It’s hard these days to turn on the TV, radio or even flip through your phone without encountering intense discussions about diversity and race relations. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that I sometimes weigh in on what’s happening in society when it has an impact on our careers, leadership, or HR matters. Lately, it seems that the workplace is colliding with many socially and politically charged movements and these two worlds can no longer be separated. These conversations are sprouting up everywhere, and are not just limited to parades, marches, and protests in the streets.
Sometimes it’s close to home. Here in Canada, two federal MPs recently took to Twitter to battle out the merit of considering versus ignoring the different experiences and obstacles faced by people of colour, people with disabilities, immigrants, LGBTQ+, etc. The Huffington Post published a summary of the ongoing debate.
Of course, we can’t help but watch and react to stories from the U.S. The discussions are amplified as police continue to kill young, unarmed black men, with some of these killings, even caught on video.
The Black Lives Matter movement gained steam and controversy, as has kneeling by professional athletes during the American national anthem. The athletes’ actions have drawn intense criticism, not to mention outright cursing. A bit ironically, many may not know that the “take a knee” movement came from Nate Boyer of the Seattle Seahawks. The long snapper is also a former Green Beret. When Colin Kaepernick asked for his advice, Boyer suggested kneeling as a sign of respect and protest.
These high profile, public actions certainly create a buzz. Everyone has an opinion, too. But what about the smaller, more private spaces in which a person of colour or really anyone of a “minority” status navigates on a daily basis? There are conversations in the hallway or the boardroom that are less explicit and less sensational but still leave the person feeling marginalized due to their race. This came to mind as I made my morning coffee and heard yet another race-related headline being reported: in the U.S., two black men were arrested at a Starbucks, their apparent offence being the audacity to wait at a table for an associate to arrive before purchasing their beverages.
I’ve always considered Starbucks to be a progressive employer. I was not surprised when they acted swiftly with an apology and fired the person who had called the police and announced they would close down more than 8000 of its shops in the United States to offer racial bias training. Similar training will take place in Canada on June 11, 2018. It is not without controversy, of course.
This sensitivity training comes on the heels of so many other random and downright bizarre incidents that have recently made the news. At Yale University, the police were called because a black student was asleep in a common room. In Oakland, CA, someone else called the police because black people were having a BBQ in a park.
By the time I finished my coffee and turned off the radio I thought about the water cooler conversations that must be happening at universities, NFL franchise locations, government offices and Starbucks shops all over North America. Obviously, the leadership in these organizations are feeling the heat.
Is More Sensitivity Training the Answer?
So, here’s the question in my mind: even if well-intentioned, does one day of sensitivity or anti-bias training change the racial discrimination that will ultimately exist in organizations? The short answer to this is no. It may even fuel a backlash and resentment. The problem is so much more complex than just retraining/educating some workers about their “diverse customer base.”
There is no easy answer. For one thing, this doesn’t begin to address employees who are not white and have been dealing with internal systemic discrimination.
As someone who has worked extensively as an employee and as an HR consultant with large organizations, I know that a quick, sanitized message encouraging employees to just “get along and don’t say anything that isn’t PC” clearly does not work. When an organization’s spoken/stated versus practiced values don’t match, it can create even more tensions. Everyone can tell when the issue isn’t being taken seriously. Many people understand the intentional use of coded language and dog whistle expressions. To them, the issue isn’t about people needing more sensitivity, but needing to be less racist (or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, or Islamophobic, xenophobic, etc.).
ABC’s Quick Acting Leadership: Will This be the New Normal?
As I began writing this blog my phone pinged again. It was news of ABC’s cancellation of the hit reboot sitcom Roseanne. Although I’ve seen local leaders act responsibly and prevent sexual harassment and racism from thriving in their workplaces, it’s not something that I’m accustomed to seeing in high-profile organizations. That changed when it only took ABC a few hours to cancel a hit TV show that was generating millions of viewers and dollars. Just as we have seen in the #MeToo movement with many high-profile celebs and politicians being let go despite the financial loss we need to start addressing other forms in which workplace misconduct is no longer acceptable.
This is yet another watershed moment. To be racially insensitive is starting to mean more than more boardroom meetings and anti-bias training, now it’s linked to pink slips.
The Bottom Line
Often, I work with clients who feel uncomfortable in their place of work. This discomfort is sometimes due to underemployment or a lack of perceived opportunity within their current organization. Sometimes it’s due to something more sinister like sexual harassment or workplace bullying.
As much as some people don’t want to admit this is true, these real or perceived limitations are rarely about a lack of education, experience, or skills/abilities. Often these attitudes and/or unconscious biases are tied to race, ethnicity, gender, or another characteristic that really shouldn’t have any bearing on a person’s success.
The bottom line, from an HR perspective: diversity and inclusivity aren’t just hot buzzwords. Given the extremely high cost of replacing a good employee, it’s worth figuring out ways to create a more inclusive organizational culture that doesn’t cause good people to flee. Take a look at this article from Quickbooks, about the high cost of employee turnover.
For employees, if you feel uncomfortable in your workplace, or you’ve had a feeling for a long time that something is “off” at work, maybe I can help. I can help you decide whether its time to move on to something more suitable, for example, and on how to make a graceful exit.
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Dr. Helen’s training in Industrial and Organizational (I/O) Psychology means she is a genuine expert in evaluating work-related behaviours. She uses those skills to help hiring managers tell the difference between people who say the right things during interviews and people who actually deliver on the job. In other words, Dr. Helen understands first-hand how job candidates are assessed.
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