Good Trouble: Four Steps Toward Workplace Equity

by James McDonough

Bulletin,  Hiring,  Leadership,  Organizational Development

Reflecting on the life of Congressman John Lewis provides insights for today’s workplaces. A national leader for civil rights for decades, his consistent message was the need for individuals to take action toward creating a more equitable society. “Good trouble, necessary trouble” is what Rep. Lewis urged people to do when they witnessed, experienced, or become aware of social injustice of any kind. In other words, speak up, ask questions and take peaceful action to change what is wrong; don’t be passive, or fall into despair, or accept the status quo if it is hurtful to an individual or a group of people.

In this present time of national conversation around social equity and racial injustice, a higher level of pro-active workplace activity may be demanded and expected by many employees. It may be time for employers to consider Rep. Lewis’ plea and start making “good trouble” in their workplaces; if not, trouble may find them.

To minimize unnecessary disruptions and maximize positive outcomes in the workplace, consider an intentional phased approach to “good trouble”:

Phase One: Vision and Commitment

Leaders in organizations who self-reflect on their readiness and willingness to manage the possible consequences of such a course of action will be better prepared. Before his dive into aggressive activism during the civil rights movement, John Lewis and other activists were briefed on the dangers they faced: persecution, physical violence, and even death. Only after self-reflection on such dire consequences and an acceptance of them, were they allowed and supported by civil rights groups to forge ahead with actions that challenged the status quo. Similarly, Leaders must realize that a “good trouble” initiative will face resistance and blowback from internal and external sources. Old ties may be broken even as new ones are formed. There will be a price to pay. Change does not come easy, and Leaders must approach such efforts with clarity of vision and purpose, a commitment to evolve, and a strategy to do so successfully.

Phase Two: Preparation and Planning

Identify external partners with expertise in diverse communities and invite them to engage in the entire process to help identify and address “blind spots.”

  • Self-audit to identify your current workforce status, including the demographics of employees at all levels.
  • Review local community demographics to determine if the organization’s workforce reflects that community; however, as local communities may be relatively homogenous, resist limiting aspirations for diversity and equity on this basis alone – contemplate a broader vision that includes a future as an “Employer of Choice” for any applicants interested in joining and thriving in the organization.
  • Survey employees to take the pulse of attitudes around issues of diversity and inclusion, and do they feel “psychologically safe” in the workplace.
  • Identify gaps and establish goals that target the hearts and minds of employees, along with demographic outcomes such as racial and gender representation.

Phase Three: Action and Reaction


Engage employees in the “good trouble” effort and request their help, commitment, and alignment. Appeal to hearts and minds.

  • Facilitate workplace conversations that may be uncomfortable around equity in all areas, including race, gender, sex, beliefs, etc.
  • Encourage and support employee learning about equity; sponsor speakers and community leaders to engage with employees; consider encouraging employees to volunteer and contribute to causes that promote equity in the community.
  • Anticipate and plan for resistance and negative reactions; respond thoughtfully and with an eye on the long-term goals of inclusivity and equity. This is a personal process of reflection for everyone, and each person may take a different path, including some who will walk away.

Evaluate long-standing practices, activities, programs, or benefits that no longer meet organizational needs and may even contradict the new goal of enhanced inclusivity and equity; they are often no longer desired nor appreciated by a more diverse workforce. Revise and/ or replace them.


  • Contact vendors, suppliers, and other stakeholders to ask about their “good trouble” efforts. Learn from those who are advanced in their plans; inspire, and encourage others to start their own efforts if they lag.
  • Evaluate customer relationships and how to manage poor behavior. For example, some companies will end relationships with customers who abuse their staff based on their racial or other biases. Consider how to communicate to customers the enhanced efforts to embrace diversity and aggressively address equity.
  • Seek external expertise to minimize pain and maximize effectiveness – learn from others!

Phase Four: Sustain

Over time, organizations may slip back into old grooves of behaviors and veer off course. To stay on track, continually monitor the workplace environment for adherence to diversity and inclusion goals and a culture of perceived and real equity.

  • Take the pulse of the workforce through surveys, casual observation, meetings. Invite employees to come forward with concerns at any time; make it “psychologically safe” to do so.
  • Deploy SNA (Social Network Analysis) technology to monitor to identify communication patterns that may indicate isolated individuals or teams that may require attention.
  • Continually invite diverse community organizations to partner in long-term efforts to build workforce pipelines (internships, scholarships, sponsorships, summer employment opportunities, etc.).

Will such “good trouble” efforts foment conflict? As with any workplace change initiative, likely yes. Workplace conflict is typically considered something to avoid at all costs. After all, does not conflict cost employers money due to loss in productivity?

Yes, it may. However…

Conflict, when thoughtfully guided, can be energizing and productive. By challenging the status quo, old ways of doing things and long-held beliefs can be questioned and revealed for both strengths and weaknesses. In a time of great upheaval and disruption, from COVID-19 to economic crisis and social demands for equity – facilitated conflict may offer diverse new perspectives and define new ways forward in a changed world.

Perhaps now is as good a time as any to allow a bit of “downtime” to surface the issues of inequity lurking in your workplace. Perhaps, like a bitter but fortifying pill, it will be a means to an end, a temporary sacrifice on the road to higher levels of inclusivity, workplace effectiveness, employee engagement, and Leadership performance. Inequity may exist, acknowledged or not, silently sapping the energy and potential success of individuals and the entire organization. Inviting a little “good trouble” just might be an essential step towards crafting a sustainable culture to face future challenges and develop new opportunities. As Rep. Lewis suggested, “good trouble” is also “necessary trouble” to create change toward equity.

Employers Council is ready to assist members with many of the challenges of workplace change management; from legal advice, leadership coaching, to skilled facilitators of difficult conversations, our staff can help by either assisting you directly or getting you to someone who can.

Additional insights on moving toward workplace equity:

Wharton Business School

Harvard Business Review

Racial Equity Tools

IPMA Racial Equity Resource page

About the author
James McDonough

James McDonough, HR Research Consultant, consults with Employers Council members to provide guidance and support on their organizational practices. He writes articles, conducts presentations and trainings on HR compliance, organizational effectiveness and business management topics. A graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder, James has worked in the public and private sectors in HR and business management.