Promoting Equality at Work: If Not Now, When?

Promoting Equality at Work: If Not Now, When?

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and other African Americans by police, major US corporations bought full-page ads in newspapers touting their actions in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, many businesses, including those taking full-page ads, must address their history and current practices of bias and discrimination within their organizations. 

One leading argument suggests that, in a just and fair society, different demographic groups should comprise the percentage of the workforce that they represent in society, as well as in organizational subsets such professional and leadership ranks. With this logic, as women are more than 50% of the overall population, they should account for at least 50% of an organization’s workforce and business leadership. Otherwise, the argument indicates that the system is unfairly biased in favor of men. Similarly, the same can be extrapolated for other under-represented groups, including racial minorities.

So, while the government, policymakers, and businesses seek to address racial and economic inequality, individuals can take significant steps to encourage fair treatment for all.

Actions You Can Take Right Now

While one can take numerous actions to address workplace discrimination and inequality, here are a few examples.

  1. Take a long, honest look at attitudes and behavior within your organization. As Dr. Arthur C. Jones, founder of Denver’s The Spirituals Project, told me, “Racism is like radioactive particles. It’s in the atmosphere, affecting everyone. It’s what you do about it that matters.” Even people in favor of systematic change may implicitly accept barriers that leave in place unfair attitudes and actions.
  2. Seek to understand the difference between diversity and inclusivity. Diversity is about numbers. How many Latinos are promoted to leadership roles? How many women sit on the executive board? Does our hiring reflect local demographics? Inclusivity is about welcoming people of different color, background and other characteristics to an organization and making sure their rights are protected and voices heard. Ultimately, inclusiveness is more related to such things as revenue, productivity, and morale because diversity by itself doesn’t directly measure performance and culture.
  3. If you’re part of the hiring process and notice qualified applicants with protected personal traits (race, sex, gender, religion, ethnic heritage, age, military service, etc.) being unfairly passed over, particularly for managerial jobs, raise your concern with HR and leadership. You’ll be putting your organization on respectful notice and, in some instances, protecting it against legal claims of discrimination.
  4. Even though Black people comprise about 13.4% of the US population, only four Fortune 500 companies have black CEOs, and, overall, in large corporations, only 3.2% of senior leadership roles are held by African Americans. As noted above, numbers alone do not tell the whole story. One challenge is looking for numbers but not asking “Why.” In other words, we need to look beyond statistics and identify and address root causes. For instance, you can ask, “Why should Blacks make up the same percentage in business leadership as they do in the population?” Or, “As an organization, why should we care about community issues such as better education, job training, bias in policing, and healthcare? Once you have a better understanding of the causes, you’ll be in a stronger position to advocate for more African Americans, other people of color, and women in leadership roles. If enough employees care, executives will take notice and, hopefully, take positive actions.
  5. If leadership itself lacks fair representation of people with protected personal traits, again ask, “Why.” “Why doesn’t leadership reflect the organization’s diversity?” “Why does a homogenous leadership affect morale, recruiting, hiring and promotion, and our relationship with business partners, vendors, and customers?” After exploring these and other questions, ask leadership, “How can our organization commit itself to counter inequality within its ranks?”

Indifference Is Not Action

It’s vital not to waste this overdue surge of national awareness and proposed changes. As the oft-repeated (and often misattributed) quote by first-century Rabbi Hillel the Elder said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Larry Bograd is Senior Director, Product Development at Syntrio, Inc. He is a twenty-year veteran of the training industry, serving as a learning consultant, director of content strategy, senior instructional designer, and scriptwriter. At Syntrio, he directs its Business Skills Library. He may be reached at lbograd@syntrio.com.

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