The year 2020 was supposed to be another spectacular year. Plans for new work opportunities and projects; significant lifetime achievements and memories such as graduations, proms, weddings; and big family trips all abruptly came to an end or were postponed or cancelled altogether when the Covid-19 virus hit the United States. Fortunately, people are resilient. Our ability to be flexible and “to go with the flow” was put to good use and new plans (maybe not as spectacular) were put in place as most of us learned (and are still learning) how to make the most of the situation and tolerate these changes until things get back to “normal.”
Then, the world changed again with the death of George Floyd. It became apparent that waiting it out and tolerance were not enough. Tolerance has three meanings: 1) being patient, understanding, and accepting of anything different; 2) an allowable deviation from a standard or from the theoretical ideal; and 3) the ability to endure. Even though we have been patient, accepted “things that are different than ideal,” and have endured many things, we have not done enough to change ourselves and our society for the better. We have been tolerating the pandemic like we have been tolerating racial injustices for hundreds of years. Tolerance is not enough. We cannot go back to the way it was. We must change.
Many of us work for what we consider successful, progressive, and people-focused organizations. These organizations have done “all the right things” with respect to diversity by appointing chairs of diversity departments, providing employee and manager training, having zero-tolerance policies in place, and sponsoring diversity network groups for their employees. Many of us believe that the days of racial inequality in our workforce are behind us because we focus on these “best practices” and feel like we have done what we can to address any issues that may arise.
I am no exception. I advise clients to start with these items and have focused my efforts on the remaining injustices towards women and LGBTQ people. I have spent the past few years educating women leaders and supporting LGBTQ employees, policies, and causes. I was blind to the extent that discrimination still exists for those of non-white skin color despite these actions, until I had a conversation with one of the super-talented minority women that I mentor.
Back in early June, I had a regular mentoring check-in call with my mentee who holds a mid-level management position at a large global company. We were going through our usual pleasantries and updates when I asked her how she was doing with all the social unrest going on in the country. I didn’t expect to hear her response, as we have been working together for over two years and she has achieved quite a bit of success and several promotions since I have known her. All was well in my mind on the racial front until she shared that she feels discrimination “all of the time,” even in her position.
“It happens every day in conversations, assignments, and meetings,” she said. “The way that people talk to you, roll their eyes, or intonate their questions indicates they feel threatened by my input and authority. I have to work twice as hard to prove myself to others who think I was promoted because of my gender and skin color. It doesn’t just happen to me but to every person of color in my organization. I have kept track of their accomplishments and advocated for the advancement of each one of them, but it has fallen on deaf ears. It is hard to keep my team and myself motivated and focused.”
I asked her if she had never mentioned the extent of these experiences to her HR organization or management before, but she explained that it would cause many more problems than it was worth. Discrimination was not something that her company wanted to discuss. It was best to tolerate these actions if you wanted to keep your job and not be seen as a “trouble maker.”
This year, however, was different. When her organization did nothing to acknowledge the social unrest going on, or to reiterate their anti-discrimination policies in support of their minority employees, she found the courage to speak up. She called the CEO directly and told him exactly what she had seen and experienced. She decided that she was no longer going to tolerate these micro-aggressions in the workplace. She could no longer continue to work at a place where she didn’t feel included or where she could not bring her whole self to work. These issues were the main reason that many capable employees were leaving. She herself was looking for another job and so, if they fired her, she would find another place to feel appreciated.
At first, like most CEOs, he couldn’t believe it. His organization had all the “best practices” in place to promote diversity and had checked all the boxes. He couldn’t believe that some employees still felt regularly discounted, undervalued, or unseen. In the end, however, he was grateful – grateful that she had the courage to open up and share her personal experiences with him. Not all CEOs or organizations are that lucky or that open to hear the feedback. He responded by asking her to be an advisor regarding these kinds of conversations throughout the organization.
This story made me realize that corporate America has become colorblind. Most of us don’t really value the differences that others bring to the table. We don’t want to talk about racial differences because that would be admitting that there is still a problem. We often try to sweep issues under the rug and focus on making everything and everyone seem equal. Except that isn’t the case.
This was hard for me. I consider myself an open-minded person. I have done all the things that they say you should do to increase your ability to be an inclusive leader. I have traveled extensively and lived and studied abroad in other cultures. I ask people about their stories and have mentored employees very different from myself. I have trained people how to treat others with respect and build trust. I even work in HR, which is the landing place for people who love working with others, and have found that I am able to tolerate the most ridiculous of circumstances. I can’t believe how naïve I have been.
Many organizations want to do something to address the social unrest sweeping our country, but it also takes all of us individually changing our behavior, overcoming bias, and becoming more inclusive in order for all individuals – no matter their differences – to be able to bring their best and whole selves to work.
The biggest challenge coming out of this pandemic will be to create growth. To have growth, we need to innovate. To innovate, we need diversity. To activate diversity, we need inclusion. And to manage all this, we need inclusive leadership.
Let’s make 2020 spectacular, but for different reasons than we originally thought. Let’s figure out a way to not only tolerate our differences, but to truly include all of humanity so that they can bring full selves to work.
Leslie Russ is a Consultant at Foundations Human Resources Consulting in Lexington, Kentucky, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fisher Phillips labor and employment law firm. Leslie can be reached at 859-286-1100 or lruss@FoundationsHR.com.