Creating a culture of choice

Anne Bhanu ChopraThe welcoming workplace

From the Equity Ombudsperson; Anne Bhanu Chopra

This is the third in a series of articles on Creating the Culture of Choice at your law firm — that is, creating a workplace culture that allows lawyers and employees to be the best they can be and that helps draw potential employees to your firm over others. Just what would set your firm apart? It all starts with respect. Respect for all people, in all of our diversity. A workplace that embraces inclusiveness and diversity usually has a happier workforce, which leads to greater job satisfaction and lower employee turnover.

Workplaces that are free from discrimination, inclusive of everyone and open to diversity reap the benefits of loyalty and productivity from their employees.

Many people think of diversity in the workplace as tolerating differences. Others see it as closely tied with one or two obvious issues, such as gender or race. However, true organizational diversity is much broader in scope. An organization that embraces diversity has moved beyond mere tolerance and lip service and toward an understanding of how diversity can benefit the workplace.

At the heart of organizational diversity is the notion that all employees are entitled to be treated fairly and equitably. When employees feel that their concerns are not being addressed or are marginalized within the firm, they either do not contribute their best or they leave.

Walk the talk (and put the talk in writing)

As a starting point, your firm should adopt and follow formal policies that reinforce your commitment to diversity. These include anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, as well as policies on workplace equity, flexible work arrangements, pregnancy and parental leave, and respectful language. (I will deal with some of these topics in more detail.)

There are many precedents available. A comprehensive and fully updated set of workplace policies will be coming on the Law Society website this fall, thanks to the work of the Women in the Legal Profession Task Force and a team of dedicated volunteer lawyers. When adapting policies for your own firm, it is important to solicit and include input from lawyers and staff.

Policies set the framework, but on their own are not enough. To make a deeper impact, it is important to encourage a workplace environment that embraces and responds to diversity as part its everyday business. In other words, firms need to encourage people to shift the culture toward greater respect of others. That means being more accommodating of individual differences.

Plan inclusive events for staff and clients

Law firm events and social gatherings help foster collegiality and networking. Events that involve clients or potential clients can also have a direct impact on a lawyer’s career advancement. Therefore, it is important to plan your events so everyone can participate fairly and nobody feels excluded. Here are some things to think about:

  • Be conscious of what religious or cultural observances might prevent people from participating in events on particular dates by using a “multi-faith” calendar as a planning tool. Such calendars are available online or from some multicultural service agencies.
  • Consider holding events during work hours to accommodate people who may have family responsibilities or commuting issues. Also consider holding different events — not everybody plays golf!
  • Do not plan events around religious holidays that may exclude people of other faiths or beliefs. For example, consider holding a “Winter” or “Seasonal” party rather than a “Christmas” party.
  • Ensure that all venues for events are accessible to people with disabilities. It is always best to check a venue beforehand and in person. A colleague once told me that a venue he was considering for an event promised a wheelchair-accessible washroom. The washroom itself was indeed accessible. Unfortunately, it was also located at the end of long narrow corridor half-filled with stacked chairs!
  • If you are serving food and beverages, make sure that you can accommodate all dietary requirements, whether based on health, cultural or religious observance, or even personal choice. Also be sensitive to the fact that some religions require their adherents to fast at certain times of the year.
  • As a rule, it is best to invite participants to tell you beforehand what they require by way of dietary or disability accommodation, rather than to assume you have it covered.
  • Consider using retreats, internal committees and firm projects as opportunities for people who would not normally interact to do so. These are safe events for the firm to encourage interaction and exposure to all firm members.
Remember the advantages of flexible work arrangements

Many lawyers may, for reasons including work-life balance, family responsibilities, religious observances or disability, prefer flexible work arrangements that restructure or reduce the time devoted to work, or allow for flexibility on taking days off. With advances in communications technology, it is also increasingly viable to work from locations other than the office. Here are pointers on staying flexible:

  • Not all religious observances fall on national holidays, so consider allowing one or two “personal days” off a year (in addition to sick days and holidays) that may be used for any purpose, including religious and cultural observances.
  • Develop a flexible work arrangements policy that balances the needs of your workforce and your firm. Such a policy should set out what the types of flexible work arrangements are available (e.g., flexible time, flexible location), eligibility for those arrangements, and the standards and expectations over work hours, productivity and compensation. For example, a firm may decide to allow its lawyers to work at home as long as they meet specific conditions (e.g., clients receive timely communications without background noise or distractions on the lawyer’s side, and the lawyer checks in with the firm on a regular basis to ensure continuity).
Insist on respectful language

Communication, including the use of respectful language, is an important part of your firm’s image to the outside world. Consider a respectful language policy to ensure that all of your organization’s communications are inclusive. While most people have a clear understanding of what constitutes overtly sexist, racist or homophobic language, sometimes terminology that was once acceptable can betray hidden biases.

Some examples of outdated language that might be considered offensive are:

  • terms or phrases that have an inherent gender bias such as “chairman,” “businessman” or “manpower.” Use gender-neutral terms such as “chair,” “businessperson” or “workforce;”
  • dehumanizing terms that refer to persons with disabilities such as “crippled” or “handicapped.” The best formulation always puts the person before the condition (e.g., a “lawyer with a disability” rather than a “disabled lawyer”).
Monitor your mentoring

It is to your firm’s benefit that all articled students and young lawyers receive quality mentorship to support their professional development. Therefore, it is vital that the quality of mentorship not be compromised because of discrimination or inability to deal with issues of diversity. Consider these ideas:

  • Add structure to your mentoring program. This includes setting out the minimum of what is expected from the relationship (e.g., monthly face-to-face meetings) and putting in place systems for monitoring the mentorship relationship to ensure it is working.
  • Train your mentors both in mentorship skills and diversity awareness.

Ensure there is adequate opportunity for mentees to provide feedback and also to raise any concerns of discrimination with a confidential source, either inside or outside the firm (e.g., the Equity Ombudsperson).