A Country—and Workplace—Divided

What business leaders need to know

At this point, the country feels quite divided in a number of ways. A rise in hate crimes targeting racial/ethnic minorities has disturbed many, while others claim overreaction. Some assert that police forces are woefully underresourced and need additional support, while others protest police shootings committed within unarmed communities of color.

How can companies let their employees know that they are valued, in spite of the differences that divide the country? Business leaders should be aware that, at this point, many people of color do not feel safe. In particular, the spate of police shootings of African Americans has left many feeling shaken and vulnerable. Oftentimes, these feelings are carried by employees into the workplace.

It’s important to consider that influence starts from the top of the organization and, laudably, many progressive companies have supported diversity and inclusion within their workforces. For example, in 2015, several CEOs of major companies filed an amicus brief with the US Supreme Court, in support of the use of affirmative action in postsecondary institutions.

Yet, when employees come into the workplace, relatively few work environments allow them to bring their “whole selves” to work. The Catalyst report, Emotional Tax: How Black Women and Men Pay More at Work and How Leaders Can Take Action, highlights the guardedness that African Americans—particularly women—often feel in the workplace. They also report feeling a sense of vigilance given their expectation that they will face stereo-typing at work.

There are parallels between police shootings of African American civilians and instances of stereotyping and double standards in the workplace. In a recent episode of The Daily Show, host Trevor Noah commented on the acquittal of a Minnesota policeman for the fatal shooting of motorist Philando Castile. Noah shared the popular assumption that videos of police shootings would resolve any ambiguities and result in justice being served. Yet, a jury watched the video of Castile following the officer’s instructions and saw the officer kill Castile—and still voted to acquit the officer of manslaughter.

Noah observed that “black” and “dangerous” were linked in the jury’s minds: “What they’re basically saying is, ‘In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.’” Underlying the officer’s actions are double standards—which, in my opinion, the jury basically confirmed through their acquittal.

There are parallels between these situations and workplace dynamics.

Societal double standards regarding African Americans began many decades ago. For example, a recent study by Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality has highlighted the stereotyping of young African American girls as older and “less innocent” than their peers, which can influence others’ treatment of them in educational and justice systems. Much evidence also exists regarding the greater instance of discipline at schools directed at African American children, leading to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Business leaders should ask: Does my company’s talent system ensure fair treatment of employees? Are there instances of double standards and biases in my organization, regardless of the written policies on such matters?

If so, the company’s leadership bears the responsibility of rooting out such discrimination. Without attention to this matter, the divisive dynamics of the country may very well play out in the workplace, with deleterious effects on employees’ morale, retention, and innovation. DW

Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit organization accelerating progress for women through workplace inclusion. With operations in the United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia, and Japan, and more than 800 supporting organizations, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work.

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