HR leaders: Stop paying ‘lip service to gender, racial parity’

Laurie Ruettimann doesn’t mince words.

When asked her outlook on gender parity in corporate leadership, she didn’t sugarcoat things: “I’m not optimistic. According to the World Economic Forum, a woman would have to be born in the year 2255 to get equal pay at work. I’m irritated. How about we speed this up, OK?”

Related: How’s the world’s most admired companies drive D&I

That straight talk will be at the heart of the closing session of Women in HR Tech this fall, as Ruettimann moderates a discussion on the long game of achieving gender parity in leadership ranks, which will feature PlanSource’s Nancy Sansom and Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Tomya Watt. The speakers will discuss the progress and pitfalls of gender equity in the workplace and share their personal experiences climbing the corporate ladder, a journey that, for Ruettimann–a corporate trainer, speaker and author–has taken some interesting turns, which she recently shared with HRE.

HRE: You’ve written that, in your early days as an HR leader, you “hated” your job. What are some of the experiences or environments that contributed to that feeling?

Laurie Ruettimann

Ruettimann: I jumped into my first HR job in 1995 because I needed the money and was immediately frustrated by managers and supervisors who felt their leadership was a birthright and a blessing. These powerful individuals brought all of their opinions and biases to the workplace, and if you didn’t like it, you could quit.

I wanted to quit, but I needed to pay off my student debt. And I convinced myself to continue working in these terrible environments because I was the hero. I’d say things like, “They’re lucky I work in HR. Without me, who knows what shenanigans would happen.” But I was lying to myself. At best, I was operating in a state of learned helplessness and a victim of my own low expectations. At worst, I was complicit in propagating toxic cultures and unfair labor practices.

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Ruettimann: Back in 2019, the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation and doubled down on stakeholder capitalism. Gone are the days where “shareholder value” is the way to measure the health and success of an organization. Instead, corporations have an obligation to do right by employees, contractors, vendors, suppliers, the local community and even the planet.

We’re in the very early stages of this shift, but if the purpose of the corporation is to be a responsible partner and citizen, it creates a new set of expectations for how companies should do everything–from recruiting and performance management to how they lobby governments and implement automation initiatives. In that way, EX becomes part of a company’s guiding principles and not just an HR initiative. I like that.

HRE: In your corporate training work, what are some of the common mindset mistakes you see CEOs and CHROs making when it comes to managing the employee experience?

Ruettimann: The No. 1 mistake I see is “platform FOMO,” especially when the price-per-employee costs less than the hard work of auditing your organization and addressing bias, discrimination or even just inconsistent employee experiences.

See also: How to boost employee experience during a crisis

Ruettimann: There’s no webinar or off-the-shelf solution that will create transparent pay practices, safeguard our workforce against bullying, include disparate voices in workplace conversations or offer a sense of belonging to our underrepresented employees. If you want to manage and improve the employee experience, the first step is often listening and then apologizing for not delivering the experience your workforce sorely deserves.

HRE: We’re in unprecedented times, as the coronavirus pandemic is rapidly reshaping the world of work. What impact do you think that will have on employee experience–both what employees expect and what employers are willing to deliver?

Ruettimann: I’m not worried about what COVID-19 will do to the employee experience. I’m worried about how people mentally link their worth to their work. Even if you never work another day in your life, you deserve the basics: food, shelter, healthcare and the opportunity to use your strengths to contribute to society. The coronavirus gives us an opportunity to rethink work, redefine compensation and create incentives for people to follow their passions and learn new skills.

HRE: The social unrest over issues of racial inequality is also becoming central in workplace conversations. How do you think such shifts will impact employee experience? And what steps should HR leaders be taking now to respond?

Ruettimann: I’m a firm believer in Marshall Goldsmith’s old saying, “What got you here won’t get you there.”

Up until a month ago, very few human resources professionals felt comfortable talking about politics and social justice at work. How do we suddenly turn around and ask those very same HR leaders to help move our organizations forward? It doesn’t make any sense.

I think HR must take a long, hard look at itself and ask if they’re the ones who can truly deliver on the promise of a fair and equitable employee experience. And if you’re creating policies and programs that are rooted in fairness and inclusivity, and you’ve implemented sophisticated HR tools, do you really need HR? Or can people finally start to govern themselves?

HRE: How do you think the long-term impacts of the pandemic–recession, more companies working from home, etc.–will impact efforts to advance gender parity and address issues of gender inequality in the workplace?

Ruettimann: Historically, executives and leadership teams use economic downturns to hoard wealth and consolidate power. But there are just four black CEOs running Fortune 500 companies in America, and only 37 women, so I’m not even optimistic that those current CEOs can be greedy!

Some people believe #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter will push companies to embrace transparency and walk the talk when it comes to fairness, diversity, inclusion and governance. Here’s what I know: HR has paid lip service to gender and racial parity throughout my entire career, and I will be pleasantly surprised if things change.

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HRE: As one of HRE and HR Tech’s Top 100 HR Tech Influencers, what emerging technologies do you think hold the most promise in efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Ruettimann: It’s an honor to be named one of HRE and HR Tech’s Top 100 HR Tech Influencers this year. I’m such a trailblazer and a feminist that I just yell my husband’s name when I want to watch Netflix and Hulu because we have too many remotes for our TV.

Many of my colleagues are excited about continuous-listening tools to promote and enhance the employee experience. I understand how corporations want to be agile, nimble and responsive; however, I think excessive workforce surveillance is creepy. Instead, I’m still excited about the mobile and social web. They say that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Let’s get a little digital sunshine in more of our workplaces, and we’ll see how fast we make progress in corporations around the world.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].