Faces of HR

HR Must Be the Conscience of an Organization

Much of the energy toward improving diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the wake of the George Floyd murder has begun to dissipate. The shock and pain of that event have been replaced with other concerns, and many activists and DEI supporters have been disheartened to see that happen. Sometimes, frank discussions surrounding these topics are needed, and that is how I would characterize my recent discussion with today’s “Faces of HR” guest.

Meet Tauhidah Shakir, VP of Human Resources and Chief Diversity Officer at Paylocity.

How did you get into HR?

I always wanted to be a psychologist. Then I realized how long it would take me to be in school to do that, and I decided to do something different. I was always really intrigued with how people think and why they do the things they do and decided to take the course in HR organizational behavior. I thought it was really interesting to understand how people interact within an organization and why they do things they do. I felt like that would be the next best thing to being a psychologist.

It’s a good time to apply those kinds of ideas and thinking to businesses. You must have had some opportunity to watch those ideas advance and evolve as your career grew.

Yes. I was able to enter at a time when I felt like there was a shift from the workplace and management being more focused on dictating tasks and responsibilities to employees toward servant leadership and really understanding and wanting to connect with the hearts and minds of the employees.

That’s what I found fascinating; what makes them tick? What motivates them? How can we engage them? Understand that if you can find that emotional, mental connection, you really don’t have to push them toward discretionary effort or ask them to go above and beyond. That comes naturally because they have a natural connection to the organization as a whole; they feel a part of it. And so they want the best for the company, just like the leaders do. It was a great time to enter the industry because I was able to get in at a time when I was seeing that mind-set shift.

Absolutely. I see that you’ve only been at Paylocity for about half a year or less now. Was there a reason you went to that organization in particular?

Before Paylocity, I had spent almost 2 years consulting. I had stepped out of the corporate world and started my own HR consulting business, and Paylocity was one of my clients. I was really focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion, and executive coaching. I had an opportunity to work with Paylocity and help the company stand up some of its DEI programs and employee resource groups. By interacting with the leadership team, the HR team, and some of the employees, I was really impressed by how committed the organization was to diversity, equity, and inclusion. It wasn’t just because this is a hot topic but rather because it was part of the culture. It was really a commitment. When the Chief Diversity Officer and VP of HR opportunity arose, it was a no-brainer because I had the opportunity to work with the Paylocity team closely before I made the decision to join permanently.

Let’s talk about DEI. Obviously, it’s been pretty hot this year. As you mentioned, Paylocity doesn’t do it just because it was popular. The company does it because it has a real commitment. A lot of organizations out there are creating programs for the first time because it’s popular. What do you think the difference is between those two approaches?

One approach really speaks to your culture and the other is more of an external-facing priority. By looking at Paylocity’s culture book or our website, it’s easy for people to tell that DEI is truly an important part of our culture starting with our equality statement. For companies that may be doing DEI work because it’s something that’s important in the moment, you’ll see more legal statements, like an EEO statement saying it’s illegal to discriminate, on their websites. Any quality DEI statement really speaks to the culture of the organization and wanting employees to feel connected. The right DEI approach reinforces how companies are fostering environments where employees feel like they can bring their whole self to work and be valued and respected.

That really speaks to the culture, and companies that are making that commitment are really pushing to embed DEI into their culture. It’s not just a statement. Or, companies may have a Black Lives Matter statement on their website, but since George Floyd was killed, they haven’t shown continued effort and progress. It was something done to respond to the pressure in the moment, and folks felt like “We want to be on the right side of this. We have to say something or do something in the moment.” HR leaders should be asking themselves: has that momentum continued? Is it progressing forward, or did it stop there because there isn’t as much focus on it right now?

I think that’s the difference. When you’re committed, you’re really trying to make a culture shift. And when you just want to be on the right side of things, you do it for external purposes, so you’ll see minimal effort. And it may be a statement—an EEO statement or something legal—versus something that really speaks to the core of the company’s culture.

One of the things that’s always been difficult for me to understand is why it’s so difficult for organizations to dedicate themselves to diversity. It’s not just the right thing to do—it’s also in their best interests. Do you have any insight into that?

Unfortunately, whatever is happening in society tends to spill over into the corporate arena. And unfortunately, society has made diversity a political conversation. To me, companies have strayed away from it or kept it at arm’s length, so they may place something in the middle or end of the handbook because they want to say something but in a subtle way.

I say this all the time, but when it comes to DEI, common sense goes out the window because people will be unsure to how to have conversations with their team. I encourage managers on my team to check on their people after they may have dealt with a traumatic experience like the George Floyd murder earlier this year. They should start the conversation by asking “How are you? Do you need anything?” Organizations shouldn’t view diversity as political, and that’s when these conversations become more natural. If you boil it down to a human achievement and connecting with people, it can be very simplistic.

It takes a decent amount of bravery, especially if you aren’t trained or if you haven’t talked to real experts about it, to get something like that started because a lot of people are afraid to say the wrong thing. Maybe they don’t have the language on how to approach it.

I think HR is taught regularly, to be more cautious around these topics. Diversity may not come naturally. “It’s just best if we don’t talk about it” is an unfortunate approach to it. I could see how that would be very difficult for some people to broach, but at the same time, HR people are pretty good at being brave because they have to be. You’re the people who are saying no to the CEO. So if it doesn’t happen there, where’s it going to happen?

When I started my career 20 years ago, there was this idea that you don’t talk about religion, politics, race, or ethnicity. You just keep those things to the side so you don’t ruffle any feathers. But now, you can’t ignore it. It’s in your face. Not talking about it does even more harm than stumbling through it and trying to figure it out. I think with the partnership of your HR team, you can figure out the best way to approach it. But I’m having to help HR folks figure it out, as well, because it has been something that’s been much of a taboo.

There is no training around, or there wasn’t any training around, “What should I say?” or “How should we say this? How do we approach this?” You have to start there. You can’t expect employees to check their race and ethnicity at the door, come and do their job, and then pick them up on their way out with their coat. That’s just not possible, empathetic, or realistic in the times we’re living in.

No, it really isn’t.

It probably never was, but we got accustomed to doing it that way. It’s not humane to tell someone to leave half of himself or herself outside and come and do a job, but we got accustomed to that.

That’s such an old-world way of looking at things. Those are the same rules that older generations told us all; for a regular discussion, don’t talk politics with your friends or in public, and don’t talk religion. And maybe it is a good way to avoid conflict if that’s what you’re into, but it’s also a great way to never understand the people around you or really get to know them. It doesn’t have to be a screaming match just because you find you have a different political or religious view than someone else. The other thing was, don’t talk about money, right?

Right.

And gee, what a surprise that that disadvantaged workers for decades and decades.

Right, that was very convenient.

Yeah. Don’t discuss your salary. That’s rude. It also might lead to collective action, but …

Right. And it’s even more rude when you find out how much you make for the same job. There was a purpose behind all of that. And the thing that got me into thinking about connecting with the hearts and minds—you can’t do that without allowing people to bring their whole selves to work. Not talking about difficult things may avoid conflict, but you will never connect with someone fully if you don’t allow the person to be himself or herself and if you’re not respectful of who the person is as a whole person, not just the part of him or her that is doing the job and punching the clock.

Now is a perfect opportunity to expand these ideas. So many of those rules went out the window just because they had to when so many people went remote. If you’re looking into people’s homes now, you’re looking into the real them. And things that were considered taboo, like having kids at home when you’re working, doesn’t matter anymore now. It can’t, not if we want things to work. Now’s the perfect opportunity. And it’s a little upsetting that so many organizations are losing steam on the diversity issue because this is the time to really understand how diverse your workforce is and what different kinds of diversity there are and understand how you get these people connected in the organization when they’re not there.

Right. I think so many things are in flux; so many things are changing. This is the perfect time to say OK, let’s really dig into how we do things and blow it up if it’s not working. I do think it goes back to what we were talking about—that comfort level. After George Floyd was murdered, I said that we have about a 90-day window until people get refocused or distracted with the election to really optimize what’s happening with DEI and really have companies and leaders focused on this topic because they can’t turn away.

There will be distractions. DEI gets put on the back burner, when other priorities arise. Priorities shift and distractions happen. Some things are pressing, and you do have to stop and figure them out. But it doesn’t have to be either or; all of these things are changing and need to be a priority.

Back to your point of bravery and courage. The companies that are embracing DEI and taking the opportunity are very brave because it would be easy to say “OK, we picked it up, but now we’re going to sit it back down because we have other priorities to focus on, or we’re not quite sure what to do with it, so we’re going to set it on the back burner for a little bit longer.” And you can’t. There’s been so much momentum and emphasis around DEI, to stop now would be like proposing to someone; going through all of the wedding preparation; and then the day before, say, “OK, I’m not ready … Let’s not do this. Let’s elope.” How disappointing!

And it’s similar here, though it’s much more important than a wedding or a party, but you’ve gotten people’s hopes up that we’re going to have momentous change. The world is going to be different for ourselves, for our children. We’re really going to have all of these momentous changes. And then to say OK, well, another priority came up, so we’re going to put that back on the back burner—how deflating. That was one of the concerns I heard over the summer from underrepresented minorities, especially from people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ+, saying, “I hope this continues. I don’t want them to get us excited and then forget about us.”

Things keep happening. Cops keep killing black people. Just yesterday, Casey Goodson Jr. was shot in the back going into his house by a cop. Just another killing like those that happened before and since George Floyd was murdered. It’s very difficult to understand why this perpetual problem isn’t perpetually addressed.

It’s difficult, and it’s disappointing. I really feel like with George Floyd this summer, it was the perfect storm of people being at home on quarantine, and the intense news coverage. People who would normally be heads down in an office all day could go out, and protest. Now, as these incidents continue to happen, the outrage has waned. I think this is because people are once again distracted. A lot of people are getting back to work or going out more or focused on the election., You don’t pay as much attention when you see that lives are still being lost because you have to figure out how to educate your kid virtually or work from home. We’re just falling back into those old, dangerous patterns that really disenfranchise a large population of the country. And it’s sad, and it’s unfortunate because there was so much hope.

I’m not saying all hope is lost. Over the summer many people were saying “I didn’t know this was happening” or “It wasn’t in your face” or “I didn’t have time to really stop and focus.” But to me, that says OK, we’re falling back into the pattern of people being desensitized to it. Now if you weren’t aware before, you were shocked when you saw George Floyd, but now you’ve seen it. The question is how do we address these issues in a meaningful way?

But I do think because of everything that happened, when you call people to action, when you call people out and say, “Hey, we have to do better. We made promises. We can’t let this linger out there,” there’s more energy around it; it’s just that we have to get back, and we have to do it. I think when you’re able to give the call to action with action steps, people are much more apt to jump on board. But I think there’s still a little bit of that hesitation, like “I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to do the wrong thing.” And not enough companies are paving the way. So, do we want to be the first, or how are we going to do this? So we’ll wait and see how other people react. I do think we can harness some momentum because so many eyes have been opened, but still, people are unfortunately gravitating back to their comfort zone.

Do you have any advice for other HR professionals who maybe are at an organization that had an initial level of interest and maybe that interest has waned? Do you have any advice for how they should approach that, how they should keep their programs alive, and what they can do?

I think they have to be bespoke people for those programs and efforts. You’d have to be the person who’s reminding the leadership team that “Hey, these are the commitments that we made. These are the promises that we made. We have to keep the promises. Let’s not forget.” I think in many situations outside of DEI, HR serves as the organization and especially leaders’ conscience and makes sure they’re doing the right thing. Embrace that role as the organization’s conscience, and remind them that “Hey, if we promise that we were going to give bonuses,” you wouldn’t let the leadership forget that or not do it. Or, if we promised that we were going to add something to our benefits program, we’re not just going to let the organization drop the ball and not do it.

The same is true with DEI. We’ve promised the organization and clients, and some companies went as far as to make public claims on their websites about all of the things they were going to do. You can’t let them fall by the wayside, and you can’t take your eye off the ball. And if you do, it will be very easy for them to do it, as well, because they can say, “Oh, well, we have to get back to business, and this is so different with the remote, and we have to focus on how we are going to fund all these things.”

I embrace that role as being the conscience and thought. HR professionals should embrace this as their purpose because this is a broader purpose, and what you do in this moment will speak volumes for you as an HR professional; for the organization as a whole; for the leaders who make it up; and, more importantly, for the employees who are impacted by the changes and the actions that are taken.

On the flip side, if you do nothing, think about how deflating and disengaging that is not only for employees at work but also for thinking about what your responsibility as the human being in the society as a whole is. This is your opportunity. If you’re not involved with nonprofit, if you don’t do other things outside of that, this is your chance to really do something. Don’t take it for granted and waste it.

I couldn’t agree more. One of the things I often think about is how much organizations have in this country, just by sheer virtue of how many people they can reach and what effect they can have on their lives. It’s possibly even more powerful than government, religion, or even education. Here’s your opportunity to make a difference. It’s too easy for people to just forget about that.

Right. Organizations, you have a captive audience. You’re paying people. They want to do well. Now, I never have rose-colored glasses, and I don’t believe that we’re going to change people’s value system. If you don’t care about diversity, if you don’t think inclusion is important, and if your moral compass doesn’t align with that, then the organization’s having a DEI statement or program probably won’t change that. But organizations cannot miss out on the opportunity. You have a captive audience. There are people who may have been thinking that this is something that’s interesting, and they want to learn more. They want to get involved.

This is an opportunity for you to pull them out and really engage. They’re spending the majority of their time at work. Give them the food for thought, or at least open the door. Give them this opportunity to explore something like this at work because again, if you’re trying to engage people, engage them holistically. This is something that’s tapping into their humanity, their purpose. Not everybody’s going to be interested, but at least present the opportunity and see. I think people pleasantly surprise us when we give them these types of opportunities.

And one final thing for the HR professionals: Don’t look at it like, well, I don’t want to keep reminding them because this is all going to fall on me. I am sure there are people in your organization who will help you carry the torch because this is a burning passion for a lot of people you may not even know.