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HR can't afford to overlook systemic inequity -- here's why

Katherine Giscombe, organizational psychologist and management consultant, argues that firms need to address systemic inequity problems -- sooner rather than later.

Katherine Giscombe, an organizational psychologist, posed a question about systemic inequity at a recent HR tech conference session. The question was added to the virtual queue, but time ran out before the speaker could address it 

Her question: "I'm concerned about how dedicated CEOs are to dismantling systemic inequity, when they have been the beneficiaries. For example, CEOs benefited from the 2017 tax act that disadvantaged the lower and middle classes."

SearchHRSoftware tracked Giscombe down to talk about the question she raised. With an extensive career in equity and inclusion issues, including as vice president of Catalyst, a global nonprofit that helps advance women into leadership, Giscombe now heads her own management consulting firm on equity, equality and fairness and advises firms on workplace inclusivity. 

Your question about CEOs and their relationship with systemic inequity raises a strong point. You are arguing that a firm, on the one hand, may work on diversity and inequity issues, but then take public policy positions that work on the opposite ends of those actions. How big of a problem is this, and why do you think it happens?

Katherine GiscombeKatherine Giscombe

Katherine Giscombe: It's a big problem. In the late 1990s, Catalyst researched the issues facing women of color with a Ford Foundation grant. We laid out all the barriers that existed for women of color and gave many suggestions for lowering these barriers. Twenty years later, a lot of these barriers still exist. Societal inequities may be holding back the efforts of companies and firms.

What were some of your initial conclusions from that?

Giscombe: Business leaders have not yet come to a reckoning. Tax policies have benefited them personally. They've widened the wealth gap between the upper 1% and the rest of society. And the problem is that racial minorities are bearing the brunt of these inequities. A first step is for CEOs to recognize these inequities and acknowledge that they have benefited from them.

Can organizations effectively address diversity, equity and inclusion issues if employers are lobbying to oppose policies that may attack systemic inequity? 

Giscombe: The United States dodged a bullet by not reelecting Trump. Trump said that federal agencies could no longer have diversity and inclusion training programs that talked about racism and the broader racial inequities. If he had won reelection, my goodness, this [federal policy] might have somehow seeped into private sector firms.

If CEOs are interested in attacking the broader problem of systemic inequity, what are policy positions that they can advocate?

Giscombe: The CEO of Walmart earmarked $100 million over five years to fight racism. And then Nike came up with $40 million to support the Black community. Peloton gave $500,000 to the NAACP legal defense fund. Those are good examples of what private sector organizations can do.

Apart from donations, are there any public policies that CEOs should support?

Giscombe: In San Francisco, voters approved [this month] a law that dings the very top-earning private sector CEOs and senior leaders in San Francisco. [Firms will have to pay an extra tax if the CEO earns a certain threshold above their median employee pay. The law's goal is to address inequality]. City voters decided to do this. It wasn't the CEOs.

In one study, you found that women and men of color pay an 'emotional tax' from daily microaggressions described as 'small snubs and insults that remind people of color that they're different and not valued as highly as others' in the workplace. What are the consequences of this problem?

Giscombe: A lot of emotional energy is going toward just existing within these sometimes biased systems. It's bracing for the next insult. It's wondering how much to confront a colleague who may have made a biased remark while being very fully aware that, as an underrepresented group, they have to form strong alliances with others in the organization.

What can be done about it?

Giscombe: I do feel that there's a lot that managers can do. I want to give the example of psychological safety, a concept created by Amy Edmondson [a professor at Harvard Business School]. You don't have psychological safety when you're afraid of some reprisal or penalty for having different views. You might feel that you're under scrutiny if you make mistakes. There might even be some double standards for white employees. If a white employee makes a mistake, it's OK. As a member of a marginalized group, if you make that mistake, it's not OK. But managers can do a lot within their teams. They can provide air cover and protect and support their employees.

What type of mistakes?

Giscombe: The thing about innovation in organizations is that you have to make some mistakes to learn from mistakes, especially in technological fields. But members of marginalized groups may believe they need to be extremely cautious. If you are developing a new system and believe it has to be perfect, and there can't be any mistakes, it will slow your work down and be less innovative. You most likely will not be successful in promotions and climbing the organizational ladder in the long run. If managers are aware of some of the systemic bias toward people of color, they can take a step back and see how they can support this employee.

A savvy manager will be very aware of potential biases.
Katherine GiscombeOrganizational psychologist

Are employees who deliver these acts of bias or insults necessarily aware of it?

Giscombe: I think the answer is no -- they often are not going to be aware. It is up to a good diversity and inclusion program to make employees aware of examples of biased remarks that may be hurtful. A savvy manager will be very aware of potential biases. That manager will make it clear that everybody belongs within the workgroup or the organization.

What do diversity, equity and inclusion programs accomplish?

Giscombe: Metrics are important here. For instance, how long does it take to promote people in different racial and gender groups? Is there a difference? Will women of color spend an extra year in a position before getting promoted compared to a white woman? Another critical metric is turnover -- is it higher among certain groups?

A study by the Center for Talent Innovation that you were an advisor on found that 65% percent of Black professionals say that Black employees have to work harder in order to advance, but only 16% of their white colleagues agree with that statement. Why is this the case for Black professionals, and how is it corrected?

Giscombe: What that finding shows is the depth of racism that still exists within this country. And it's reflected in terms of double standards. There is a perception among African Americans that if a white colleague does a project well, they may get promoted. But the African American worker will need another good project before promotion consideration. Those conversations may be difficult for majority managers. It's never fun to realize that you hold some bias. But as human beings, and as research shows, we all are naturally biased.

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