At My Company We Treat Everyone Fairly (and Other Fairy Tales)

 At My Company We Treat Everyone Fairly (and Other Fairy Tales)

By Jennica Webster

It has been more than 50 years since the passage of legislation providing equal employment protections for women, racial/ethnic, and religious groups; 40 years since these protections were extended to pregnancy, and 30 years since they were extended to people with disabilities. Beyond legal protections, the business case for diversity and inclusion has been articulated (and supported by increasingly sophisticated data) for more than 25 years. Many organizations espouse and even celebrate their diversity and inclusion statements, policies, practice, and even mission.

All things considered, it’s fair to say most of the US workforce has spent their entire careers working within organizations not only prohibited from discriminating again them, but expressly claiming to value, appreciate, and amplify the knowledge and perspective “diverse” employees provide.

While it would seem there is good news here, let’s not celebrate just yet. Real progress has been limited and exceptionally slow. As recently as last year the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) heard more than 72,000 charges of workplace discrimination. Women and other historically marginalized groups still have less access to many jobs, experience lower pay within and across jobs, find it more difficult to obtain promotions, and remain underrepresented in upper management positions relative to their white male counterparts. Across organizations and industries, a sense of inclusion and belonging remains elusive – this is not simply a “corporate” problem.Recommended For You

This mismatch between intentions and outcomes begs the question, how can this be? We may think to ourselves, ‘at my company we treat everyone fairly,’ ‘when we look at our people we don’t see color (or other identities)’ or ‘we base all of our personnel decisions on merit.’ Unfortunately, research shows that these very beliefs can prevent the advancement of a truly equitable and inclusive environment. Even in the best intended organizations these beliefs become justification for systems that produce disadvantage, and ultimately, lasting social inequality. They allow us to think that if someone can’t get ahead by now they must lack the drive, talent or both that are needed to be successful, instead of questioning those systems—and there are some very good reasons to question them.

Managers often disagree on their definition of merit and the fair allocation of rewards, and decades of research shows that human resource practices systematically produce an unfair advantage to white men. Consider the screening of resumes, which is so often the first hurdle to organizational entry. Though a seemingly objective process for determining merit in terms of a base level of training and experience, numerous studies show that resume’s with Black American and Asian sounding names receive fewer call backs and this is true even when the potential employer has explicit pro-diversity statements and policies. With regard to sexual minority identity applicants, who have only recently been afforded some protections against employment discrimination, applicants whose voices sounded gay or lesbian when they ostensibly returned a phone call in response to their resume were rated as less suitable for the position. These implicit, and in the case of observable characteristics such as skin color and gender, explicit cues can also bias employment interviews. They go on to bias initial salary offers, and once inside an organization, performance evaluations, the allocation of developmental opportunities and promotions. Ultimately, they perpetuate inequality and cumulative disadvantage that persists across the lifespan.

In order to better advance diversity and inclusion we need to begin by addressing the erroneous beliefs we use to justify the systems and processes we use to make employment-related decisions. If you think your company is being fair, identity-blind, and meritocratic, this would be an important time to reflect on what that truly means, and the harm that erasure of individual identity and background has done to your most vulnerable workers. Here are some things to consider.

Question the criteria.

Begin by identifying the criteria used to make employment-related decisions and then question them. Whether the criteria are considered objective or not, it is important to ask, how those criteria and the measures of them were established and agreed upon, who or what purposes are they actually serving, and, most importantly, why.

Develop inclusive criteria.

You cannot take a system created by an advantaged group, designed to recognize and reward that advantage, and expect it to be fair to those who have not been given those same advantages. New and inclusive criteria are needed. Inclusive criteria recognize motivation and talent can be acquired and expressed in different ways.

Enlist your strongest critics.

Transparency in decision-making is always a good first step, but by their very nature identity-blind and merit-based system justifications act as cognitive blinders that prevent us from seeing when and where problems actually exist. To help overcome this obstacle it can be helpful to engage with and enlist the support of your strongest critics from both inside and outside of the organization.

Pursue diversity and inclusion vigorously.

Apply your best business processes for agility, creativity and innovation to your diversity and inclusion efforts. Train managers to better engage in problem-solving and decision-making. Provide them with opportunities to develop empathy and perspective-taking. If diversity and inclusion are business imperatives treat them as such.

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Originally posted on Forbes

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