Year after year, companies spend billions of dollars on expanding employee benefits in the hopes of diversifying their workforce and improving retention. Examples of this effort abound. While only 17% of employers offered paid parental leave in 2016, the numbers are shifting as employers are realizing that supporting parents in the 21st century workplace is critical for retaining working mothers and fathers alike. The trend is reflected in LinkedIn’s Top Companies, many of which have expanded their leave policies in the last year.
Parental leave isn’t the only policy area where companies have made big investments. 56% of HR professionals surveyed by SHRM said that their companies offer flexible work arrangements, and spend on diversity and inclusion programs is in the millions of dollars (and rising).
These policy-based solutions are a step in the right direction, but, put simply: they’re not enough. Where policies fall short is the lack of support they provide individuals during critical times of transition, while tackling challenging situations, and managing overall mindset. Take diversity and inclusion, for instance: hiring a diverse workforce is an excellent plan, but simply doing so, without supporting programs, can actually do more harm than good.
How can we amplify the well-intentioned policies our HR teams are trying to put into place? The answer lies in committing to a longer-term organizational shift in culture, not policy.
There’s been a tremendous push, both by companies, and legislatively, for better policies to support people at work. For companies, retention is a critical competitive advantage — after all, replacing a manager can cost your company anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000. Common knowledge (and data) point to the fact that better policies lead to happier, more engaged, and less stressed out employees. And there has been plenty of evidence to suggest that these changes do move the needle. But that’s just a piece of the puzzle.
Take a closer look at diversity and inclusion programs. Companies that are ethnically-diverse, according to McKinsey research, are 35% more likely to outperform those that are not. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that these same policies, alone, can make white men feel threatened, and do little to make workplace culture feel more “fair.” Similarly, parental leave policies simply cannot prepare new mothers and fathers for the shock of returning to work, nor can they address that the modern workforce hasn’t exactly caught up with the cultural shifts associated with parenting. Author Laura Vanderkam writes, “Those first few months are only the start of a complicated journey.”
Meanwhile, flexible work policies, while boosting productivity and well-being, also suffer from drawbacks: many aren’t uniquely tailored to individual needs, for example. The result is that companies waste money enabling new ways of working that never get used. These policies can also create a group of “second-class” citizens who feel excluded from the core work culture and other opportunities.
So should you scrap your well-intentioned policies? Absolutely not. What you should do is address higher level questions about your organization’s ultimate goals, and how you can systematically change culture in a way that allows these policies to truly support your workforce over the long-term.
Employers often make a critical mistake when it comes to policy change: implementing policies that simply sound good, without mapping those policy changes to the behavior changes that will inevitably demand a shift. Consider an organizational effort to establish a Psychologically Safe workplace: without leadership modeling, and progressive learning by everyone on the team, the effort falls flat.
Diversity starts with inclusivity, and not the other way around.
When it comes to retaining employees, it’s important to talk the talk, and walk the walk. With parental leave for example, senior leadership must “demonstrate that it’s safe to take it.” For diversity and inclusion programs, managers have to spend the “time crafting messages and designing programs that are more effective because they come across as more inclusive.” Diversity starts with inclusivity, and not the other way around.
So what does effective organizational support for a policy look like? First, it has to show up from the top down. Leadership has a critical role to play in shifting the organizational culture and establishing new norms, like encouraging working parents to feel comfortable leaving the office early.
The behaviors of core managers and individual contributors are where these changes either succeed or fail.
But it’s the bottoms up/middle out change that often gets overlooked. Top-down organizational change initiatives fail 70% of the time for this reason*. The behaviors of core managers and individual contributors are where these changes either succeed or fail.
So how does an organization encourage behavior change at the core? Coaching can support people in achieving the changes they seek. Coaches are able to work one-on-one with individuals to come up with a personalized plan and goals that are uniquely tailored to each person, and address what they need in every stage of their life. For example, for a remote employee wanting to feel motivated and involved, a coach can work on strategies to better communicate across time zones. For parents, a coach can help individuals build on strengths and set interim goals.
One of the most important business outcomes that’s driving the implementation of these policies is undoubtedly, retention. Every company hopes to not lose talent, especially given the investment they’ve already made in recruiting, hiring, and training.
A parental leave policy is meant to enable someone to more easily come back to work after they have a new child. But if parents don’t take that leave, or they take it but have no desire to return to work after they do, the leave itself becomes irrelevant.
Coaching builds the psychological resources needed to help individuals navigate the specific challenges they each face.
How does support for middle managers translate into retention? Whether your target audience is new parents, remote workers, new managers, or women leaders, each of these people have specific needs and challenges that threaten to interfere with their level of engagement with and commitment to their workplace. At the psychological level, coaching builds the psychological resources needed to help these individuals successfully and confidently navigate the specific challenges they each face.
Decades of research have shown that improving those psychological resources can have a significant and positive impact on both performance and retention. And being a member of a team whose leader has the psychological resources to lead others through times of challenge will increase retention for the team’s members, too. Stressful life events, like having a new child; and stressful work environments, test our own resources and those of the team around us. Coaching shores up our capacity to thrive under pressure, and to remain committed and connected to our work.
Policy is an important first step in creating cultural change, but alone, it won’t really lead to organizational transformation. To reap the business benefits of policy changes, organizations need to invest in support for the core. So by all means, go ahead and improve and enhance your policies. But don’t forget that for long-term change, the continuous support of a coach can help you more visibly move the needle.
*Source: Blackburn et al., 2011; Burnes & James, 1994; Washington & Hacker, 2004.
Many thanks to Dr. Gabriella Kellerman Rosen for her insights and guidance on this article.
Original art by Theo Payne.