By Carolynn Johnson
As we hold our breath waiting for the grand-jury decision on whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old Black man in Ferguson, Mo., I wonder what effect the decision will have on work spaces of many corporations that boast inclusive cultures with zero tolerance for discrimination.
If you are responsible for leading people and project success and have asked yourself, “Why should I care about what is happening in Ferguson?” let me tell you a story that could happen at even the most progressive organizations.
A group is having lunch in a campus cafeteria of a large U.S.-based company. There are five white men, two white women, one Asian man, one Latina and one Black woman. The news is on and a correspondent is talking about the coming grand-jury decision in the violent death of Michael Brown. A white male coworker says, “What’s the big deal? The cop was defending himself. This isn’t about race.” The Black woman looks up from her lunch but doesn’t say anything because this falls into the politics/religion category and she doesn’t engage in this type of conversation at work.
She unlocks her handheld device that has a picture of her 18-year-old Black son as the wallpaper. She thinks about the discussion she had with her son that morning in which she explained to him, as she did when Trayvon Martin was killed two years ago, that the police he encounters might not see the smart, thoughtful, charismatic young person she and her husband are raising. She explained to him that his opinion of what is right or fair and how he expresses it might be the difference in living to see another day or becoming the next morning’s fatal social-injustice headline.
Then it happens. She saw it coming but hoped it wouldn’t. Her coworker calls her name and says, “You’re level-headed, right? You don’t think this is all about race, do you? Why does everything have to be about race?” Her manager, also a white man, is there, too, and looks in her direction as if he is waiting for her response.
At that moment, her career flashes before her eyes. She has successfully completed projects with most of the people at the table, hung out during networking events, even gone to happy hours together. So why now is she being put on the spot and being asked to share her views about the situation? Is it just because she is Black? She has to make a decision. Does she bite her tongue and continue to be “go along to get along Jeremiah,” or does she tell him and the group how she really feels and possibly be labeled as being too sensitive about race or a rabble-rouser?
While this story focuses on a Black woman, understand that people who have adopted Black children or have biracial children who look Black can be impacted by a situation like this. In an article 7 Things I Can Do That My Black Son Can’t, a white man talks about what life will be like for his biracial three-year-old son, who is dark-skinned.
According to the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
• Blacks make up 12 percent of the workforce. That’s about 18,758,000 out of 155,000,000 people.
• Sixty-four percent of Black women are in white-collar positions and 50 percent of Black men are in similar roles.
From a survey for the report “Uncovering Talent: A New Model for Inclusion,” Deloitte University (Deloitte is No. 11 on the 2014 DiversityInc Top 50 list) found that 79 percent of Blacks and 66 percent of women reported that they downplay their differences at work, which negatively impacts their sense of self. Forty-five percent of white men also admitted to “covering,” which focuses on four areas:
1. Appearance: Altering hair, clothing and mannerisms to blend in.
2. Affiliation: Avoiding behaviors associated with their identity. Mothers might not talk about their children, or a gay man might not talk about his partner.
3. Advocacy: How much a person will stick up for his or her group. In the story above, a Black woman is concerned about how she will be viewed if she shares how she really feels about Michael Brown being killed and how she fears for her own child’s life on a regular basis. This could even include not wanting to join resource or networking groups at work that are for Black employees.
4. Association: Not wanting to be associated with other Blacks at work who are labeled as troublemakers or people with an attitude problem.
Leaders should be very concerned and tuned in to how the current events are impacting the productivity and retention of their employees. The way in which situations like this are handled signals to other high-potentials in the organization how they will be treated when the news cycle shifts to their respective groups.
Here are some tips:
1. Use your employee resource groups to communicate the organization’s values, especially at times like these.
2. Offer cultural-competence training to all managers throughout the year.
3. Understand what is happening with your mid-level high-potential employees.
4. Don’t exclude your white male employees from your diversity-management initiatives. They make up most of middle management and, if provided the proper training and development, could be the difference between your nonwhite male employees staying or going to work for your competition.