The traditional workplace model was hierarchical, inflexible, and authoritative, and some organizations still cling to it. But, for many companies, modernizing and staying competitive means embracing a culture of open communication, collaboration, flexibility, and mutual respect.
So how can you tell if your workplace is prioritizing cultural safety? This is not about protecting basic rights and avoiding litigation: it’s about going above and beyond the law.
From HR’s office you can do your best to help and support employees, but they need to know their rights: what they can ask for, what situations are legally and ethically not okay, and what they’re guaranteed. Share this post (and our guide to cultural safety principles for employees) to help them get familiar with their legal and professional protections.
Legal workplace protections
There are a number of government agencies and acts of congress that have laid out how people must be treated in their places of employment and violations of these statutes may be illegal. As an employee, you have a number of rights and protections in the workplace that were created to keep you safe.
These include the right to be free from discrimintation and harassment, the right to a safe workplace, “whistleblower” rights, and the right to fair wages.
Right to be free from discrimination and harassment
Harassment is unwanted conduct that affects the dignity of individuals in the workplace and creates a hostile or degrading environment. When harassment is related to personal characteristics such as gender, race, age, national origin, or other traits, this also constitutes discrimination. According to studies, at least 20% of American workers report being harassed or discriminated against.
Right to a safe workplace
Physical safety means providing safe and hazard-free working conditions and creating an environment that is comfortable and appropriate for employees. The US Department of Labor has more than 180 laws in place to protect workers and governs health, workplace compensation, and union regulations.
Retaliation is targeting an employee for dismissal, demotion, or harassment after they have filed a complaint. In 2019, over half of the charges alleging workplace discrimination listed retaliation as the cause and three-quarters of sexual harassment charges filed with EEOC include a charge of retaliation.
Right to fair wages
The pay gap in the US is narrowing, but according to the Pew Research Center, women still earn about 15% less than men. Aside from gender, other categories protected under the law include gender identity and expression, race, sexual orientation, marital status or parenthood, and age.
In the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, legislators stipulate that employees must be paid according to their seniority, achievements, education, experience, or other equitable factors, and not on the basis of protected categories.
Above and beyond the law—defining employers’ ethical obligations
Upholding law is only one small aspect of fostering cultural safety in the workplace. As an employee, there are some things that your company should be doing to ensure that you and your colleagues are given the opportunities and tools to succeed, feel valued, and actively contribute to organizational achievements.
Here are some things to look out for in a culturally safe workplace:
An existing code of conduct
Not only does a code of conduct codify acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, but it also defines the organization’s culture. Setting aside time and resources for creating a code of conduct is a positive indicator for an organization’s cultural safety.
Clear red lines
Harassment, discrimination, and bullying can be subtle. This is why an organization committed to cultural safety gives clear guidelines about what is acceptable and what is over the line. Some of the behaviors that should be clearly proscribed are:
- Insulting or demeaning comments
- Sharing privileged information
- Exclusion or unfair treatment
- Overly critical supervision and micromanagement
- Sexual advances of any kind
- Threatening comments of any kind
Hiring practices promoting diversity and inclusion
A 2019 CompTIA survey showed that 64% of respondents agree that a homogeneous workforce is less innovative than a diverse and inclusive one. A culturally safe work environment enables employees from all walks of life to thrive and actively contribute to company strategy and growth—and this starts at hiring.
Accessibility and inclusivity
Making accommodations for employees with disabilities and implementing equal opportunity hiring policies promotes cultural safety and should be a priority for any organization. This includes making the digital workspace accessible to individuals with hearing or vision impairments.
Offering robust health insurance and an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) shows that an organization prioritizes employee wellbeing. Beyond 100% health coverage, EAPs offer free, anonymous mental health counseling, compassionate leave, and other benefits to employees in distress beyond comprehensive health insurance coverage.
Best practices for healthy work culture increasingly focus on the hybrid working model where employees divide their time between the office and home. Globally, over 50% of employees work outside of the office at least 2.5 days a week, and this is expected to grow in the coming years.
Defined roles and expectations
In a healthy organization, employees receive clear and reasonable tasks that highlight their unique skills and experience towards accomplishing company goals. When employees know what is expected and aren’t overwhelmed by unrealistic workloads or deadlines, they will be able to accomplish their tasks efficiently and without anxiety.
Teamwork and collaboration are hallmarks of a culturally safe workplace. Healthy teams won’t have in-fighting, gossip, cliquiness, and other behaviors that get in the way of cooperation, and good managers take a leading role in promoting cultural safety by scheduling regular sensitivity training.
Code of conduct
A code of conduct communicates an organization’s culture, values, risk areas, and reporting process. As the single source of truth for employees, managers, and other stakeholders, a code of conduct should clearly outline company ethics and detail policies regarding harassment, violence, and disciplinary actions. This is also an opportunity to communicate what health and safety services are available to employees.
Safe reporting practices
In a culturally safe workplace, people are encouraged to communicate what they are experiencing and voice their opinions and concerns without fear. Implementing anonymous reporting software such as Your Voice, gives employees greater confidence in reporting misconduct and empowers organizations to monitor and swiftly resolve complaints.
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Want to know about a company? Get online and dig into their reputation. Warning signs such as publicly filed complaints or lawsuits with the Better Business Bureau or EEOC, and other public records of litigation or official complaints against a company, are definite red flags. Job sites like Glassdoor or Indeed publish reviews that can often reveal the inner workings of a workplace, whether for good or for bad.
As an employee, you are entitled to basic legal protections, but beyond that you deserve respect, opportunities for growth, and ongoing support from the organization you work for. Managers, executive leaders, and HR are all directly responsible for fostering a healthy culture for the benefit of employees and to propel organizational success. By establishing policies that promote workplace cultural safety, a healthy organization creates an environment where individuals can thrive and bring their best selves to work.