Young millennials protesting angrily

Can you avoid being caught up in the culture wars?

culture hr management Feb 01, 2022

J Walter Thompson, the iconic ad agency, was in the news last week, which is an achievement given it ceased to exist in 2018. During the Wunderman merger, two senior male creative directors were forced out, in an apparent drive to improve diversity and ‘obliterate’ the agency’s white ‘Knightsbridge boys’ club’ reputation. A tribunal has ruled that they suffered sex discrimination, victimisation, harassment and unfair dismissal. Apparently they had also claimed discrimination on the basis of age, race and sexual orientation, but these were rejected.

As you would expect from an ad agency, JWT was keen to tackle the image and language of inequality. Thankfully, the currents of history are now pulling strongly towards full racial and gender equality. But these currents are riptides, dangerous to swim in and likely to drown even the strongest swimmers. The JWT affair was very public and messy, but the company won’t be alone in being drawn into the ever widening culture wars. We live in an age where ideology runs rampant. Where urgent solutions are sought to the grievances of the past. Where diversity of opinion seems to be as intolerable as the lack of diversity.

We place ourselves in the Gareth Southgate camp, and would like to believe the quest for diversity does not have to be so divisive. Large companies have many conundrums to solve. For there to be individual winners, there must be individual losers. Not everyone can have a job, a senior position or a seat at the board table. Who will stay and who will go? This difficult transition, liberating for some and traumatic for others, should never be wrapped in inflammatory, ideological language. It is a necessary re-correction. The wider market, dominated by value-driven consumers and value-aware investors, now demands a different approach. And businesses will be stronger for it, enriched by a wider and more interesting pool of talent to draw upon. 

Start-ups, agencies and smaller companies will have fewer issues by virtue of their smaller head counts, naturally high employee attrition rates, and, in most cases, fantastic track records in employing diverse talent. But every founder must surely dread being caught up in a toxic ideological battle that they can’t win. Businesses have to be broad churches. They require flexibility and pragmatism in policies and decision-making. Any external dogma or zealotry is likely to be destructive, threatening the heterogeneity it often purports to promote.

How can you stay one step ahead, and make sure you are running a perpetually happy ship? Here are a few principles that should stand you in good stead:

1)     Reject equal pay. There is nothing sillier than saying that men and women should be paid the same. This only reinforces the premise that pay should be dictated by gender. Pay should never be equal because it should be linked to an individual: their knowledge, skills and talents; how these are brought to bear for the good of the firm; the results they achieve; their behaviour within team environments; their loyalty; and their potential to create more value in the future. As we are all different, then we should all receive a different amount of pay. One day there will be an algorithm that works it all out. Until then, instead of paying equally, pay all staff the same way: agree the behaviours that you want to encourage and the goals you want to achieve, and reward these. Create role models that new employees will aspire to. Think of the praise Southgate gave to players like Connor Coady in Euro 2020. He didn’t even get a game but was still rated as one of the players of the tournament for the way he had helped the squad to gel.

2)     Promote unpredictably. One of the lessons of World War two was that talent wins. No one cared about the nationality, age, gender or experience of the Bletchley code breakers. All that mattered was that the enigma messages were decrypted. Unfortunately this lesson was forgotten when people returned to the workforce. For the next 60 years, survival and seniority have been the surest means of promotion. This is, of course, ridiculous. Everyone has contributions to make, and it is the founder’s job to get the right people in the right roles. For every business with 20,000 tenured middle manager, there will be a young tyro who has been fast-tracked to the top. Talent must win out or it will leave. So whenever you have a role vacancy, resist the temptation to go for the person seemingly next in line or a lookalike of the previous occupant. There is a natural bias that favours business-as-usual. In a fast changing world, you need to do everything you can to fight this, to reduce group-think, promote innovation and encourage all your employees to bring you their best and craziest ideas. Consider various scenarios and consider what radical changes could be achieved with a more radical promotion policy. Far from being demotivating, this is usually inspiring, as talent knows that it has a pathway if it performs. Would England have progressed beyond the group stage if Southgate had not brought in Bukayo Saka over more experienced teammates?

3)     Create a culture people cherish. The best way of not falling victim to external cultural pressure is to let your employees defend your own. A lot is written about workplace culture and it remains a strangely nebulous concept. But unquestionably there are businesses where employees are happier, perform better, stay longer and refer more friends to. You will have to shape what constitutes this culture. There will be values everyone believes in. There will be principles to adhere to. There will be behaviours to role-model. It should be led by you by created by all. It needs to be flexible enough to absorb the diverse views of the staff, organic enough to evolve as they do, and rigid enough to withstand unwanted external pressure. Once established, leave it to employees to share and propagate it, onboarding and guiding new staff. Look at how little man management Southgate had to do during Euro 2020. There was no dentist chair incident because the team was self-regulating, the senior players making sure everyone bought into the prevailing culture. Your role becomes one of nurturing not the culture, but the people within it. Taking the time to understand them as individuals, so you know not just their talents, but also their ambitions, their capacity for leadership, and how much support and encouragement they are going to need to do the job you want them to do.

We will be living with the culture wars for many years to come. They will go the way of coronavirus and mutate to prolong their life for as long as they can. For there is passion, fury and energy that needs to be vented. Hopefully you can capture this and use it to power your business.


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