Diversity & Inclusion

Change at the White House: What About the Workplace?

It’s going to be quite a week.

Today, of course, is the national holiday that celebrates the birth of the legendary civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tomorrow, the nation and the world will witness history in the making as the first African-American is sworn in as President of the United States. Looking at these two events together, one can’t help but appreciate how far this nation has come as the last racial barrier in U.S. politics comes crashing down. However, we must be mindful of the fact that the road to full equality is still ahead of us, and it’s quite long — especially in the U.S. workplace.

If you have any doubts about this premise, take into account that as of January 1, there were only 13 female CEOs running America’s largest 500 publicly traded companies. According to the research firm Catalyst, women receive six in 10 college degrees, yet there are fewer female directors and officers.

Plus, consider these startling numbers form the EEOC:

  • the EEOC’s most recent statistics show that the agency received more than 80,000 private-sector discrimination charges in 2007, the highest number of charges since 2002 and the largest annual increase since the early 90s;
  • that same year, the EEOC recovered more than $345 million in damages for job bias victims;
  • the number of race discrimination charges in 2007 rose to 30,510, the highest it’s been since 1994;

In light of those figures, there is no doubt that change hasn’t made its to the workplace. We have a long way to go in achieving a workplace that is inclusive and free of discrimination. If anything, the numbers demand that HR professionals not loose sight of the challenges that sideline diversity initiatives in the workplace. In fact, the troubling statistical snapshot from the EEOC and how HR chooses to respond might provide the profession with a perfect opening to demonstrate that which eludes them: that HR matters to the C-Suite.

Deloitte and The Economist Intelligence Unit ran a survey a few years ago that I can’t shake from my memory. The poll looked at how people issues were seen by over 500 senior managers and HR executives from companies around the world.

Eighty-five percent of respondents believed that people issues were vital to their business operations. But the alarm bells go off when you drill down to senior management’s responses. Sixty percent of senior business executives considered people issues significant, however, only four percent of senior execs described their company’s HR team as “world class.” The survey also found that 52 percent of companies didn’t even have a chief HR officer on the payroll, while 23 percent of top managers believed that HR could play a “crucial role in strategy and operational results.”

HR, here is your golden opportunity to do something extraordinary and, at the same, elevate the profession’s credibility with its most important constituency. By addressing the problem of job bias through initiatives that foster respect, inclusion, and a discrimination-free work environment, you’ll begin to see the payoff. Senior executives will notice, will thank you for your efforts, and begin to change their perceptions of what HR can achieve.

Is change coming? It’s certainly coming to the White House. That said, the most pressing question for HR is “Will change make its way to the workplace?” If so, are you ready to bring about that change? The lack of female diversity in the C-Suite, coupled with those EEOC numbers, demand that you do.

Ralph Gaillard is the Executive Editor of HR Insight and Group Publisher of the Strategic HR division for M. Lee Smith Publishers. For nearly 20 years, Ralph has worked in the publishing and marketing fields, with a specialty in creating executive education programs, building strategic partnerships and launching new products. Ralph has worked for various information publishers, including Lawrence Ragan Communications, a leading provider of corporate communication information and training. He was also an account executive for The PBN Company, an international media relations firm based in San Francisco. Early in his career, Ralph worked for the Chicago Tribune as an editorial researcher and at The Washington Post as the staff researcher for National News. He is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management, the International Association of Business Communicators, and the American Society for Training and Development.