How To Fix Office Racism
Despite the utility offered by the headline let’s not pretend that something as deeply seeded as systemic racism, which is often recognized only by its victims, is a simple matter. It is not, and that is because it follows many of the same ills and cures of any cultural problem. Ignoring racism because it may be unintended or even unconscious or believing it is solved with some diversity hiring is to suggest similarly to when I was a kid hearing racism clichés. “Some of my best friends are black,” was the mocked semi-measure and to suggest, “Some of our best employees are minorities,” is likewise missing the point. What is that point? The systems that have fostered racism have been self-sustaining and being well-meaning is as likely to cure this ill as much as washing your hands ends disease, it doesn’t.
Like any problem, illness or affliction there is no cure without several steps. These steps include: 1) Interest in honestly and openly evaluating the situation. 2) Admitting when there is a problem. 3) Just because there may not be a major problem does not mean there is no problem or benefit to improve. 4) A genuine desire to improve the situation based on facts and actions. 5) A plan and a commitment for that plan to be supported from the highest level in words and actions. 6) Measuring to see that not only is the issue improving but that core business functions, whatever they may be, likewise improve.
If there is no benefit to the change then why would any company or leader undertake it? Sure boardroom or social pressure or moral righteousness is a perfectly fine reason to rid your company, and yourself, of racism. Especially if you are to discover that perhaps you have contributed to it however unintentionally (minority or majority!). I discovered this reality some years back when I took a leadership role in dealing with industry and company environmental impact and sustainability. I could get top executives to recognize the values in going green from public relations to clean conscious but the reality was that unless the effort was considerate of the other green, money, it had little chance of becoming a systemic new reality. In that case you get the self-justifying attitude, “Well, we’d like to but it’s just too expensive to do right now.” So let’s not pretend that conquering something as complex as systemic family, corporate or company racism is going to end out of the moral goodness of the majority willing to empower the minority.
Time and cultural evolution however do produce positive change but that is no quick fix. Still, it does serve us to observe our own evolution. Examining the role of women in the American workplace has been a revolution, primarily born of necessity and of undeniable contribution. From a woman’s place being believed to be exclusively in the home early in the last century to an indispensable Rosie the Riveter in war time to the Mad Men era of gender dominated roles to the Feminist Revolution to lower and mid-level equality to today’s consciousness about the lack of women CEO’s and senior leaders and pay equality progress. In a relatively short time women in the workplace went from limited gender based role players to competing for seats, or the top seat, at the (formerly) big boy’s table.
Cultural change was accelerated when women became equally educated and households became either led by women or requiring of dual incomes to achieve household financial ambitions. In many cases women of color have been included with this progression because circumstances overlap and group inclusion can have many qualifiers. Is there a current necessity to end systemic racism in work-life equal to the dual income paradigm? If so, it is due to the social activism and changing social consciousness about what is right. Still, I will suggest that an economic imperative is what will create change above the snail’s pace we’ve seen to date.
So recognizing there is a “problem” is the start and finding a way to agree that changing the problem will create benefit for all will be the key acceleration catalyst. As the generations turn over in business some systematic influences will progress. Just as a male worker’s attitude about women in the workplace changed dramatically across a few decades so too can the meaning of diversity become one of economic advantage in addition to social and moral obligation. Let’s understand how these generations evolved.
OUR PAST CREATES OUR PRESENT BUT NOT OUR FUTURE
Sure, my own perspective is that of a 50-something white guy who climbed corporate ranks and then started a business. While my own experiences from childhood to worker to leader evolved, like everyone, I have a past that established what I saw, how I thought, and the influences of peers and outsiders alike. As a boy growing up on Long Island I lived in a majority white, middle class, suburban neighborhood. Thanks to the oddity of school zoning while I lived in Nassau County, I went to school in Suffolk County. The big difference was minority population. Growing up in the 1970s social unrest feature race issues in many forms. While I had relatively liberal parents they had grown up in Scotland where they were victimized for being Catholic instead of the majority Protestant. I found it unfathomable that one group of Scottish kids could victimize another group that looked and sounded like them merely because they belonged to a different church. That lesson was immediate that people do not need much to create differentiation and groupings and it has been human nature to do so.
School age years certainly become foundational to attitudes fought or adopted through life and their evolution is what will define an adult. Consider how we treat the “N” word. As opposed to confronting the meanings and terror behind the labeling we have diametrically rationalized that white people mustn’t say it but there is cultural allowance for black rappers and black friends granted an acceptable context. I was uncomfortable as a kid when I hear it used inside my large group of white neighborhood friends. I grew up with songs like, “Fight, fight, a N*** and a white, if the white don’t win, we all jump in.” I’m sure I gave it more of a chuckle than a scolding to the friend who said it. The racist rants were generally instigated by kids who heard it or saw it in their home but even the more liberal kids didn’t object despite not participating. Those realities in the day were dictated by what scared them, and me. And I’m sure that is part of what has kept attitudes alive today. Segmentation followed, whites viewing minorities as “good ones” who go to school and “bad ones” living in poverty and crime who perpetuate the stereotype and the fears.
That background reality doesn’t excuse anything except to contrast that my 8-year-old son today (who is half Filipino) would never even hear such language or perspectives much less find it acceptable or humorous. That is in part social evolution, part economic and geographic, but mostly parental influence. So as the generations of Americans that are becoming more diverse, more educated and more accepting of a non-homogeneous culture age into power there are definite shifts. Those holding onto power may still have the say but as successful workers are no longer one size, sex, color, orientation we are already more open to rewarding those contributions with money and power than we have ever been before. But the change has been a slow evolution and it is time to accelerate it.
In my own career I had a boss who was well liked and respected but he shared he preferred to promote men (black or white) with families and a mortgage over women who might leave to have a family. I even encountered a CFO who subtly but systematically, if not coincidentally had me focus on job eliminating disproportionately black and Jewish, and older managers that he suggested under-performed though he viewed it from a distance. I never had direct evidence he was racist (or ageist) but I did come to believe he had a very clear preference for who and what kind of who he believed was the most valuable. Coincidence isn’t always by accident.
THE BIG MISTAKE
Diversity programs are part of the solution but they are often part of the problem. If their efforts are to make sure there is token representation it is just as likely to create greater problems as the same ideology and mentality that created the lack of diversity will, perhaps unconsciously, perpetuate it and be rationalized to keep it acceptable to the decision makers. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how conditions have come to be, how they evolve over time and used my own reflections on how my leadership attitudes evolved before getting to the fix. This is because, as stated at the beginning, this is not a simple issue to fix and because if leaders, and those being led, do not have an honest evaluation of themselves and their culture a “fix” or improvement is not a likely outcome.
- Assess the Leadership mindset regarding race and company equality. If there is no belief there is a problem there is not likely to be a significant solution.
- Identify how diversity can create additional revenue, reduce costs, improve worker efficiency or otherwise become an economic advantage to motivate change.
- Any changes in hiring practice, staff diversity, professional acceleration, or otherwise changing company makeup must be supported with new and stated attitudes and cultural support that rationalizes the changes to normalcy rather than favoritism or unjustified perceived reverse racism. Training is an essential element.
- Find ways to measure the positive impacts of diversity whether that it with new staff, existing staff or company attitudes about what is valued. Put dollar signs to it.
- Consider the perspective and needs of (any) minority brought into a situation with expectations to excel. Providing an opportunity and saying, “go get ’em” is not a successful support strategy. Training goes both to the new and old employees.
Is it possible we will one day get to a workplace where racial, sex and orientation diversity is a desired state, the optimum state, the most profitable configuration and the actualization of “All men (and women) are created equal,” as our reality? Possible yes, but now is a time to take action and see how far the needle can be moved. Sure it’s socially in vogue but that’s only because it’s been far too long ignored and the tipping point has been passed. There are many needles in this haystack but if we could find a few of the ones that are systemic in our culture, our company and ourselves and make a commitment to identify, change and constantly improve… Well, wouldn’t that make a hell of a difference?!
©2020 MyEureka Solutions LLC. For help with your strategy or BUSINESS THERAPY insights or more life and business musings contact or follow @TomFoxTrainer, at www.myeurekasolutions.com/thoughts, or on LinkedIn. Our current book: Business Therapy: Ideas and Inspirations To Help Build Sales, Leadership, Management, and Personal Performance is available on Amazon.