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Workplace injustice. Silence is no longer an option.

by | ESG, General

I’ve noticed on LinkedIn many executives expressing their concern for those who have faced injustice in this imperfect world. They encourage us all to be part of solutions, making the world a better place, arm-in-arm.

I’m not buying it. Some of these executives are capable of leading change. I laude them. But many are feeding their egos, throwing some corporate pocket-change at the problem, and trying to calm the populous down so they can get back to business as usual. One well-meaning executive started his post with, “I’m not going to apologize for being white.” The BLM movement has a LOT of educating to do.

Most of these executives are looking at injustice externally instead of inside their own organizations. They consider themselves to be the good guys. They believe all the unrest is out there on the streets, not 15 feet from their desk. They have diversity and inclusion officers, corporate social responsibility reports, and awards to tout – all the trappings of enlightened organizations. But peel back this façade and you may find something different. These diversity and inclusion programs are only as strong as those sitting in the C-Suite.

Systemic bias along lines of race, gender, sexual orientation, and age is alive and well in many of their own organizations. The problem is simple. Injustice isn’t complicated. But fixing it in the corporate workplace isn’t just about creating more diversity councils or making bigger donations to minority social service agencies. Justice in the workplace requires uncomfortable conversations, heated debate at times, and acknowledging one’s own fears. It’s fear that prevents most of these executives and their boards from fully living their organizations’ nondiscrimination and diversity policies and values. Fear of conflict, fear of client response, and fear of what fixing injustices may mean to the corporate bottom line or their own career paths.

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought us to the first moment in the last 60 years where there’s opportunity for changing systems that have been suffocating a community on the streets AND in the boardrooms. The stories I’m hearing on social media and in community meetings are gut-wrenching. The black community is weary, and they’re expressing generations of frustration and sadness. Black employees have a need to share their stories online and at their place of employment. What they DON’T need is to be facing white defensiveness from their workplace leaders. Executives are often quick to believe they are the experts and have the solution. Not this time. Executives need to sit down, stop talking, and listen.

I’m inspired by the BLM movement. I was employed by large financial services companies for over 30 years as an openly gay man. I, too, have stories to share about dehumanizing and brutal tactics that I and my community have faced at the hands of certain executives who consider themselves “enlightened.” But that’s for another day. This moment belongs to the black community. A tipping point has been reached and none of us can take our eye off the ball.

My degrading experiences and my involvement with ESG investing through my business, have taught me there are means of encouraging corporate leadership to clean up their acts. For anyone in a community facing systemic bias at their workplace, let me share this roadmap.

Organize, Organize, Organize. I learned that employee organization is key. Don’t try to tackle curing injustice at your workplace on your own. It’s too easy to be labeled a trouble-maker and you may soon find yourself out of a job. Workplace diversity groups are safe places for their members to share their painful experiences, but members are often uncomfortable sharing these experiences outside their own groups. Their pain is very personal and they are concerned others outside their community may not understand or appreciate why it hurts so much. That needs to change. Diversity groups create safe spaces, but they are also isolating. The boundaries between these diverse communities need to be broken down; trust in one another. Take the first step and reach out to a member in another community and start sharing. And don’t let executive sponsors of your groups make you feel that you’re being insubordinate by organizing in a non-official way. You, as employees, have every right to communicate and organize yourselves in your own way. Collective voices across employee communities will be the force that drives change. Focus on, and embrace, your differences; don’t let them divide you. You all want the same outcome.

Begin with what can be easily measured. Where should workplace justice begin? Start with the low-hanging fruit: fair and unbiased compensation and promotion. These can be easily measured. Don’t just accept your employer’s word that diversity is valued. Your employer should prove it with the numbers. HR needs to publish the compensation and job ranking data by race, gender, sexual orientation, and age. They have that data but many companies don’t want to share that information. Compensating and promoting people with fairness and equality can be costly for those firms that have been waiting for attrition to magically cure compensation-bias over time. But those companies will bleed those same costs in other ways – turnover, lawsuits, lost business, higher capital costs, lower productivity – if they don’t create a just workplace.

Hold executives accountable. Where there are obvious gaps in compensation and job rank parity, executives should provide employees a plan with detailed actions steps to correct those gaps and a timeline for implementation. Be impatient. Change requires leaning in. Hold leadership accountable.

From there, a reconstruction of all hiring, compensation, evaluation, and promotion policies must take place. And representatives from all employee communities need to be part of developing these policies. You’re a stakeholder and should have representation at the Big Table. Too often, outside consultants are brought in and develop programs in isolation of employee collaboration. Consultants can play a valuable role by bringing in outside perspectives, but executive leadership should not be allowed to hide behind them.

Of course, there are companies that will refuse to recognize there is a problem. Remember, there are many stakeholders in a public company. If corporate leadership won’t make the changes necessary to institute workplace justice, then the case can be brought to the board, particularly the independent board members. And finally, if the board doesn’t act, the case can be brought to institutional shareholders. Major shareholders are often mandated to invest in companies that are fulfilling workplace equity and justice. They may be very interested in hearing more about what’s happening under the corporate covers.

We are living in a moment when long overdue change can happen in the workplace. Not just pandering. Not just calming everyone’s nerves so we can get back to business as usual. Real change. Real justice. Silence is no longer an option.