Equity vs. Equality in the Workplace: An HR’s Manual

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Equity vs. Equality in the Workplace: An HR’s Manual

While equity and equality sound similar, they are different concepts, whether in the context of the wider society or in the workplace. Let’s look at the differences between equity vs. equality in the workplace and how you can shift from equality toward equity within your organization.

Contents
What is equality in the workplace?
What does equity mean in a workplace?
What is the difference between equity and equality in the workplace?
Why equity in the workplace matters
Making the shift: How to move from equality to equity in your workplace

What is equality in the workplace?

Put simply, equality in the workplace is about treating all (candidates and) employees the same and offering them the same opportunities, regardless of their age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and other demographics. 

An example of workplace equality linked to recruitment is that all candidates get the same amount of time to complete a work assignment as a part of the hiring process.

Equity vs Equality in the Workplace
Read on to learn how you can make the transition from equality to equity in the workplace below.

What does equity mean in a workplace?

Equity in the workplace is about offering all (candidates and) employees the same opportunities while taking into account their individual needs for specific support or resources and their intersectionalities.

Let’s go back to our recruitment example. Equity here means that all candidates get the same work assignment but that people with, for instance, dyslexia get more time to complete the assignment. This means they have extra time to read and understand the instructions hence truly leveling the playing field.

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What is the difference between equity and equality in the workplace?

Equality and equity are often used interchangeably. However, this isn’t desirable if you want to build a workplace that champions diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

We’ve included some examples that illustrate the difference between equity and equality in the workplace in practice.

EqualityEquity
(Physical) accessAll employees have access to the same resources and spaces within the organization.Equitable access means that you also think about how different people within your business can use physical spaces and resources. As ADP’s Principal Future of Work Giselle Mota points out, it includes looking at accessibility in Web3 and the metaverse, too.

So, what does this look like? Consider how accessible your meeting rooms or restrooms are for people in a wheelchair, for example. Or how accurate the closed captions you use in company presentations are. Have you already asked your employees who are deaf or hard of hearing about this?
Employee benefitsAll employees get the same benefits package providing them with, for instance, child care support, basic health insurance, and a pension plan.To a certain extent, employees can choose what benefits suit them best according to their specific situation. I.e., a man in his early twenties with no kids yet and health insurance via his partner might want more salary instead to spend on the things he enjoys in life.

Both women and men might want a company’s bereavement policy to also include leave after miscarriage or abortion instead of ‘just’ when a close family member passes away.

Another example of equitable benefits is having spousal health insurance that’s available to same-sex couples and non-traditional families as well.
IncentivesEvery person in the organization that hits their KPIs for the year gets to go on the company’s annual ‘top-performers’ skiing trip.Event-based incentives such as an annual company skiing trip might isolate certain people. Either because they have never been skiing before, cannot ski due to health reasons, cannot go due to family reasons, or because they don’t drink alcohol and therefore dread the apres skiing drinks. 

Financial incentives and/or an employee recognition program are more inclusive alternatives.

Why equity in the workplace matters

Four in five employees want to work for a company that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. Shifting your approach from treating your employees equally to treating them equitably helps you become a better employer and a competitive business. Here’s how:

Creating an inclusive and productive work environment

If you’re building a truly equitable workplace, you’re much more likely to foster an inclusive work environment, too. In such an environment, people feel safe and not afraid to show their real personalities. Their talents and aspirations, but also their insecurities, doubts, and worries. In other words, a place where everybody can bring their whole self to work and freely express their opinion.

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Another, almost natural consequence of being in an equitable and inclusive work environment is that people are more productive. That’s because when you consider people’s individual needs, they are more likely to feel included and empowered to perform at their best. On top of that, they’re (better) equipped to progress in their career.

Different perspectives support innovation

When people have equitable access to opportunities, they feel comfortable contributing to discussions, sharing their ideas, etc. Looking at challenges from multiple perspectives is known to spark innovation and help with problem-solving. 

Imagine this. You’re hard of hearing, and your manager has just shared a presentation about next year’s strategy with you and the rest of the team. The presentation includes various short videos without closed captions. This makes it very hard for you to fully understand the key pillars of the strategy, let alone share your view on it. 

Conversely, being able to understand the strategy, you’re able to provide a different perspective and contribute with ideas.

Employee retention

Companies with inclusive (and equitable) cultures have 22% lower turnover rates. People who work in an equitable, inclusive, and productive environment are typically more engaged and tend to stay with their organization for longer.

Making the shift: How to move from equality to equity in your workplace

While equal treatment and equal opportunity might sound like a fair approach at the first glance, if you neglect catering to the different needs of your employees, they will not be able to reach their full potential. Here’s how to start transitioning to equitable practices at your organization:

1. Consider the different stages of the employee life cycle

Looking at your employee life cycle is an excellent start to structure your efforts. Ask yourself:

  • How are equality and equity present in the various stages of the employee life cycle, from attraction all the way to the happy leavers stage? 
  • How can you make the people experience more equitable? Consider, for example, recruitment, onboarding, L&D opportunities, and various company policies.

“One aspect of this is really looking at the whole person in terms of our own talent management approach. It’s their skills, their aspirations, their strengths, their affinities. And this also creates much more equity. 

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If we provide access based on skills, for example, things like qualifications from colleges and universities are great, but often focused solely on degrees or certificates, overlooking the skills that people gain throughout their lives, whether it’s volunteering and so forth. 

So I think as we look forward, we want to make sure that we’re taking into account the whole person,” says Amy Goldfinger, SVP, Global Talent, Workforce Strategy and OD at Walmart.

2. Gather feedback

Solicit feedback from candidates and employees on how they’ve experienced your recruitment process and how they see your overall people experience.  

Use the various stages of your employee life cycle again to structure your feedback-gathering efforts. Ways to do this can include: 

First, it’s important to ensure that your survey is accessible. You can check with your survey vendor how they ensure the accessibility of the surveys. For example, do they utilize text alternatives for non-text online content? Is it possible to enlarge the text? If you’re creating your own surveys, review accessibility principles for websites and online tools.

Once you’ve done this, you can continue your survey. Examples of questions that can help you learn about the state of equity in the various stages of the employee life cycle at your organization can include the following: 

  • Rate the following statements on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being ‘Strongly Disagree’, and 5 being ‘Strongly Agree.’ 
    • The learning and development program and how to access it at [name company] is transparent to all employees. 
    • Everyone, regardless of their background, age, race, gender, and other characteristics, has equitable opportunities for learning and development at [name company].
    • I feel supported in my learning and development at [name company].

These question examples focus on the development phase of the employee life cycle, but you can easily rephrase them for any other stage of the cycle.

3. Focus on pay equity

Pay equity is probably one of the most visible parts of equity. Put simply, the core idea of pay equity is that employees should be paid the same if they are doing work of equal value. This means that the different roles are equal in terms of effort and skill.

For example, if a company employs male warehouse operatives and female clerical assistants, both should be paid the same – unless there is a good reason for a difference. Good reasons for differences in pay could include tenure and qualifications.

Pay equity is essential not only because you want to pay your employees fairly but also because you must comply with local laws and regulations. 

A good way to find out where you’re at regarding pay equity is by conducting a pay equity analysis. It allows you to uncover where the gaps are and come up with strategies to close these gaps.

Another thing you can do is not ask applicants about their salary history. Multiple US states have already banned this. Research shows that salary history bans have led to salary increases of 6.2% and 5.9% for job-changing women and non-White people, respectively.

4. Build a diverse leadership bench

In order to get one step closer to workplace equity, you need to foster diversity in organizational leadership and management. A few good strategies to do this include:

A critical note here is in order, however. All of these things sound wonderful in theory but are a little more complicated in reality. Too often still, bias, managers working their way around performance systems (hence lowballing people from underrepresented groups), and counterproductive grievance systems lead to a less diverse leadership group in organizations. 

For example, a survey by Gartner showed that 88% of DEI leaders perceive bias in their organization’s promotions and/or succession processes.  

Some companies are tackling this by redefining who in the company has the potential to be a successor. Instead of looking for an individual that is very much like the person who is leaving and considering the manager’s opinion, they select future leaders based on 360-degree feedback.

Also, many organizations are dropping unnecessary educational requirements and implementing skills assessments to get an accurate picture of potential successors.

5. Determine how to measure equity and track progress

It’s important to keep track of the progress you’re making toward building an equitable organization. So, put metrics in place that help you determine how well you’re doing (or not). Here are a few things you can do:

  • Use equity measures that look something like this depending on the various stages of the employee life cycle: 
    • % of candidates who believe they are treated fairly, equitably, and with respect when it comes to the recruitment process. 
    • % of employees who feel they are treated fairly, equitably, and with respect during the onboarding process.
    • % of employees who believe they are treated fairly, equitably, and with respect when it comes to learning and development opportunities in the organization.  
    • % of employees who feel their compensation and benefits are fair for their role, experience, and industry standards.
  • Set SMART goals to motivate your People Team but also to make your objectives a lot more tangible.
    • For example: “Increase the percentage of candidates who believe they were treated fairly, equitably, and with respect during the recruitment process to 80% by the end of the year”.   
  • Based on the results you get, you can improve your equity efforts further and continue building an increasingly equitable organization. 

Before you go

Building an equitable work environment requires a lot of effort. It’s definitely not a one-and-done either. Rather, it’s a continuous process of gathering feedback, optimizing where necessary, and starting the cycle again.

When done well, though, becoming an equitable employer means providing an inclusive space where your employees can thrive while also helping your organization keep its people for longer and reaping the business benefits.

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