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Who’s To Blame for Our Race Relations Issues in the Workplace? Us.

August 29, 2018

Whites will be in the minority by the year 2045, according to the Census. We still have 27 more years before this happens, so why focus on that issue now? Because the shift is already beginning to occur and it is having a significant impact on our society and the workplace.

Today, black and white Americans diverge on their views regarding race relations. According to Pew Research Center, sixty-one percent (61%) of black Americans say race relations are bad, while only forty- five percent (45%) of white Americans feel that way. Neither whites nor blacks feel it is getting better. In fact only twenty percent (20%) of whites and 15 percent (15%) of blacks believe race relations are getting better. Individuals interestingly enough want to blame politicians for the challenge we face now and ahead. While politicians can play the division game increasing the wedge between us, they are not the problem…we are.

As a society we must begin to agree on some core ideas. Unfortunately, we are unable to agree on how to address these issues. Forty-one percent (41%) of white Americans say too much attention is paid to race while fifty-eight percent (58%) of black Americans says too little attention is paid to race. When we focus on race, it alienates many Caucasians, and when we do not focus on it blacks are disenfranchised. The only way forward is with a bridge.  It is an emotional and complicated subject and that is without infusing the conversation with other aspects of diversity such as Latinos, Asians, gender and age.

Diversity distinguishes and defines the younger generation. Millennials are now twenty-three percent (23%) of the total population and thirty-eight percent (38%) of the working population, according to the Brookings Institute. However, they account for forty-three percent (43%) of the primary working age minorities. Racial diversity is the central, defining and influential characteristic of this generation.  Millennials are leading us toward 2045.  They are shepherding the nation and our workplaces toward a clearer and more comprehensive racial diversity.

How does all of this relate to our workplaces?  For years we have seen Equal Employment Opportunity (EEOC) cases regarding racial discrimination.  These cases have not gone away.  In fact, they have remained fairly steady since 1997. According to the EEOC, in 2017, over 28,500 charges were filed through the agency–more than any other type of discrimination charge.  With all of the well-deserved attention given to the #metoo movement, racial discrimination charges are approximately thirty-four percent (34%) of the discrimination charges filed and sex or gender account for approximately thirty percent (30 %).

We have a dramatic shift occurring in our society and workplaces that will change everything from economic mobility, power, relationships, norms and more.  It is happening now in front of all of our eyes.  Based on the data, we are failing at embracing the change. What happens as the changes progress?  Think about the possible issues:

  • An increase in EEOC charges, stage agency charges and lawsuits
  • Turnover
  • Potential backlash from Caucasian employees
  • The lack of teamwork
  • Lost opportunities
  • A tarnished brand and reputation
  • Poor performance
  • Loss of revenue

If we fail to rise to this challenge, we will fail to maintain our economic successes.  More importantly, we will lose ourselves in the process.  We are capable of dealing with change, but as so much happens so quickly, we struggle.  It is clear that all sides struggle with this issue and change. To highlight these issues at a more personal level, let’s explore three very real and compelling short stories.

No Trust

When John met his new employee, Jada, he immediately knew something was wrong.  He tried to interact a couple of times that day with her, and there was always the uncomfortable feeling.  There was no trust. But how could that be?  They had just met.  John did not have time to do anything wrong.  Jada had not applied for the position, so it was not about a disappointment.  John decided to ask.  After some time trying to coax whatever it was out of Jada, she finally shared what was bothering her.  John was white, and she did not trust white people based on her history.

A Rising Star Quits

Tom was on the fast track.  He was going to be a partner soon at a top public accounting firm.  His friends were amazed and awestruck with how well his career was going.  He seemed to be on all the right committees and projects.  He had impressed someone at the firm and then one day he quit.  Tom was talking with his friend Bob.  Tom let Bob know he quit.  Shocked, Bob asked, “Why?”  Bob knew he was set. Tom told Bob that the firm seemed overly focused on him being black.  Tom shared that he was not sure if his career was going well because he was black or because they knew he was great.  Of course, Tom and Bob knew Tom was great, but Tom wasn’t sure the firm did.  Tom just wanted to be valued for his contribution.

No Way Out

Greg, a white male, recently keeps to himself on some issues.  He avoids discussing race at all costs.  He has been approached by people he knows and works with about topics such as race.  It is not that he does not want to talk about it.  It is just that Greg thinks he can’t talk openly about race without getting in trouble.  It is not that Greg is racist or has animosity toward blacks.  It is just that he has seen people try who are white and it usually backfires.  They use one wrong word or ask a question out of curiosity, and they are pounced on.  They were trying to have a constructive conversation, and within seconds they were no longer a friend or a colleague.  Greg does not want that, and he does not want anything to tarnish his career, so he is keeping his head down and steering clear.

Ironically, most of us want things to get better and we harbor no resentment toward one another.  But there is a gulf between many of us that keeps us separated.  And it is clear that gulf has an impact on relationships, teams and success.  Ignoring it is no longer an option and clearly won’t be going forward.

Here are ten things to consider when addressing these issues:

  1. Make sure ground rules are set up before trying to address these issues.  We need an open environment and not a free-for-all.
  2. Ensure people are discussing the same thing.  All too often people define things differently.
  3. This takes time.  Do not start something you cannot finish.  Remember this is a process, not an event.
  4. Promote transparency.  When there are few secrets, there is little gossip and stories.  You want to keep that to a minimum so be open about various topics and issues.
  5. Allow people to report concerns and incidents anonymously.  Part of an organization’s responsibility is to create a safe environment and a safe way to address issues.
  6. Bring people in from different backgrounds to speak with your people.  Individuals are uneasy with what they do not know or understand.
  7. Find opportunities to create bridges and connections between different types of people.  People band together with those with whom they have things in common.
  8. Focus on building a culture where everyone feels safe, valued and respected.  Empathy goes a long way to help in creating this type of environment.
  9. Listen to understand.  We need to stop trying to force others to believe what we believe and begin to see through their eyes.
  10. Mix it up.  Reach beyond your usual boundaries.  People learn when uncomfortable, and that means in new situations with different dynamics.  Learn from each other.

Too many people post on social about their anger and fears concerning race and not usually in a productive or useful manner.  They receive two types of responses normally. 1.) Supportive responses from people that feel the same way. 2.) Angry responses from those that are hurt.  Both types of responses reinforce each person’s initial perspective and those same people bring that to work with them.  It is time to stop allowing social networks, politicians, and echo chambers mold our people and our cultures.  It is time to stop failing.  We have an opportunity in front of us, a seismic shift, and we need to rise to the occasion.