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Creating a toolkit for equitable business

The last few years have seen a reckoning for businesses. From the #MeToo movement to the surge of Black Lives Matter protests, workplace diversity is front-of-mind for business people and consumers.

And yet organizations are still getting it wrong. Where should they start when it comes to making real change?

Allison Schlobohm, clinical assistant professor of management and corporate communication, is forging answers.

A first step to making strides on employee diversity goals is understanding “organizational equity” – the internal distribution of power and resources – and whether that distribution leads to equitable outcomes and growth opportunities for all employees.

With a team of student researchers from UNC Kenan-Flagler, Schlobohm produced the report “Organizational Equity: Your Missing Metric for Success” on how businesses can audit their organizational equity. The Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise published it in February 2021.

To assess organizational equity, they suggest leaders of U.S. organizations perform regular audits using qualitative and quantitative methods. Their report explains the concepts of organizational equity and audits as well as details the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion for organizations and their leaders.

As Schlobohm puts it: “Who has what, who gets what, and how access to these resources impacts individual careers and organizational outcomes.”

She and the team hope the report are the start of a toolbox businesses use to make their practices more ethical. But how did it all come together?

The idea

Schlobohm’s background is in communication, and her interest in organizational equity came from that perspective.

“I was studying what organizations say about themselves,” she recalls. “They say they want to be anti-racist and that they are meritocracies, but if you look at the share of employees at entry level versus at the top, you consistently see more and more straight, CIS, white men the higher you go in an organization.”

This imbalance – and its cause, systemic inequity – reinforces biases in a company’s internal operations as well as its interactions with clients and consumers. Furthermore, if unchecked biases and inequities escalate into a public debacle, companies often find themselves ill-equipped to respond to scrutiny.

“An organization can’t make effective interventions into any communications encounter if it doesn’t know what’s going on internally,” Schlobohm says. “An equity audit is an opportunity for an organization to put its actions where its words are because any action you take without an audit will only aim to fix the problem you think you have, not the one you really do.”

The way forward was clear, but Schlobohm still needed a team of bright students to make this self-assessment tool a reality.

Putting together a team

Schlobohm is well-known at UNC Kenan-Flagler as a supportive and engaging faculty member, teaching classes to Undergraduate Business and graduate students on topics such as business communications, diversity and inclusion, and personal branding. Many students consider her a mentor and value her collaborative working style, and their esteem for her is mutual.

“The older I get the more encumbered I am by the institutions I belong to and the belief systems that I operate in, and 21-year-olds have less of that,” she says. “They have so much creativity. I love working with students and helping them become who they want to be.”

Schlobohm put together a stellar student team that thrived in the working environment at UNC Kenan Flagler.

“At UNC Kenan-Flagler there are more opportunities for students to get involved in research than other places I’ve been,” she says, “such as the Kenan Scholars program.”

Enter Ann Bantukul (BSBA ’21), who majored in both business and computer science. In 2020, Ann reached out to say that her summer plans had shifted – did Schlobohm have any projects she needed help with?

Bantukul was immediately on board with the project’s aims. “I thought there was a lack of authentic acknowledgment of inequality within the business sector and business schools,” she says. Getting to redress this in a group research project with student and faculty collaborators was an opportunity too good to miss.

She excelled at translating the group’s theoretical discussion into clear research questions and quantitative measures.

Once Bantukul was on board, things started to snowball. She invited her friend Rali Sloan (BSBA ’21), a double major in philosophy and business and a minor in peace, war and defense. Sloan’s ability to untangle the complex ethical questions at the heart of the research was an important component of the report’s success.

“Business and philosophy, particularly ethics, are often thought of as opposing fields due to lack of emphasis and attention given to ethics in business settings,” says Sloan. “We’ve identified a few meaningful and feasible channels for organizations to enhance their equity. Although equity and ethics are not entirely synonymous, there appears to be a positive correlation between the two.”

Next was Carlexa Fevry (BSBA ’20, MBA ’22). Schlobohm asked her to get involved and use her talent and passion for untangling complex people-related data. She is a Kenan Scholar and principal researcher on a related project studying the sense of belonging across industries.

The process involved defining data and how it can be used to solve problems, investigating the systems and techniques used to solve them, and identifying who the people behind the models, analyses and decisions. “After that, I decided to investigate the systematic biases that have been identified in the field and the available research that pertained to the mitigation processes of these biases,” says Fevry. “Lastly, I researched organizational human biases and evaluated how certain human behaviors influence the data and the spillover effect they have on decision-making.”

Completing the team was Tyrell Carter (BSBA ’21), an entrepreneur and a “really creative big thinker,” according to Schlobohm. His insights were invaluable in thinking about how their research could be applied by current and future entrepreneurs.

“The culture incorporated in businesses by the founder and top-level individuals affects the entire corporation. Most founders of high-growth companies have a similar background, which will lead to disparities and inequity among employees and customers,” says Carter.

The result was a well-rounded team whose members complemented each another and weren’t afraid to get stuck in in the areas where they didn’t have as much confidence.

“We’ve all grown in the process,” Schlobohm says. “I took workshops on how to build regressions, and we’ve talked about cultural analyses and how organizational inequity is caught up in bigger social systems. There’s been a growth mindset: How do we learn what we need to learn in order to succeed?”

The future

Faculty are using their organizational equity findings in courses at UNC Kenan-Flagler. Schlobohm hopes other organizations also will put their audit suggestions into practice, both at new businesses being incubated at UNC and farther afield.

The team already had success convincing businesspeople that it’s an important element of diversity and inclusion strategy.

“A moment that felt really good was when Carlexa and I presented to a UNC Kenan-Flagler alumni panel,” Schlobohm says. “One person asked what they think UNC Kenan-Flagler needs to do on its diversity and inclusion journey, and another panelist said it sounded like they should start by auditing their equity.”

The project is testament to the collaborative possibilities at UNC Kenan-Flagler, and students’ abilities to collaborate to contribute to real change.

Read the report “Organizational Equity: Your Missing Metric for Success” about how businesses can audit their organizational equity.