by Rick Morgan
Today’s current events are rife with bad news. The despicable and senseless murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, do not end at the doors of this historical house of worship. The event, however, does bring into focus an issue that our country and workplaces continue to wrestle with on a daily basis—that of race.
I will digress for a moment to talk about two points. In 1968, as a college freshman, I was fortunate to be able to earn a spot on our college’s basketball team. I was one of the 12 who got to travel and dress for away games. When we traveled, our coach would pair up players to share rooms for the night. One time, he came to me and told me he needed me to share a room with one of my teammates, which I was happy to do. The coach explained he was pairing us together because I was the only one who he felt would have no objections to the room assignment, which I did not. My teammate was black, and I am white. It really shouldn’t have mattered, but that was the unfortunate state of race relations in the 1960s.
In 1993, as part of an internal assessment of our law firm, the consultant we hired to guide us through the process asked us to identify five substantive issues facing our firm. I identified one of my concerns as follows: “Diversity: We need to be a more culturally/racially diverse firm.” From my seat, such was the state of race relations in the 1990s.
A lesson I have taken from those two things is that we all come from different places, we have differing perspectives, my reality isn’t necessarily the same as your reality, and unless and until we all understand that, we will continue to read bad news like what happened at Emanuel AME.
What does this have to do with employer-employee relations? It’s simple—what goes on outside the workplace ends up inside our workplaces. The question then is what each of us is doing with our HR programs.
My thoughts are as follows:
- As employers, beginning in the executive suite, we each need to live equal employment opportunity and not just say it’s the company policy. Equal employment opportunity applies to race, sex, age, and every other protected classification.
- As employers, beginning in the executive suite, we need to embrace diversity through active involvement in the communities in which we live and work by seeking out, identifying, and being visible in a meaningful way to all segments of our community.
- We need to implement recruiting programs that recognize there are qualified people we aren’t reaching.
- We need to put in place mentoring programs not only for those who work with us now but also for those who are outside the workplace.
- Take a really hard look at your training programs, and make certain they thoughtfully and accurately address issues such as interviewing skills, how to write and conduct a performance review, and what diversity is. This can help avoid the perception of favoritism, racism, or sexism.
- Audit all of your HR practices—for example, where you are seeking out your workforce, how you hire, who is doing the hiring, who your mentors are, how solid your succession planning is, and what your salary structure looks like (not only on paper, but who actually is within each salary band).
- To paraphrase an often-heard statement, we should be making decisions based on the content of the person, not the color of his or her skin.
We have been struggling with the issue of race for a long time. I wish it wasn’t so, but those struggles continue today. Let’s all find a way within our respective workplaces to be the leaders who get us beyond race and recognize the worth of each person, regardless of who he or she is or the color of his or her skin.
Finally, please keep all of those who have lost someone in this senseless tragedy in your prayers, and ask that our leaders and the citizens of Charleston have the strength and wisdom to take this tragedy as a teaching tool to avoid similar events in the future.