Seven frustrating ‘us and them’ examples hindering workplace engagement

Equality is a term we’re all familiar with and it’s certainly synonymous with workplace engagement strategies for many reasons. Rightly so. For it is integral to how we work collaboratively and indeed, it is integral to how we live our lives.

In this article I want to talk about equality in a different context to that in which it is usually referred. So, not in the sense of striving for equal opportunities around race, gender, age, or religion – all of which are of course imperative-but more in terms of treating and respecting everyone as equal human beings and addressing work cultural behaviours that may be exacerbating perceived inequality around roles, status and hierarchy.

There is often a very sad perception and misnomer that management roles, seniority and/or working 9 to 5 desk jobs are somehow ‘better’ (and there foremore fitting of certain benefits/rights) than, for example, more junior roles, non-desk-based positions, shift or manual process roles – but this is so far from true. When an ‘us and them’ culture is perceived (and on closer reflection, apparent), is it any wonder that people get frustrated, disgruntled, and disengaged?

The truth is that we’re all human and are all entitled to the same healthy, respectful, and ‘equal’ workplace basic human rights, welfare, comforts and environmental quality. More often than not though, divisive behaviours, activities and design/environmental differences in the workplace are being unconsciously embedded, and unwittingly – this perception of inequality impacts employee wellbeing, engagement, productivity and retention. Surely our places of work would be far better if we prioritised an ‘all for one and one for all’ approach and mentality?

“…employees engage with employers and brands when they’re treated as humans.”

Meghan Biro

In context to the above, to ensure that divisive in equality is well and truly put to bed, I believe there needs to be a focus on employee experience and work culture from this perspective of equality to increase workplace engagement. After all, we’re in this together and being at work should never feel like ‘us and them’ or ‘them and us’, rather – it is ‘we’.

With this in mind, I’ve put together a list of some perceived (and sometimes obvious) frustrating examples of ‘us and them’ inequality manifestations seen in our workplaces, but this is by no means exhaustive! I do this without accusation and in the hope that by drawing attention to them in this light-hearted style, it will enable us all to identify with – and readily spot – these occurrences in future, reflect on them, and confidently call them out in order to address them.

Seven frustrating ‘us and them’ inequality examples in the workplace

  1. Being talked at: There is often a clear divide between those who are talked at, versus those who are talked with. To truly give equal opportunity, all views, opinions and ideas should be sought and heard regardless of role or where that individual is working within an organisation. After all, the person doing a certain job knows the complexity of the task (and associated technology/equipment) best. Consider this blog from my colleague Nick to understand more about the difference between being talked at and actually being talked with (or listened to). Empower all employees to have their say and take ownership for their ideas and proposed actions.
  2. information: Team meetings held on a weekday at 11am or off-site once a month are all very well and good, but what about those who work shifts, part-time or work nights? Who communicates the meeting outcomes to those employees and when do they get their chance to have their say, celebrate team successes or bond with other team members? Sounds obvious but it’s important to consider how information following these meetings is disseminated fully to everyone (especially those without access to a PC or laptop) and to remember that employee communication is a two-way street. Having regular forums that are facilitated to enable all employees from across the business to attend and get involved is essential for an open, honest and inclusive work culture where no one team or function gets prioritised over another… And if you are celebrating a Company milestone or team success with food, do make sure there’s enough of everything to be shared equally, regardless of when practical to meet. Who really wants the last dry sandwich on a plate from an earlier meeting or leftover cake scraps?
  3. Uniform mandates: Management and office staff can wear whatever they wish, whilst those on the front line and shop floor have to wear a uniform day in and day out. Obviously in some environments it is practical to be wearing overalls or protective clothing, but clothing is highly visual and can be very divisive (hence why schools often have such stringent uniform policy to curtail inequality). Try and remove hierarchical and historical blue collar vs. white collar uniform as they carry connotations of status. Ties for example. Clearly in some industries they are deemed a formal requirement and perhaps appropriate when meeting with clients. But in others – where there is a strong mix of office and non-desk/technical/manual employees (who must wear uniform/overalls for health and safety) – are ties really essential and appropriate business attire these days? For what reason?
  4. Inconsistencies in break/rest areas: How many times do we see that management and/or office staff have their own break area with kettle, fresh milk, free tea bags, (posh) coffee, fruit bowls, comfy chairs and inspiring pictures on the wall, whilst those at the coal face get a cold and dreary cafeteria, plastic seats and paid for vending machines? Surely this cannot foster a mentality of togetherness? To truly make every team member feel like they are valued equally, all employees should have and experience a similar standard of comfort and access to facilities and perks. If it’s not practical to have fabric seating in some areas, then give all areas the same wipe-clean seating! Additionally, a splash of colour and company branding need not just be the reserve of the office break area, meeting rooms or building lobby/Reception.
  5. Selective air-conditioning: One of my personal favourites! Thankfully with the advent of more open plan working and modern building regulations, air-conditioning for all is becoming more the norm, but in older facilities it’s still common to find random units in small offices for the benefit of the few, whilst the majority of employees rely on desk fans and windows (if an option!). With the exception of manufacturing zones or similar controlled environments (and of course for medical reasons), if it’s not practicable or affordable to install in all areas, then consider why install at all? Surely it would be better for everyone to be in the same (uncomfortable) boat, than create a ‘have and have not’ environment of envy and ill feeling? If it really is an issue, then for employee wellbeing reasons it should perhaps be considered a business spend priority.
  6. Personal development for the minority: There is no more obvious ‘us and them’ marker than that of who gets training, who gets development, and who doesn’t. Why is it that it often comes down to position or seniority when it comes to opportunity to take part in personal development training? There is often a tendency in organisations to focus training investment on either up skilling graduates or on leadership teams – what about everyone else? Access to personal development opportunities for the broader employee population, regardless of function or level, can pay dividends long term for the business, whilst really helping employee wellbeing and job satisfaction.
  7. Under par toilets: Last, but not least. Cloakroom facilities, the number of toilets provided and indeed their cleanliness, really shouldn’t be an issue in 2021, yet sadly it’s still a hot topic of contention in our workplaces! Unisex cloakrooms are becoming increasingly common and this is addressing equality from some angles. However, regardless of facility age or design, they all should be equipped to cater for basic human needs with a high standard of hygiene and cleanliness; soap and functioning hand-dryers; adequate and replenished toilet tissue; air freshener; and sanitary provision. There is no excuse why provision should vary depending on the building floor/level; function of the users/those who have access; gender; or indeed whether employee or customer/client cloakrooms. If we want employees to love their jobs and enjoy coming into the workplace, then it’s essential to get the basics right and provide for them as you would for your customers (or at home!).

“In order to build a rewarding employee experience, you need to understand what matters most to your people.” 

Julie Bevacqua

Whether you work in the boardroom, in a manufacturing zone or in accounts, you should never feel or experience an ‘us and them ‘or ‘have and have not’ culture or status mentality. Respect and equality are paramount in the workplace (and life, in equal measure). Ultimately, only the most collaborative organisations that engage and respect all their employees in a human way across the whole workforce, will develop happy and committed team members. And these happy team members will not only work hard for the company, but they will also love being there and be your brand ambassadors. After all, as Meghan Biro of Talent Culture says, “employees engage with employers and brands when they’re treated as humans.”