity threat or seeking to advance over others, they may strike out at others who are perceived to be lower end of the social hierarchy.
“I’ve learned that psychological safety is really important. Creating an environment in which people can speak up, ask for help, admit mistakes, or bring forth tough challenges is incredibly important.”– Dr. Angela Workman-Stark
Promoting more inclusive and just workplaces
“It’s not just about fixing rotten apples,” Workman-Stark said. “Culture change is about leadership. To promote a more inclusive and just organization, it starts with the leaders within the organization.”
In addition to implementing robust harassment policies, and policies and practices that promote fairness and inclusion, change also requires a willingness to listen to voices we may not agree with. At the end of the day, she noted that it is up to leaders to create a safe space in which people can reflect on past experiences and learn from them without fearing exclusion or retaliation from others.
“I’ve learned that psychological safety is really important,” she said. “Creating an environment in which people can speak up, ask for help, admit mistakes, or bring forth tough challenges is incredibly important.”
Instead of telling people what they are doing is wrong, Workman-Stark also suggested that leaders promote humble inquiry, which is the idea of asking questions we admittedly do not know the answer to as a means to build relationships with a diverse group of people and to gain a better understanding of complex issues.
What can each of us do to make a difference?
We are all a part of organizations, networks, and the broader society. Every person can challenge their preconceived notions and become more aware of internalized biases.
One of the exercises her students participate in as part of a diversity and inclusion course is to spend time with someone they normally would not associate with. The purpose of this exercise is to illustrate that when we deliberately make the effort to connect with others and have a genuine willingness to learn more about them, we are more likely to find that we have a lot more in common than we first may have thought.
Workman-Stark shared a disheartening yet insightful moment as her own example when she realized that she had been overlooking men, and even women, who were perceived to be too feminine for the hyper-masculine job of policing. She now uses this experience to look at people differently and to appreciate who they are as individuals rather than belonging to a particular identity group or groups.
We all have unconscious biases and most of them are negative. To create a more inclusive workplace and society, each one of us can start by asking ourselves some important questions:
“Am I ready to accept that I am likely to hold unconscious and/or conscious biases about some groups?”
“Am I ready to suspend my assumptions and be curious about others?
“Am I open to connecting and engaging with different types of people or people that I might not normally associate with?”
“Am I open to different points of view?”
“What can I do differently to create a more inclusive environment for others?”
We all have the power to promote positive change.