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Guiding Internal Conversations About Racial Inequity, Injustice with Employees

Published Jul 15, 2020 by Maggie Martin

conference room
Denise Hamilton

Employees; Denise Hamilton, diversity and inclusion strategist, consultant, and founder and CEO of WatchHerWork.

In the weeks following George Floyd's death and protests in response, businesses across the country have made public statements against racism, injustice and racial inequity. Some pledged money toward social justice efforts. Other organizations are honoring Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the end of slavery, as an annual holiday. 

Many business leaders are also bringing the national conversation to their staff to address these issues within their organization. 

Denise Hamilton is a diversity and inclusion strategist, consultant, and founder and CEO of WatchHerWork, a multimedia digital platform for women seeking advice and mentorship. We asked Denise for advice on how employers can address racial inequity and injustice internally with their team. 

What questions regarding racial bias, racial inequity, disparities and diversity have you received in recent weeks?  

Questions I've received include "How can I improve recruitment? How can I talk to employees to make sure we're asking the right questions? I assume my black employees were happy. Are they? What do I need to do differently?" 

There's a desire to treat everyone the same, but maybe you can't treat everyone the same, so how do you address these things and manage morale? I think what people really want to know is what to do. There's a new awakening. There's always a struggle of what a business can do to impact such a societal change. 

As difficult as it is, this is still a business problem. Having a workforce that’s representative of the community, especially in Houston, is important. It’s good business.  

What steps should businesses take to address these issues internally?  

The first step is admitting what you don’t know. This is one of the hardest things for successful leaders who consider themselves well-trained and well-developed. It’s valuable to bring in consultants and partners to navigate these spaces. You probably can’t just trust your gut. 

What do productive internal conversations on racial inequity, injustice and disparities look like?  

It is incredibly difficult, in part because of the inadequacy of the language within these conversations. We only have one word for racism. The word that’s used to describe the guy burning crosses on the front lawn in a KKK hood is the same word used for the guidance counselor who tells kids not to bother applying for a challenging school because they won't get in. Consequently, no one thinks they’re racist.

Part of the work I do is to reimagine a new vocabulary. Business leaders need to get away from the buzzwords and focus on the examples within the workplace to create a new conversation.  

Who should businesses turn to to help them navigate these issues in the workplace?  

A lot of people have been in this space for years. This is not a new area.

What employers should not do is create a new burden on the black employees within their organization. The people you’re trying to support should not be the ones doing the heavy lifting. All too often, the onus is left on employees to lead change and investment of creating a welcoming environment. By doing this, business leaders create an inappropriate burden on employees. They already have to tackle microaggressions within the workplace. Not every black employee wants to be affiliated with this type of work. They want to be seen as an individual contributing to the organization. 

Who within the organization is responsible for facilitating the change and conversations? Is it HR?

I'm brought in by the C-suite. This is a C-suite issue. This is a hard problem to tackle or touch without having power within the organization because this is about the redistribution or reallocation of power. That has to be led by leaders who shape and drive the organization. 

Unlike other initiatives, this one is not going to be solved in our lifetime. That’s a really important part of our conversation. Leaders like problems they can solve, where they can show big victories. This is long-term work. It’s really unfair to put that responsibility on someone in the middle of the organization, like the HR department.

Does this work businesses are taking on internally impact the public perception of the organization?

It absolutely does. People are paying attention and keeping score. People feel a lot of pressure to do something loud and big. If you’re not sincere, especially in a social media world, it will come out that you’re not sincere.  

On the other hand, you don’t have to yell it from the rooftops. The people who are pressured to say something are the people who never say anything. This is about track record. People, and businesses, who are struggling are those who have no track record in this space. If that’s the case, you should get some help in crafting messages in this space. You would do this with anything else. You would acknowledge you have blind spots.

How should businesses, and their employees, hold themselves accountable to follow through on change? What does meaningful change look like?  

What you measure is what matters. Change the subjects of your sentences and this gets really clear. We have a long, storied history in business of managing retention. If you have managers running off minority employees, what’s the consequence? Tie it to compensation.

How should businesses, and their employees, hold themselves accountable to follow through on change? 

Businesses can say “I’m sorry. We can do better and here’s what we are doing going forward.” Nobody wants to cast their company as not being a winner. We love being winners in our culture. Who wants to step forward and mention “we’re not doing well”? Leaders have to step forward and say we have room to grow. You have to take care of home and be honest about your performance. There can be no sacred cows, this notion that there are hidden spaces that are off limits to correction or revision. There are some sacred cows business leaders are going to have to give up. We can’t have that. This has to be an open dialogue where opportunities to create change are explored and examined. Everything has to be up for evaluation. That’s a hard move to make.

I always meet with leadership to understand the C-suite level commitment to changing the organization's culture. I want to know whether employers really care or whether they're just throwing money at the issues. 

This is hard work and it's heart work. When you try to over-measure it, you get unintended consequences, and some people who try to dodge measurements. Be careful in your effort to do something, that you're not just doing anything to count it in the "win" column. 

We've inherited an incredible city with an incredible economy. As much as we’ve inherited what’s wonderful with Houston, we’ve also inherited challenges. This is the time. We can’t punt these challenges to another generation.

See Denise Hamilton's recent interviews with the Houston Business Journal and InnovationMap. Read the Partnership's statement in connection to the killing of George Floyd. 

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A new survey of American workers indicates that workers mostly feel positive sentiment pertaining to the economy, but it revealed concerning truths about career exploration and access to skills development programs. In October during an UpSkill Works forum, the Partnership’s Peter Beard, who leads the UpSkill Houston initiative, hosted Jane Oates, president of WorkingNation, the workforce-focused media organization that commissioned the survey. Oates presented the key findings and others and shared what they mean for workers, students, employers and educators. The WorkingNation American Workers Survey was conducted by Frank Luntz and his company, FIL, in August 2020, with a sample size of 800 people. The survey is a “snapshot in time” that shows a useful picture of how workers view their skills and how they could obtain more. The data collected can point employers, educators, career coaches and parents of students of any age to areas ripe with opportunity to increase career exploration and opportunities to obtain additional skills. Key findings in the survey include: 75 percent of workers surveyed believe they can still aspire to obtain the American Dream. 47 percent equate the American Dream with going to bed each night feeling financially secure. 31 percent of workers said they never talked with a parent or teacher about their future job. Workers put a premium on certifications in technology skills as a means for obtaining well-paid employment in the future 66 percent of workers say they have never had the opportunity to participate in skills training on-the-job. 56 percent of workers were unaware of local skills training programs; More than 20 percent said they would not use these programs, anyway  Oates advocated for school curriculum to include job-focused lessons in creative ways and for colleges and universities to embed industry-recognized credentials into associate and baccalaureate degree programs as opportunities to improve career understanding and provide the education individuals believe they’ll need to have successful careers in the future. A recording of the Forum may be viewed to the right. Main points from the discussion follow. Workers are optimistic about achieving the American Dream. They value employment that is enjoyable and rewarding over employment that’s secure. Even now, amid the pandemic and changing labor market, people seem more willing to take an enjoyable, rewarding or interesting job with an employer that might appear less secure than one that seems more secure, Oates said. Nearly one-third of workers (31 percent) said they never had a discussion about a future job with a parent or a teacher, a statistic Oates hopes can be changed by creatively embedding career exploration into school curricula. By doing so, “you're teaching them how to write a research paper, but you're also teaching them how to learn about what they could do and what they're interested in how they match their passion with how they make their money.” “If we could get parents of every age to begin and continue to talk to their children about careers and their potential, it could make a difference,” Oates said. Workers believe that to have a healthy economy it is important to have a skilled workforce and put a premium on obtaining technology skill credentials in order to get a job in the future that pays well. This should be a “warning bell” for higher education institutions signaling a need to embed industry-recognized credentials into traditional college programs. The majority of workers have not been offered skills training by an employer; they’re also unaware of other local training programs. They also expressed confusion and even fear of the changing economy and learning new skills to remain successful. Language makes a difference, and talking about “careers” and “career progressions” versus “jobs” will resonate with workers. “We’ve been talking career pathways for decades and it’s resonated.” Oates said. “People understand that they might have to take an entry-level job, but they want to build that career.” Workers also said they trusted themselves to solve the skills gap (34 percent) more than they trusted the business community (21 percent) or school or education systems (20 percent). Coaches and counselors can use this to remind clients that they are in charge of their own destinies. “People need to say to people that come to them for advice or assistance or guidance, ‘You are in charge of your own destiny. You have to have skin in the game. 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