"Dear White Boss..."

December 10, 2015 | By Kerrie Main

White Boss

Confidential Memo
To: Senior Executive Team
From: HR Director
Date: 2/19/16
Re: Diversity Initiatives

It has been brought to my attention that many of our employees are experiencing our workplace differently. I was recently forwarded a letter from one of our managers, who is a white man. The letter was sent to him from another member of our management team, an employee who is a black man. For confidentiality reasons, both the letter author and recipient shall remain anonymous, and they will hereafter be referred to as Manager X (recipient) and Employee Y (author).

Employee Y expressed several grievances about his treatment as a diverse employee in our company. While there have been no blatant violations of company policy, the letter raised several red flags. Employee Y gave specific examples of how he has been treated differently than other employees over the years:

  • When he attended his first offsite management team meeting shortly after his hire date, he was subjected to a "barrage of questions about issues related to diversity" which were not related to his business expertise. He left the meeting feeling demoralized and felt as if he was singled out because of the color of his skin.
  • In casual conversations, Manager X asked Employee Y about the "Black Lives Matter" movement, asking for his "expert" opinion as a black man.
  • One day during lunch, Employee Y was seated with Manager X and another member of our management team in the corporate dining room, and they asked Employee Y, "Can you tell me why all of the blacks are sitting together?"
  • One weekend, Employee Y came into the office to complete a last-minute project for Manager X. He was wearing casual clothing, like other employees who come into the office on the weekends, and he was stopped by a young man (not a security guard), who requested to see his identification. No other employees were questioned, and after that, Employee Y felt as if he needed to wear professional clothing when working in the office on the weekends.
Employee Y listed other examples of some of our other employees being treated differently due to their races, as well, but I am excluding these specific examples as they could be construed as hearsay. However, I will be investigating these concerns separately.

Overall, Employee Y likes his boss and does believe his boss is a good manager and a good person. However, he said he feels alienated, that he's not sure Manager X believes in him, and that he doesn't fully trust Manager X because of these past incidents. It is also important to note that Employee Y isn't viewed as anyone who is even remotely sensitive or disengaged in the workplace. In his tenure with us, he has received high performance reviews and is a highly productive and positive role model for his peers and subordinates.

I had a coaching conversation with Manager X after I received the letter and talked to him about the Black Lives Matter questions, as well as asked what he said/did after the other management team member commented about the dining room seating choices. While it appears that these incidents did not have malicious intent, he understands they were inappropriate. The reason I'm bringing this to your attention is that I suspect that the author is not the only one who has felt/feels this way. While we have put into place several initiatives to prevent employees from feeling this way, such as sensitivity training and the Diversity Committee, we are clearly still missing the mark. I believe these issues are even more difficult to address than obvious discrimination because they are the result of "deep-seated, complex, and highly personal attitudes and assumptions." Employee Y suggested opening a dialogue that may be uncomfortable and difficult, but that could open the lines of communication to bring issues to the surface.

If we do not address this in some way, there will be dire consequences if the current culture remains unchanged. We could lose our ability to attract and retain high performers of diverse backgrounds, as well as miss opportunities for innovations generated in part by the multiple perspectives of diverse individuals. We could also be sued for discrimination, and finally, by doing nothing, we are condoning an unfair work culture, which goes against everything we stand for. In fact, these behaviors contradict several of our core values:

  • We are committed to the highest level of integrity in all aspects of business and communication.
  • We are committed to a teamwork environment, where every employee is a valued member who is treated with respect.
  • We are committed to creating a valued and diverse workforce.

Here are my recommended actions to address these types of subconscious behaviors that are occurring in our organization:

  1. Meet with the Diversity Committee and survey them about the current company culture. Appoint a non-HR senior executive "champion" to the committee.

  2. Conduct an audit on our exit interviews. We will need to parse the exit data by demographics and gender to see exactly why our past employees of color and women in particular, left the organization and then compare the results with our predominantly white and male employees. We can also look at this data by years of service to see when these types of employees are reaching their "breaking points".

  3. Update the questions in our exit interview management system to include a series of questions designed to detect barriers for women and diverse employees. For example:

    • I felt welcome by co-workers, supervisors and other management.
    • I had access to informal networks of communication with supervisors and management both inside and outside of work.
    • I feel my initial placement was in a career track position.
    • I felt I had the same opportunities for personal development as other work colleagues.
    • There was sufficient opportunity for involvement in highly-visible task forces, committees, clubs or groups.
    • I felt I had mentors in the organization who help me to grow.
    • This company offers helpful diversity programs and initiatives.
    • The recognition I received was based on my professional contributions.

    When we compare the ratings on these questions between women and men and also across different EEOC race categories, we will have a clearer picture if our employees truly have equal opportunity in our company.

  4. Continue to monitor exit interviews to watch trends over time. Because of the ongoing nature of exit interviews, we have the opportunity to continually track our performance in this area. Comparing the work experience and turnover trends among our diverse employees in comparison to our total population should be a standard metric that we review semi-annually.

  5. Implement new hire surveys. We will survey all new employees at predetermined thresholds (such as immediately after their start dates, at the 30-day threshold or at the 90-day threshold). We need to gather this data to get a realistic view of how all our new employees are being welcomed and assimilating to the corporate culture. This type of data will also show us if employees of color or different genders are having different experiences.

  6. Conduct a workplace survey for all employees that will give us a point-in-time gauge of the current company culture to measure employee engagement. Different than employee satisfaction or motivation, engagement describes an employee's emotional attachment to the job (positive or negative), their colleagues and the organization. We can measure the engagement of our female and non-white employees to identify engagement gaps that we can immediately address. We can also ask specific questions about our employee's perspectives on the diversity initiative to learn which areas need to be addressed.

  7. Implement a cross-cultural mentoring program. We can encourage mentorship matches between mentors and mentees of different races and genders. Research conducted by Frank Dobbin of Harvard University compared the effects of various Human Resource initiatives on management diversity. He and his collaborators found that mentoring programs had the largest effects in improving the composition of diverse management for women and most minority groups. (Compared with networking alone, which showed some improvement for white women but a negative effect for black men.) This type of mentoring program will feature several benefits:
    • Allow our high-potential diverse employees to gain access to senior management team members.
    • Give our senior management team members the opportunity to "see" the work culture from a completely different perspective which may help them become more open-minded or empathetic.

  8. Bring in an outside diversity expert to facilitate a roundtable meeting/discussion between a panel of our senior leadership team and a panel of our black, Latino and other diverse managers. The goal of this session is to put some of these diversity issues on the table to open up the dialogue.

  9. Meet with Frank Jones, VP of Marketing, to discuss how subtle biases may be affecting our customer service. Consider conducting a customer survey to determine if our diverse clients are receiving different levels of service.
This is more than a feel-good opportunity for our organization. This is about real dollars to both the top and bottom lines. For example:
  • The April 2009 issue of the American Sociological Review published research by organizational diversity sociologist, Cedric Herring. He found that companies who had the highest levels of racial diversity made more than 15 times more sales revenue than companies who had the lowest levels of racial diversity. Gender diversity is also very significant to profits. For example, companies who had the highest rates of gender diversity had average sales revenues of $644.3 million dollars, while companies who had the lowest rates of gender diversity had average sales revenues of $45.2 million dollars. Also, businesses with high levels of racial diversity had an average of 35,000 customers, while companies with low levels of racial diversity only had an average of 22,700 customers. Our company will be even more successful - we will sell more products/services - when our employees more closely match our customer base.

  • While calculating turnover accurately can be difficult, HR industry experts report that turnover costs an average of 50% percent or more of the departing employee's salary. The American Management Association (AMA) calculates turnover costs using a more conservative estimate of 30% of salary. With our current headcount of 5,000 employees and a turnover rate of 18%, we lose about 900 employees per year. With an average annual salary of $35,000, that means we are spending $9,450,000 on turnover costs each year. If we can reduce turnover to 12% per year, we will retain 300 more employees and save $3,150,000 per year.

  • According to a 2011 survey by Bersin and Associates, titled, "Strategic Human Resources and Talent Management: Predictions for 2012 - Driving Organizational Performance amidst an Imbalanced Global Workforce," managing a multicultural diverse workforce is one of the most critical 21st century competencies for leadership success. As we enter global markets, having a diverse staff that understands cultural differences (as well as gender, race, etc.) will be very important. Cultural nuances abound and we need to be prepared to understand the differences as our employees work together across global lines.

  • Class-action discrimination suits are very expensive. For example:
    • Novartis A.G, a Swiss pharmaceutical firm, was ordered to pay $175 million to settle a suit filed for the unfair treatment of 5,600 female sales representatives in 2010.
    • Coca Cola paid $192.5 million dollars in a racial discrimination lawsuit in 2000.
    • The United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) was ordered to pay farmers almost $1 billion dollars in a settlement payment in 1999 per the racial discrimination class action lawsuit, Pigford v. Glickman. This case is still ongoing, and U.S. Congress set aside another $1.2 billion dollars for additional claims.

    Because of the importance of this topic to the continued success of our organization, I propose we have a sit down meeting soon to discuss our next steps. Your ideas and solutions are welcomed and appreciated.

    HR Director

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