Hiring a Chief Diversity Officer isn’t enough to make workplaces safer for racialized employees
HR needs mechanisms in place to prevent bias in performance management practices
With the movement for social justice in full swing, many workplaces feel compelled to do something, anything, to demonstrate that they are diverse and inclusive and support the notion that #BlackLivesMatter. With each new Chief Diversity Officer job posting, companies in all sectors are sending messages to their stakeholders and staff that their organizations need fixing – and that they did not truly care about diversity and inclusion or anti-Black racism until now.
Over the years, I have worked in many settings. I have investigated complaints at the Ontario Human Rights Commission. I have implemented legislation and developed policies to improve organizational practices and access for historically marginalized people at the Office of the Fairness Commissioner and at the Accessibility Directorate of Ontario. I have sat on hospital boards and workplace committees and advised senior leaders on how to create more diverse and inclusive organizations. My work has been rewarding and fulfilling, and on paper I seem to be a successful Black woman. But the truth of the matter is that in many places I have worked, I have experienced acts of violence that did not rise to the level of discrimination or harassment under the Ontario Human Rights Code, but still affected my psychological safety.
Too many workplaces have been tainted with the toxicity of bullying, marginalization and disrespect. Too many people have experienced the insidious nature of day-to-day microaggressions and other behavioural indignities from co-workers and senior leaders alike, even with so-called “inclusive employers.”
I have learned that employers have a hard time seeing how the bad behaviours of the people they employ, and often promote to leadership positions, are deeply rooted in phobias and isms (e.g. homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, ablism, Islamophobia), as well as the systems their organizational policies and practices support (such as patriarchy, white supremacy and misogyny). This leads to homogeneity, exclusion, workplace violence, oppression and injustice, time and time again.
Unless companies begin to innovate to solve workplace issues for racialized people, the current civil rights movement will be longstanding.
Below are two innovative solutions that companies can take to show their commitment to diversity and inclusion and make workplaces safer for racialized employees – even without a Chief Diversity Officer hire.
Question your Karens
We all know a “Karen” at work. Like Amy Cooper, the white female dog walker who tried to call the police on a Black male bird watcher in New York’s Central Park last May, workplace Karen is overly meddlesome, questioning and complaining (Vera & Ly, 2020). She is often promoted to positions of power without merit and is threatened by smart, talented and capable racialized workers. Karen evaluates performance and makes excuses why a person of colour needs a performance improvement plan. Even worse, Karen is able to call human resources and weaponize her white privilege against racialized employees when she feels she has had enough – she believes the person of colour is not conforming in some way and should be removed from the workplace.
“Too many people have experienced the insidious nature of day-to-day microaggressions and other behavioural indignities from co-workers and senior leaders alike, even with so-called ‘inclusive employers.'”
Too many companies do not question the practices of these workplace Karens when names of racialized people are brought forward and the Karen says they are not a good “fit” for the organization. Racialized employees end up “performance managed” or worse – removed from places where they should belong.
If organizations truly feel an imperative to break systemic and attitudinal barriers to inclusion, human resources departments need to do a better job of questioning senior leaders when individual names are brought forward for performance management and/or termination. HR leaders should question whether bias is playing a role and, if so, have mechanisms to address those biases.
End the practice of terminating racialized employees at will and without cause
Racialized workers who make it through workplace doors are the best and the brightest. They have grown accustomed to being “the only” in many spaces, which often leads to their oppression, subjugation and, later, termination. Over the course of my career, Black, Asian and other racialized employees have shared their stories of marginalization, discrimination, oppression and ousting with me. Many have learned to thrive at office events and have expertly handled microaggressions in workplace interactions. Many of them had equal or greater qualifications than their white colleagues and were overworked and tokenized as the model minority. Later, they were passed over for promotions and other high-profile opportunities. Some were performance managed straight out the proverbial workplace door. Some did not even have the chance to remedy so-called deficiencies via a performance improvement plan, because there were none. At the management level, reasons were not given for their termination. Personally, even I was walked out of a workplace with strong performance appraisals simply because my uneducated workplace Karen felt I no longer met her requirements.
The phenomenon of Black women moving from office “pet to threat” was first coined by Keisha M. Thomas in a 2013 study (Stallings, 2020). This icy transition happens when the Karen feels threatened in some way by the racialized employee and begins to put a plan in place to have them fired. I have seen people from marginalized groups experience hostility from their superiors, punishment for taking time they were entitled to and that was previously approved, exclusion from meetings and a lack of access to information they need to do their jobs. Thomas felt that it was important for Black women to have mentors and a strong network of peers, as well as connections with people in more senior positions to help navigate the “invisible currents” we are all swimming in. I agree.
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The practice of terminating racialized and other historically marginalized workers without cause should be totally abolished. The provision that permits termination at the whim of the employer should not make it into employment contracts for people of colour. Instead, mechanisms should be created to identify biases that may be at play among employees and management. Organizations also need to develop succession plans to mentor talented employees of colour.
These are the cries for equitable treatment coming from racialized and other marginalized employees at work. They want workplaces that are not just paying lip service to progress and rushing to make their organizations appear to care about changing things for Black and brown people, but that are legitimately diverse, inclusive, safe and support the mental health and well-being of all their employees.
I am hopeful that this movement for change will incite workplaces to make meaningful improvements beyond their performative hiring of Chief Diversity Officers by implementing innovative, thoughtful solutions that truly make a difference.
Janelle Benjamin is the Founder & Chief Equity Officer of All Things Equitable Inc., a new GTA-based Management Consulting Firm, created to address the cries for systemic change coming from all marginalized groups in the workplace. It helps organizations in all sectors come up with innovative solutions to make workplaces more diverse, inclusive and safe, and support the mental health and well-being of all their employees.
Stallings, E. (2020). When Black women go from office pet to office threat. Medium. zora.medium.com/when-black-women-go-from-office-pet-to-office-threat-83bde710332e
Vera, A., and Ly, L. (2020). White woman who called police on a black man bird-watching in Central Park has been fired. CNN. cnn.com/2020/05/26/us/central-park-video-dog-video-african-american-trnd/index.html