Addressing Social Issues and Racism in the Workplace

Racial disparities are still prevalent in workplaces across the country. Here’s what companies are doing to understand, address, discuss, and take action on the issue.

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How to address social issues with employees — plus important statistics to be aware of

The filmed killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the swell of nationwide and international protests that followed didn’t go unnoticed by the business community. The massive outcry against anti-Black racism is causing more employers to address social issues, including the experiences of Black employees and other ethnic and racial groups in their organizations.

The global unrest over racial injustice has brought racial disparities in the workplace front and center. High profile companies are confronting social issues by supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and stepping up their commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Microsoft and Netflix are just a couple of the companies that announced on their blogs and websites that they’re channeling funds to BLM, organizations for racial and social justice, Black and minority-owned businesses, and academic enrichment programs. Even bakers from around the world held a global virtual bake sale called Bakers Against Racism, the proceeds of which were donated to ending injustice against Black Americans.

What employees want: Most expect their companies to tackle societal issues 

“By bringing people together, there can be an open dialogue about how employees are feeling, what’s working, what isn’t.”

Conventional wisdom is that employers aren’t responsible for addressing social issues — like the massive corporate commitment to end racism — nor are they expected to do so.

But according to Metlife’s 2018 Role of the Company Survey, a growing number of workers are on board with their employers taking up social causes. Among the 1,000 employees polled, 70% said companies must take on society’s challenges. 52% expect their companies to tackle societal issues even if they’re not central to the company’s business.

The challenge for companies — from large enterprises to small businesses — is how to address social issues with employees, especially complex social, political, and economic issues. Race is one of the issues that can be challenging to discuss.

In an email interview for Workest, Esi Minta-Jacobs, executive vice president of Human Resources and Program Management at AssetMark, said employers can start addressing social issues by convening workers in teams or large groups.

“By bringing people together, there can be an open dialogue about how employees are feeling, what’s working, what isn’t and what [they] want to see more of,” Minta-Jacobs said. “These conversations … enable the leadership team to hear first-hand what the organization’s needs are and where the gap is.”

Stats uncover disparities

Employers looking to weed out racism in their organizations need to look at data on:

  • Hiring
  • Promotions
  • Compensation
  • Discrimination claims
  • Company culture

Reviewing this data will help employers understand the extent of bias in their workplace.

Hiring and promotion

Disparities in hiring and advancement based on race persist among Black and Hispanic employees, a recent survey discovered. Prompted by Floyd’s death, Blind — an anonymous network of largely technology professionals — found that while 47% of White respondents think that upper management understands racial differences, only 34% of Hispanic and 19% of Black respondents agreed. When respondents were asked whether their ethnicity was reflected in upper management ranks, 76% of Whites said yes. Only 21% of Hispanic and 10% of Black workers responded yes.

Black and Hispanic workers in the Blind study overwhelmingly felt underrepresented in their companies. However, better recruiting strategies might have changed the study results.

Melodie Bond-Hillman, PhD, senior manager, HR and Administration at XYPRO Technology Corporation, told Workest that to attract diverse job candidates, her company recruits from as broad a talent pool as possible. She also cited training as a key factor in hiring and maintaining a diverse workforce and fostering employee social interaction.

When respondents were asked whether their ethnicity was reflected in upper management ranks, 76% of Whites said yes. Only 21% of Hispanic and 10% of Black workers responded yes.

Pay inequity

A Pew Research Center study uncovered pay inequities across racial and economic lines in 2016. The center broke down earnings for White, Black, Asian, and Hispanic workers as follows:

High-wage earners

Asian: $133,529

White: $117,986

Black: $80,502

Hispanic: $78,847

Median-wage earners

Asian: $51,288

White: $47,958

Black: $31,082

Hispanic: $30,400

Low-wage earners

White: $15,094

Asian: $12,478

Hispanic: $9,900

Black: $8,201

Asians remain the highest-paid workers in the United States. However, they faced the biggest pay decreases from 1970 to 2016, according to the center.

In the high-paying tech industry, a 2019 study by the employment platform Hired found that while Asian IT professionals surpassed their White counterparts in salary ($137,000 vs. $135,000), Black IT professionals remain the lowest paid ($130,000) among the 4 ethnic groups, including Hispanic ($131,000). According to Hired, wages are decreasing across the board, but the pay gap for professional Black workers in IT is widening.

Unlike many tech companies, which continue to struggle with diversity and fairness in hiring and pay, Adobe and Salesforce have gone public with the progress they’ve made in closing race- and gender-based pay gaps. The companies have achieved wage parity by increasing salaries and monitoring and auditing their compensation practices.

XYPRO takes similar actions to ensure parity. They review all employees’ wages, follow government hiring guidelines, and track applicants, Bond-Hillman said.

Discrimination

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces anti-discrimination laws designed to protect workers on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, disability and, with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, LGBTQ employees. But Black employees, women, and other underrepresented groups in the workforce report being routinely discriminated against. This discrimination happens regardless of their skills, education, and experience.

In a 2019 report by the Center for Talent Innovation, 2/3 of Black professionals felt they had to work harder than their non-Black colleagues to advance professionally, compared to only 16% of White professionals who felt the same. Also, Black professionals said they heard racially insensitive remarks, or microaggressions, at work at significantly higher rates than all other surveyed racial groups.

In a 2019 report by the Center for Talent Innovation, 2/3 of Black professionals felt they had to work harder than their nonblack colleagues to advance professionally, compared to only 16% of White professionals who felt the same.

In other examples of discrimination, Black employees, women, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ employees said they experienced unfair assignment and promotion practices, stereotyping, sexual harassment, and bullying, according to a Kapor Center for Social Impact/Harris Poll survey

Ridding the workplace of discrimination hinges on how companies handle bias complaints. Bond-Hillman said her company takes all discrimination complaints seriously, whether filed by employees or the EEOC.

“We gather opinions from everyone involved in the complaint, including witnesses,” she added. “We also have anti-retaliation and confidentiality policies in place.”

Her company’s investigations are followed up by remedial action, which includes check-ins with adversely affected employees to ensure their wellbeing.

Do toxic cultures feed bias?

After sexual harassment allegations against Uber became public, a consulting team recommended a culture overhaul for the scandal-ridden company. The overhaul paid off; in a leaked internal memo, employees praised the company for its workplace reforms.

XYPRO has a high employee satisfaction rating, since its culture embraces the idea that everyone is equal, Bond-Hillman said. “We go the ‘extra mile’ to show employees that they’re valued,” she added.

Minta-Jacobs believes that a company’s culture is critical in fighting bias. She said that having a clearly defined set of principles and values is a company’s first step towards addressing social issues and, ultimately, routing out bias. She advises companies to incorporate these principles and values into their business strategy.

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