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  1. Blog
  2. Diversity

How to Create a Culture of Accountability in the Workplace

More than sound bites and good intentions

People meeting in an office
Photo courtesy of TienDat Nguyen

Being accountable is not the same as being responsible. 

In their paper, Role and Responsibility Charting, Michael L. Smith and James Erwin define the accountable person as “the individual who is ultimately answerable for the activity or decision. This includes ‘yes’ or ‘no’ authority and veto power.” Being ultimately answerable is different from being responsible, they say. The person who is responsible is “the doer,” or “the individual who actually completes the task.”

However, the terms are often used interchangeably and are certainly intertwined. If a company is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, for example, its leaders and employees alike are responsible and accountable to realizing those DEI goals and fostering an inclusive environment.

In other words, a workplace with a culture of accountability has people who take ownership of and are responsible for completing the task at hand, whatever that task might be.

Read more: All the Workplace Rights Your Mother Didn't Have

How do you create a culture of accountability?

The first step to creating a culture of accountability is to define a clear set of expected outcomes. This gives everyone in the organization a comprehensive view of the goals they are working toward. It allows team buy-in, and makes all the direct action steps, like employee training and resource groups, understandable. A team that doesn’t understand a company’s goals can’t be held accountable to achieve them.

It’s necessary then to make those expectations clear from the start. State your goals publicly on your website and social media, detail them in the onboarding process and in employee newsletters, team meetings, and livestreams. Establish starting and desired benchmarks as reference points, so you know exactly what you want to accomplish and when. Businesses use competitive benchmarking all the time; the comparison with competitors spurs them on to improve their performance.

Bringing in a chief learning officer can help, says leadership consultant Shane Crabb. “Once in place, CLOs can work with a broad representation of the workforce to co-create and implement the roadmap, stating targeted actions, timelines, success measures and named leaders who are accountable for realizing each outcome.”

Read more: Trust, Accountability & Retention: Why Transparency at Work Matters

Eleanor Arlook, North America equity and justice practice lead at APCO Worldwide, tells InHerSight that in terms of DEI goals and fostering inclusive environments, organizations actually spend considerable amounts of money. They pay for learning and education models that focus on helping employees identify biases or to learn about the history of inequities.

While extremely valuable, when those programs aren’t paired with real tools to equip and empower employees to be intentionally inclusive in everyday elements of their job, they fail, Arlook says. Education isn’t enough. “Inclusion and identifying inequities is a muscle that requires constant exercise,” she explains, “particularly for those who don't view the world through the lens of lived experience as a member of an historically excluded group.”

At her own workplace, for instance, they created and institutionalized an agreement between employees and the agency, says Arlook. Called an Inclusivity Accord, she says it “both defines our point of view on DE&I and provides a series of clear, actionable and specific ways employees can embed inclusive decision-making and thinking into the everyday elements of their job.”

Read more: 10 Questions to Ask a Prospective Employer About Their Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion

How can employees and leaders themselves become more accountable?

Some large companies pay their executives to reach DEI goals, just as they do when other targets are reached or exceeded. However distasteful or morally questionable this practice may seem, long-term incentives—rather than annual bonuses—work, writes Allen Smith, manager of workplace law content at SHRM. 

Starbucks is one of those companies, along with McDonalds, IBM, and Uber, that link executive compensation with DEI goals. It’s a fairly new strategy, so its efficacy is yet to be determined. But Lisa Tabor, president at DEI consulting firm CultureBrokers, says the approach makes sense.

"If there isn't as much weight placed on a CEO's performance related to diversity, inclusion, and equity as there is weight on other performance measures, I think that just becomes a problem," she explains. "You have to hold a CEO strongly accountable for [DEI] as you would financial performance, ethical performance, all of those other things."

Read more: 4 Things I Learned from Suing Amazon for Harassment and Discrimination

What might be even more valuable, however, is a shift in perspective. 

“Sure, you can hold leaders accountable on traditional metrics of DE&I and many will meet those goals,” Arlook says, “but companies will still see attrition and low qualitative measures of inclusion.

Instead, she says companies need to look at their internal structure as a series of systems that require structural change. Those internal systems include anything from human resources and employee engagement to internal communications, marketing and customer communications. You look at these to understand where there is a void of intentional equity.

“When you shift your perspective from looking for intentional discrimination to redesigning systems with intentional equity,” Arlook explains, “that's where sustainable change happens that leads to a truly diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment.”

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About the Non-Disparagement Clause

How can companies become more accountable?

The importance of going public with your goals and intentions can’t be overstated in terms of accountability, whether the goal is transparency, DEI, environmentally sustainable practices, or human rights. 

“One of the best ways to hold corporations and their executives accountable for equity and inclusion is for them to take public positions on relevant issues,” Karen Nussbaum, the founding director of the national organization of working women 9to5, tells InHerSight. 

When companies couple their public stance with integrity of their process to reach those goals, then meaningful change can take place. For example, visible corporate support for the following actions builds trust and allows future change to occur:

  • Corporate support of paid family leave and child care.

  • Rejection of politicians and public institutions that threaten voting rights and the democratic process.

  • Reinforcing public figures who speak out on equity and justice.

“Public policy will underpin the success of any individual company and each individual company has a responsibility to change the norms of our public debate and standards,” Nussbaum explains.

Read more: Furloughs, NDAs, & Other Contracts That Affect Your Employment

Arlook, who happens to be Nussbaum’s daughter, builds on her mother’s perspective as a life-long organizer. Arlook tells InHerSight that “as corporations continue to engage more publicly on issues of equity and justice, lines in the sand are drawn. This is an incredibly powerful tool for accountability and enables stakeholders to push for more swift action.”

She gives the example of the response to voting rights legislation in Georgia. “If a company stands for racial equity, how can they be silent on voting rights?,” Arlook asks. “When paired with heightened investor, policy, and stakeholder expectations, employees engaging companies in public commitments and discourse on DE&I and broader [environmental, social, and governance] issues is one of the most critical ways to hold C-suite leaders accountable.”

Accountability is not limited to the internal workings and HR-related functions of an organization. Often, the issues are global, aimed at human, labor, and environmental rights.

Read more: Your Questions About Workplace Sexual Harassment Answered

Accountability must be more than sound bites and good intentions 

Sometimes holding companies accountable needs more than public statements, however. There are laws in place that prohibit employment discrimination, harassment, and employer retaliation. If an employee is experiencing a form of workplace discrimination, they can file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Corporations based in the U.S. often have an adverse impact on people around the globe who don’t necessarily work directly for them. Those people are often from poorer nations and have no protections in their own countries. To make businesses accountable for their actions, it usually takes years of social pressure and legal action in the U.S.

Read more: Lilly Ledbetter, Fair Pay & 4 Ways You Can Honor Her Legacy  

The law firm Corporate Accountability Lab (CAL), for instance, recently submitted new evidence of forced child labor in major American chocolate producers’ supply chains. It is part of an ongoing effort to have chocolate companies like Nestlé stop making profits on cacao produced by forced child labor.

In another case, U.S. corporations that import cotton and cotton products from Xinjiang, China, were issued an order from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It prohibits importation of Xinjiang cotton due to the use of forced labor.

According to a joint statement by CAL and partners, the order “will implicate thousands of U.S. apparel and retail companies who will have to do more than simply point to company policies, codes of conduct, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives or audit reports. Many of these initiatives and voluntary measures have failed to disclose the use of prison and forced labor in Xinjiang-based suppliers.”

Read more: Why the Gender Pay Gap Exists, According to Research

The best outcome in cases like chocolate producers and Xinjiang cotton is that Western markets would “set up a global system that matters, with standards that can be verified,” writes Andy Hira, professor of political science at Simon Fraser University. By doing so, companies and host governments would be forced to “change their practices, creating a level playing field for organizations that want to do the right thing, which would then become routine.”

Otherwise, accountability is all talk, no action.

About our sources

Karen Nussbaum has been an organizer for more than 50 years. She is the founding director of 9to5, the national organization of working women; District 925, SEIU; and Working America. Nussbaum served as the director of the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau. She is the co-author of two books and writes about women, labor, politics and culture.

Elle Arlook is the North America Equity & Justice practice lead for APCO Worldwide, a global communication and consulting firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. with offices around the world. She leads the firm's clients through equity and justice focused organizational change, designing and executing justice-centered philanthropy initiatives, navigating internal and external communications, and C-suite counsel on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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