Category Archives: diversity

Overcoming the Barriers Disabled Americans Face

On July 26, it will be 25 years since George H. W. Bush signed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act, legislation that prohibited discrimination in employment, public accommodation and a number of other areas.

ThinkstockPhotos-457783527At the time of the signing, the president said …

“I know there may have been concerns that the ADA may be too vague or too costly, or may lead endlessly to litigation. But I want to reassure you right now that my administration and the United States Congress have carefully crafted this Act. We’ve all been determined to ensure that it gives flexibility, particularly in terms of the timetable of implementation; and we’ve been committed to containing the costs that may be incurred … . Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

Whether or not that “shameful wall of exclusion” has actually fallen is debatable. But with the release on Wednesday of a study titled the 2015 Kessler Foundation National Employment and Disability Survey, there’s now further evidence that people with disabilities are striving to work and are having some success in overcoming many of the barriers that have stood in the way. (Kessler unveiled the results to policymakers on Capitol Hill.)

Take the following finding in this study of 3,013 Americans with disabilities that was commissioned by the West Orange, N.J.-based Kessler Foundation and conducted by the University of New Hampshire: Nearly 69 percent of those surveyed are either working, looking for work or have worked since the onset of the disability.

“This clearly demonstrates that people with disabilities are ready and able to contribute their talents in the workforce,” says Kessler Foundation President and CEO Rodger DeRose.

Diving a little deeper into the data, the researchers found that Americans with disabilities who are employed work an average of 35.5 hours per week, with just over 60 percent of those working more than 40 hours per week.

The research did confirm, as might be expected, that many Americans with disabilities continue to encounter formidable barriers as they look for work, with the top three being the lack of sufficient education or training, employers that assume they can’t do the job and the lack of transportation. Then, once in the workplace, they face hurdles such as getting less pay than others in a similar job, negative attitudes of supervisors and negative attitudes of co-workers.

But, as mentioned earlier, the report does go on to make the point that a substantial percentage of the respondents are successfully overcoming many of these challenges. Of the 36 percent who reported employers assumed they couldn’t do a job, for instance, around 33 percent said they were able to overcome that barrier. Similarly, of the nearly 17 percent who said they were getting less pay than others in similar positions, nearly 39 indicated they were able to surmount that hurdle.

Earlier today, I asked John O’Neill, director  of employment and disability research at the Kessler Foundation, which of the findings surprised him most.

O’Neill specifically cited the finding that transportation may not be as significant a barrier as some have previously contended.

“When people think of barriers to job search, transportation is one of the first things to come to mind,” he says. “Yet of those looking for jobs, only 25 percent said they faced that barrier. Add, on top of that, that 42 percent of those facing that barrier had overcome it, and it would seem to be not as looming an issue as many people might have thought in the past.”

As for a takeaway for HR leaders, O’Neill points to the attitudes of supervisors and co-workers.

Roughly 16 percent of those with disabilities cited they had experienced barriers resulting from supervisors’ attitudes and about the same proportion experienced barriers resulting from co-workers’ attitudes, he says. But when you ask them about their ability to overcome those barriers, he adds, about 41 percent reported they were able to do so and 54 percent reported the same, respectively.

“Those figures,” he says, “are higher than I would have thought—and says that, while they’re [still] issues, people are finding ways to negotiate and work with their supervisors in terms of how they are being perceived.”

There no question a lot more work needs to be done when it comes to ridding the workplace of the many and varying barriers facing those with disabilities. But it’s also nice to see new research suggesting they aren’t insurmountable.

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Choosing Between Faith and Work

By now, most everyone has heard of or read about the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8-1 decision in favor of Samantha Elauf, the woman who brought suit against clothier Abercrombie & Fitch, claiming the company did not offer her a job because her religious identity violates Abercrombie’s “look policy.”

In the opinion for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote:

“An applicant need show only that his need for an accommodation was a motivating factor in the employer’s decision, not that the employer had knowledge of his need.”

While the Court’s decision may introduce changes in the way employers screen and hire applicants in future, Simran Jeet Singh, the senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition and a PhD candidate at Columbia University, writes in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that the ruling also serves as an opportunity to “improve existing legislation on workplace discrimination and religious freedom.”

Singh says Elauf also demonstrated that she recognizes her case would have bearing for a number of different communities. “I am not only standing up for myself, but for all people who wish to adhere to their faith while at work,” she said, following the oral arguments. “Observance of my faith should not prevent me from getting a job.”

Indeed, according to Singh:

Americans are one step closer to not having to choose between their faith and their work.

On the employer side, however, the decision “dramatically” changes the standards that apply to employers, says Michael Droke, a Seattle-based partner at the international law firm Dorsey and Whitney’s labor and employment division, because it removes the requirement that an employee or applicant request a religious accommodation, if the employer’s motive is later deemed a violation of Title VII.

“The Abercrombie decision calls into question common provisions in many employee handbooks. Employers should immediately review their handbooks and policy manuals to determine those issues which could cause discrimination,” Droke says.

He also says the decision “reinforces the importance of involving the human resources function any time a protected class is, or could be, involved in making an employment decision.”

Droke notes the Abercrombie decision also reinforces the importance of manager training, all the way down to the lowest level in-store supervisor.

“Manager training is particularly important for companies with employees in a large number of locations,” he says. “Geographically dispersed companies, like Abercrombie & Fitch, often require location or regional management to make key employee decisions.  This case reemphasizes the need to give management the employee relations tools and knowledge they need to make lawful employment decisions.”

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Here’s an Overnight Cure for Bias?

Here’s a question you might want to ponder … or maybe even sleep on. Can we snooze our gender and racial biases away?

ThinkstockPhotos-163819282Well, apparently researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University thought enough about that question to conduct a study. And guess what? They found that biases can indeed be counteracted while people sleep.

In the study, posted this week on the Science magazine website, researchers found that information recently stored in the brain can be integrated with other information during sleep and transformed into stable representations through a process known as systems-level consolidation.

“Taking into consideration the role of sleep in memory consolidation, we adapted procedures for reducing implicit social biases and reactivating this training during sleep,” the researchers said.

You can read more about how the study was conducted at Science. But cutting to the chase, the researchers “reactivated counterbias information during sleep using subtle auditory cues that had been associated with counterbias training.”

In the study, electrodes recorded the brain activity of participants as they napped. Then, during periods of deep sleep, one of the sound cues from the association test was repeatedly played.

As Xiaoqing Hu — postdoctoral fellow at University of Texas at Austin and one of the study’s researchers — writes in a piece appearing on The Conversation: “Prior research on prejudice and stereotyping shows that extensive counter-bias training can lessen automatic stereotyping. Building on this bias reduction and sleep-based memory consolidation research, we aimed to test whether people can further process such counter-bias memories during sleep. Can such learning reduce long-lasting stereotypes and social biases?

The researchers found that pre-existing stereotypes associated with the sound cue replayed during sleep were significantly reduced when the participant woke up …

 “We were surprised that this sleep-based intervention was so powerful when participants woke up: the biases were reduced by at least 50 percent relative to the pre-sleep bias level. But we were also surprised at how long the effect lasted. At the one-week follow-up test, the sleep-based intervention was still effective: bias reduction was stabilized and was significantly smaller (approximately 20 percent) than its baseline level established at the beginning of the experiment.”

As you might expect, those involved in the research acknowledge more work is needed. So, at least for the time being, you might want to hold off retrofitting your nap room—for the few of you who  have one—to include this kind of intervention or adding a sleep component to next year’s bias-training program.

Let’s hope your bias-training efforts don’t already induce said sleep.

 

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Doing Good Through Better HR

doing goodChristine Bader, a former corporate social responsibility executive at BP, has an interesting piece up today at The Atlantic on the importance of a good HR department for companies that want to be better corporate citizens.

Bader, author of the 2014 book The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil (judging from the title, I assume it touches at least partly on her BP experience), cites companies such as auto-parts manufacturer Lear, Google and clothing company Eileen Fisher that take innovative approaches to HR to unleash their employees’ resourcefulness and creativity.

At Lear, Bader writes, CHRO Tom DiDonato did away with basing compensation on performance reviews, “realizing that the emphasis on pay created stress and stifled the candor that people need to improve and innovate.” Instead, the company now bases compensation on market conditions and awards equity and promotions for good performance.

Bader describes Google’s efforts to do away with unconscious bias through training that not only helps its employees recognize their own biases, but encourages them to step in and intervene when they see biased behavior toward others, Head of People Operations Laszlo Bock told her. The training isn’t being done entirely out of altruism, he said: People perform better when they feel more safe at work. However, Bader writes, if people are treating others more fairly at work, one hopes that will spill over into their lives outside the office.

At Eileen Fisher, the company’s long-term plan to improve the environmental and social sustainability of its supply chain depends on an intense spirit of collaboration within the organization — one that is carefully nurtured by HR, Bader writes. Eileen Fisher’s sustainability efforts are overseen by a team of leaders from different departments within the company who meet weekly by phone and monthly in person. “Traditionally, work evolves into buckets or silos; we help connect people so they can break down the silos,” Director of Leadership, Learning and Development Yvette Jarreau told Bader.

HR still has a reputation among too many people as a bureaucratic rut — a dark hole of stifling paperwork and mindless processes, writes Bader. But for companies that are trying to change for the better, she writes, a smart and flexible HR department is crucial.

 

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Watching Unconscious Bias at Work

watching workThere’s a theory that says men who assert themselves on the job gain respect for their take-charge attitudes, while women who do the same gain a reputation for being surly, difficult … or worse.

There’s also data supporting the existence of this phenomenon in the workplace, commonly referred to as unconscious bias.

A team of researchers expected to find more evidence of this type of bias in a recent study, working on the hypothesis that male employees who speak up regularly with suggestions or solutions would be viewed more positively by their managers than women who frequently offer input.

In evaluating 693 employees from 89 different credit union units, the study authors certainly found unconscious bias at work, in more ways than one.

For example, they determined that supervisors were “more likely to credit those reporting the same amount of voice if the employees have higher ascribed or assigned (by the organization) status-cued by demographic variables such as majority ethnicity and full-time work hours,” according to the study, recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The authors also found that, when certain groups of lower-status employees speak up more, “they cannot compensate for the negative effect of their demographic membership on voice recognition by their boss.”

This is all a very academic way of saying that input from full-time, non-minority employees with higher ranks and longer tenures seemed to carry more weight with supervisors in this particular study.

Gender was a factor as well, just not in the way the researchers anticipated.

In fact, the authors found that female employees’ contributions were valued as much as those of their male counterparts, if not more so.

They were careful to point out, however, that demographics may be at least partly responsible for this result. In a recent Washington Post article, the researchers note that women made up 80 percent of the employee base and more than 70 percent of the managerial ranks at the credit unions they evaluated.

“It was very dominantly female,” Taeya Howell, research scholar at New York University and study co-author, told the paper.

“It was just what we were able to get access to,” added Howell. “In a perfect world, we would hope gender would have no effect, but women were heard more than men [in this case], and it was because they were in the majority.”

But, putting the aforementioned percentages aside, this research seems to offer evidence that a greater number of women in leadership positions could help eliminate the idea that assertiveness and outspokenness are only positive traits when found in male employees.

“What this finding sort of says is, look, when you’re in an environment where the people above you are more like you, suddenly all those problems disappear,” James Detert, co-author of the study and a professor at Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, told the Post.

“It’s not causal proof,” continued Detert. “But isn’t that suggestive that, in fact, all this focus on how women are behaving is nonsense? When you put them in a situation where they’re in the majority, suddenly the focus on their behavior—Is it too meek? Is it inappropriate, too assertive?—seems unnecessary.”

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Intel’s Putting Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

dv1080001Intel Corp.’s Diversity in Technology Initiative that Intel CEO Brian Krzanich announced in January — and Senior Editor Andrew R. McIlvaine blogged about at the time — appears to be chugging along quite nicely.

In a speech delivered Wednesday at the Rainbow PUSH Silicon Valley Tech 2020 Summit, Krzanich announced some impressive progress, confirming he was dead serious four months ago when he presented plans to make Intel more representative of the U.S. population by 2020, with some $300 million dedicated to the effort.

For one, he told summit-goers, 41 percent of hires at Intel this year have been diverse, versus 32 percent last year. For another, 17 percent of senior hires in the first quarter of 2015 are underrepresented minorities and 33 percent are women, up from 6 percent and 19 percent in 2014, respectively.

He also announced that Intel has entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Oakland Unified School District to commit $5 million over the next five years to implement a comprehensive, “education-transformation solution” that will create a computer-science and engineering pathway for more than 2,400 students, with a graduating cohort of 600 students over the next five years.

“We knew we wanted to do something in K-12 education that targeted underrepresented minorities and we thought we should start in our own backyard,” Krzanich says in this USA Today piece about that initiative.

Lastly, he said Wednesday, his company has committed to spending $1 billion with diverse-owned businesses by the year 2020.

In her May 6 blog post about Krzanich’s update, Rosalind L. Hudnell, Intel’s vice president of human resources and director of diversity and inclusion, addressed some of the underlying philosophies behind this push:

“Improving the diversity of our workforce and the pipeline of students going into this field is not just the right thing to do.  It’s the critical thing to do.  The people who purchase and use technology come from all walks of life.

“Without employees with diverse backgrounds, opinions and problem-solving skills, Intel can’t properly address the needs of a diverse market. Diverse teams and companies lead to greater creativity, strategic thinking and innovation. Greater diversity also results in better products and smarter business decisions. So how do we get there? This is the hard part, because diversity is a complex issue.”

In many stories we’ve written over the years about meaningful workforce initiatives, diversity included, a repeating theme has been the need for top-down buy-in and commitment to occur if any of them are to succeed and if promised goals are to be met.

Nice to see that working so well in the Intel corner of Silicon Valley.

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Hiring Those with Autism Is Best Help You Can Give

This coming Wednesday, April 1, marks the beginning of National Autism Awareness Month 2015. (And no, this post has absolutely 181426919 -- autism awarenessnothing to do with the fun side of April 1. This post is absolutely serious.)

The following day, April 2, is World Autism Awareness Day, in case you need double impetus to give this more than just a passing thought — kind, indifferent or otherwise.

This United Nations site announces the 2015 theme for the World Autism Awareness Day as “Employment: The Autism Advantage.” It cites a surprising (to me) statistic, that more than 80 percent of adults with autism are unemployed.

Which is a shame for employers (maybe even shame on employers), considering this that follows from the U.N.:

“Research suggests that employers are missing out on abilities that people on the autism spectrum have in greater abundance than ‘neurotypical’ [a.k.a., neurologically typical] workers do — such as heightened abilities in pattern recognition and logical reasoning, as well as a greater attention to detail.”

We’ve certainly found similar evidence of special gifts employees with autism can bring to the workplace in features and news stories we’ve published in the near and not-so-near past. This 2013 feature, “Diversity of Thought,” quotes Marcia Scheiner, president and founder of the New York-based Asperger Syndrome Training and Employment Partnership, which helps college graduates with autism obtain professional positions.

As she puts it, individuals with autism can demonstrate excellent skills in a variety of areas when given a chance; many are incredibly loyal, tend not to leave their jobs, are detail-oriented and can be tremendously focused, which often leads to high productivity.

This feature, from 2010, “Aspies in the Workplace,” also highlights the gifts autistic workers can bring and the business sense it makes to hire them, as well as the adjustments employers can easily implement to ensure they’re comfortable and allowing those gifts to shine.

More recently, this piece by Mark McGraw from early last year provides proof of the therapeutic value employment brings to those with autism, and some very specific ways employers, and HR, can ensure the “win-win” for all. Clear communication and lots of structure, all three stories indicate, are key.

I’ve heard from experts — and from my oldest son, who teaches autistic high schoolers at a special school outside Philadelphia — that all too often, federal and state funding and services for autistic kids dry up, or at least substantially shrink, once they turn 21. It’s called “Aging Out,” as this piece in the New Jersey Monthly eloquently explains.

Those are the teens my son is teaching, the ones who will — in a few short years — be far more on their own than they are now, just trying to survive in a grueling, grown-up world. Many have great parental support, but parents don’t live forever and money for therapy, services and education doesn’t grow on trees.

For them, getting the chance to prove their value in a work environment that augments that chance has to be the biggest boost imaginable. Such a step toward security would surely quiet their parents’ nightmares as well.

Add to that the boost to the employer — not just in terms of work ethic and productivity, but reputation too — and the goal of turning that 80-percent unemployment figure on its ear becomes a big, beautiful no-brainer.

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Krawcheck Calls for Greater Diversity

Sallie Krawcheck

Sallie Krawcheck

The second day of SHRM’s Employment Law & Legislative Conference featured a morning talk by Sallie Krawcheck, a former high-profile Wall Street executive who’s now the chair of Ellevate, a New York-based mentoring network for women (formerly known as 85 Broads).

In describing her experiences as one of the few female leaders in an industry that continues to be dominated by white males, Krawcheck paid tribute to HR. “The first young man I had to fire threatened to kill me,” she said. “He said he would hunt me down in a dark alley. The second young man I had to fire insisted that I was doing so because I was actually in love with him. He suggested that I put him up in a love nest. So, I have a great deal of respect for what you in HR have to deal with.”

She also offered her own take on what led to the financial meltdown of 2008: “I don’t think it was greed so much as groupthink,” she said. “And what breaks groupthink? Diversity of thought.”

Krawcheck called on HR to “keep us honest, give us training on this, encourage us to have those courageous conversations where we say, ‘Dave, you interrupted Susie five times during her presentation, but you didn’t interrupt Bill once during his.’ ”

Companies today suffer from a surplus of mentoring opportunities for women but a deficit of sponsoring programs, she said, in which executives actively advocate for women in their careers. “Some companies are actually replacing their mentoring programs with sponsoring programs.”

Companies can demonstrate their commitment to diversity by making it a key developmental milestone, said Krawcheck. “Here’s a thought: Give responsibility for diversity to a high-potential white guy.”

Later on that day, a breakout session featured two board members from the National Labor Relations Board, who sought to explain the Board’s reasoning on controversial matters such as so-called “ambush elections” rule regarding union-certification elections.

“I’m told the best part of the new rule starts on page 500, where [Harry] Johnson and I write our dissent,” said Philip Miscimarra, who is — along with Johnson — one of the two Republican appointees to the five-member Board.

He and Johnson disagreed with the new elections rule on a number of different issues, particularly its dramatic compression of the time allowed between when a union files a certification petition and the election. “The [National Labor Relations Act] is silent with respect to timing,” said Miscimarra. “How fast is too fast, or how slow is too slow — it is silent on those issues.” He noted that both houses of Congress have passed a “resolution of disapproval” of the new rule — a resolution that could potentially nullify the rule should a Republican win the next presidential election and sign the resolution into law.

One of the most contentious issues the Board continues to wrestle with, said Miscimarra, is the extent to which companies have the right to restrict concerted activities by employees that could be considered as “disrespectful, discourteous or insubordinate.”

“Employers have been surprised to learn that rules they have in place for a good reason — rules that require employees to show courtesy and respect — are unlawful under our statute,” he said.  “I do hope the Board can do a better job of devising a standard in this area that people will find helpful.”

 

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Diversity, Leadership and Performance: i4cp Report

In HRE’s most-recent annual “What Keeps HR Executives Up at Night” survey, HR leaders ranked attracting and retaining diverse talent sixth on their list of top concerns, just below driving culture change and aligning people practices to business.

185905158Of course, it’s hardly a surprise attracting and retaining diverse talent would be a significant concern, considering the obvious benefits of employing a diverse workforce. But that said, there’s also little question employers have a lot more work to do on this front.

The link between diversity and business performance was one of many topics address during the i4cp 2015 Conference, held this week at the Fairmont Princess in Scottsdale, Ariz.

In his opening remarks, Kevin Oakes, CEO of i4cp, referenced a recent research report produced by the institute titled Diversity & Inclusion Practices that Promote Market Performance.

The research found high-performance organizations shared the following characteristics as far as D&I is concerned, including:

  • They make D&I part of the organization’s DNA;
  • They ground their D&I efforts in metrics, thereby spurring greater leadership buy-in;
  • They place greater emphasis on inclusion;
  • They have leaders who “seek awareness of differences” and “take action to establish relationships” that bridge gaps and build an understanding of differences.

Later in the morning, a panel featuring diversity leaders from CVS Health, W.W. Grainger and Lincoln Financial participated on a panel titled “Business Impact Diversity & Inclusion.”

Jacqui Roberson, senior director of inclusion and diversity for Grainger, noted that far too many organizations still operate in silos. In order for D&I initiatives to succeed, she said, employers need to get people to “cross over the lines.”

David Green, vice president of diversity at CVS Health, noted that having a CEO who gets it certainly doesn’t hurt.  Referring to CVS Health’s recent decision to remove tobacco from its store shelves, Green recalled how, soon after the decision was announced, his CEO came to him and said, “ ‘Just so you know, we need to make sure we’re thinking about what this means in helping [employees] quit tobacco. We need to be focused on multicultural communities, youth communities and lower-income communities.’ … I didn’t have to go knocking on his door to say, ‘What do you think about all those diverse communities.’ ”

At CVS Health, Green said, diversity operates as a separate function, but works closely with HR to ensure shared goals are in place and each group knows what the other is doing.

Altimeter Group Founder and Principal Analyst Charlene Li also explored some  key themes from her new book (released Tuesday, the day of her talk) during a session titled “The Engaged Leader: A Strategy for Digital Transformation.” (Her book shares the same title as the session.)

Technologies are changing the nature of relationships, Li said. Yet many leaders, she added, continue to be stuck in the old ways of doing things.

If organizations are going to thrive in the new digital era, she said, that’s going to need to change.

“Technologies come and go,” she said, “but leadership is [always going to be around] and something you need to have a long-term strategy about.”

In her talk, Li shared several examples involving companies that are using technologies to strengthen the link between leaders and employees.

One story she told involved the introduction of a new burger at restaurant chain Red Robin.  Soon after the launch, she said, leaders at Red Robin learned through the company’s internal social network that the burger wasn’t very good. Employees were saying on the site that “people were complaining about it” and “the burger was falling apart,” she said.

Listening to that feedback, Li said, the organization quickly realized it had a problem and leaders went back to employees for more details. “They then took [that feedback] back to corporate headquarters, cooked up a new recipe and brought it back to the restaurants in 30 days.”

To put this in context, Li said, “it usually takes 12 to 18 months to change a recipe and get it back to the restaurants, but they did it [in this case] in 30 days!”

As a result, she said, Red Robin didn’t just change the recipe. By recognizing the value these employees were delivering to the organization, she said, “they were able to change [the company’s] relationship with those employees.”

Value—or more precisely the “lack of it”—was one of the reasons behind Sears Holdings Corp.’s decision to begin to seriously revamp its performance-management system last year.

During a session titled “The Rise of the Crowd: How Social Platforms Can Drive Performance and Democratize Performance Management,” two Sears Holdings Corp. HR leaders detailed the retailer’s efforts to transform the way it does performance management.

Aimed at salaried workers, the new initiative is based on the work of Neuroleadership Institute Director David Rock and others.

“The old process was cumbersome and annual reviews were happening three or four months after the year had ended—so by the time we were having the conversation, things were stale,” recalled Phil Menzel, vice president of HR for SHC.

In contrast, Menzel said, the new system is much more agile and responsive.

Using a tool developed internally called GameOn, associates every quarter now sit down to identify up to five objectives for themselves.

The new system also features an online feedback tool called Soundboard, which is accessible to associates. “People can go on the tool and request feedback from anyone in the company or provide feedback,” said Chris Mason, head of strategic talent solutions at SHC. “It gives people something they can take action on right away.”

The final part of the new process is a quarterly “check-in” component aimed at facilitating a more meaningful dialogue between associates and managers.

Martin noted that associates now have to prepare as much for the check-ins (which includes a one-page worksheet) as their managers.

Though still very much a work in progress, the new system has already shown some good traction, according to Menzel and Mason.

Introduced last August, the Soundboard tool already has 10,000 active users and has resulted in 40,000 pieces of feedback. “When we surveyed people, 75 percent said they took the information and actually made a change in [their] behavior,” Mason said.

The new system officially launched in February.

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A ‘Window’ into Transforming GM’s Culture

There have been no shortage of books over the years devoted to the glass ceiling, a phenomenon that is still very much evident today in organizations, both big and small. But few, if any, have attempted to explore the issue through the story of one single leader.

cq5dam.web.1280.1280In Road to Power: How GM’s Mary Barra Shattered the Glass Ceiling, a book being released today by Bloomberg Press, Laura Colby, a reporter for Bloomberg News, has found a worthy subject in General Motors’ CEO, Mary Barra. What makes her story of particular interest to those of us in HR is the fact that, for a short but very trying period of time (when GM was in the process of navigating through bankruptcy), Barra led the HR function at GM.

As head of HR, Colby reports in Road to Power, Barra held a significant amount of power in shaping the company’s future management. “Thousands of people were leaving the company. Barra’s job was to maintain morale among the most promising ones—the high achievers—so that they wouldn’t bolt at a time when they could get bigger salaries elsewhere.”

Early in her tenure as HR chief, Colby writes, Barra went on the road, “visiting the company’s locations across the country. She’d hold brown-bag lunches at plants and offices to answer employee questions. She also had a series of more formal meetings with invited representatives from different sections of the company, so-called diagonal slices. With more than a dozen plants closing and thousands of workers laid off, she needed to underline the message that the company wanted those who remained to do their jobs well and to be accountable for the results.”

Colby describes in the book some of the more formidable challenges Barra faced at the time. But as the author reminds us on at least a few occasions, sometimes it’s the small stuff that can be particularly telling about an organization’s culture.

A great example can be found in the chapter titled “The Volt: Shocked into Action” (keep in mind this is an excerpt from an advanced copy of the book). It specifically touches on GM’s dress code …

“One of the most iconic things Barra did to get the message across that times were changing was to relax the company’s dress code. It ran to about 10 pages when she joined HR, including descriptions of proper attire for everyone from assembly line workers to office staff to executives. “It was probably the most interesting change and the biggest learning that I had into a culture,” Barra said at the Fortune women’s forum. She whittled the code down into two words. We said, ‘Dress appropriately.’ That was it.”

Rather than liberating employees, the change left some of them terrified. Barra said she’d have managers e-mailing or calling her and asking for written details of the policy.

“So I’d take them through, and say, ‘What do you do?’ And they’d say, ‘I manage 20 people and a $10 million budget.’ ” And I’d say, ‘I can trust you to manage 20 people and $10 million but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately, to figure that out?’ ”

True, the future of GM hardly hinged on what folks wore—or didn’t wear—to work. But as Colby quotes the subject of the book saying at the Fortune conference, Barra considered the dress-code experience a “window into the change we needed to make.”

And for those of us reading about it some years later, it serves as a valuable reminder that many of the policies and practices we put in place as HR leaders, even the ones that don’t fall into the category of make-or-break—along with the behaviors we demonstrate—send powerful signals about our organization’s culture and priorities.

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