Years ago, I met a Chief HR Officer at a conference in Savannah, GA, who told a story about what it was like to start a new job and get to the bottom of strategic organizational challenges. When this woman accepted her role, one of the first trends she noticed was that the company routinely counseled and then fired African American workers in a specific customer service department for poor attendance.
WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?
As the new boss, she wanted to get to the bottom of turnover, attrition, and retention. So, she asked the local HR business partners and managers for an explanation. The data told one story that implied a limited talent pool, inadequate screening on behalf of recruiters, and a lack of worth ethic among the employees. Could this really be true? Why was this only happening with one group of workers?
After digging through the data and conducting employee and alumni interviews, the CHRO learned that the penalized employees were recruits hired through employee referrals from a town where white cops routinely pulled over African American residents. What was the cause of all these traffic citations? Expired tags, windows tinted too dark, and air fresheners hanging from their rearview mirrors.
It was clear that local cops terrorized black workers. HR knew it. The data proved it. But it’s not like the CHRO presented her findings on racism to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and ultimately changed the world. She implied to the audience at the conference that her company began a conversation with local authorities, but it was too late. Before the HR department made any headway, an African American resident was killed by a white cop, sparking protests and riots that made national headlines. In the aftermath of this tragic event, she said that her company learned the need to work harder on corporate social responsibility initiatives.
Years later, this CHRO’s tale still makes me angry. But it cemented my philosophy about working in the modern HR department: we sit at the intersection of work, power, politics, and money. We have the data to show the impact of racism on productivity and profitability. We don’t need further proof that our workers are treated unfairly. And we are complicit when we don’t work hard to eradicate racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynistic, and ableist practices in our communities.
WHAT CAN HR DO ABOUT RACISM?
I just listened to my friend Zach Nunn talk about Corporate America’s responsibility to address racism in his latest podcast. He asks one crucial question: “What are you going to do?”
He offers this:
Companies coming together to sign statements about racial inequity is 100% theater and I’m sick of folks giving them applause for that. They have billions of dollars, networks, and technology to mobilize global impact. Don’t let the glitter distract you.
— Living Corporate (@LivingCorp_Pod) April 14, 2021
Listen to the podcast, and please move a little faster than that CHRO on that stage in Savannah.