Financial Leadership

How leaders should respond to social justice issues for the benefit of their employees and organization

August 3, 2020 11:53 pm
  • In response to the ongoing social justice movement, leaders should thoroughly examine their organization’s systems and policies.
  • Best practices include ensuring statements are personal and meaningful and not getting defensive about criticism.
  • Establishing an inclusive work environment means considering areas such as hiring and promotions to see where bias inadvertently may have crept in.

This is a moment when employees want to hear clearly and unambiguously about the values of their organization and their leaders. A similar situation was seen when the #MeToo movement emboldened women to speak out about past and present harassment and discrimination. Now, with serious and sustained focus on anti-Black racism and racial injustice, organizations again must engage in rigorous self-examination.

4 key approaches for leaders

It’s not enough to decry racism. That’s a good start, but it’s more important to share what the organization plans to do to about it. The overarching question should be: “What are we doing to ensure that we’re part of the solution on behalf of our colleagues, those we serve and our communities?”

Here are best practices to help leaders answer that question constructively.

1. Make your messages personal and meaningful for your staff. They shouldn’t have the ring of ads or public relations campaigns.

2. Mention existing initiatives you’re rightly proud of, but don’t dwell on them. Maybe you have forward-thinking hiring practices or have long been a contributor to not-for-profits that benefit the disadvantaged. Just don’t make those your focus, or you’ll look as though you’re claiming you’ve done enough. Such policies simply show that you do some things right and have more work to do, since inequity and injustice continue to harm people.

3. Talk about the work you’re going to do. Are you, as a leader, going on a listening tour within your organization? Are you planning to provide training or host forums? Launching an employee survey? Creating task forces to explore new or longstanding issues related to diversity and inclusion in your workplace?

4. Avoid getting defensive about criticism. It’s easy to say, “Why have I never heard about this concern before?” But remember, speaking truth to power is intimidating, and staff may consider it risky. They often settle for making the best of situations they know should be better. They talk about problems with trusted colleagues but not the boss.

But in historic moments like this, there’s more safety in speaking up. You are going to hear about things you’ve done or failed to do, or that have happened on your watch. It’s going to hurt. The more it hurts, the faster you should rectify things.

Balancing the right to free speech with respect for all employees

Organizational policies should emphasize civility and respect. They should remind people that we all bring life experiences, interests, beliefs and even unconscious biases to work with us. The goal is to ensure that all employees feel they belong, and that means always being mindful of how our words and actions affect others. Good intentions aren’t enough; we should consider the impact.

Most of all, the behavior should be modeled from the top, with a focus on differentiating partisan politics from issues of justice and equity. A leader might say, “I’d never dream of telling anyone here how you should vote, but at the same time, I believe that opposing racism isn’t political. It is a simply a core value.”

Establishing a truly inclusive culture

It’s not enough to focus on providing opportunities. You also need to remove obstacles. Those are often embedded in systems we have inherited, created and administered.

For example: hiring. Research shows that we hire in our own image. We are drawn to people who remind us of ourselves.  We look for similarities in interests or experiences while convincing ourselves that we’re just hiring for skill. We have to be vigilant about that bias.

Similarly, we may have used terms like paying your dues as a rule of thumb or even as official policy for hiring or promotions. What does that really mean to each person in the hiring loop? Do we pick an arbitrary number of years? Do we expect a candidate to have held several specific roles? How did we choose those? Let’s revisit who gets an advantage from that approach and who’s excluded.

Do we reward underrepresented staff members for the “invisible” work we often ask of them: to be on a diversity committee, to mentor others, to explain cross-cultural differences to colleagues, to help us recruit, to represent us in the community?  Or do we expect them to put in all that extra effort while getting the rest of their work done — and even to be thankful they’ve been asked?

Making patient care more empathetic

Even as healthcare professionals work with passion and purpose on the front lines of the pandemic, data shows that COVID-19 is taking a disproportionate and tragic toll on people of color. It will take leadership and commitment to attack and solve that inequity.

A July Washington Post story explored how we view others’ pain, along with the importance of empathy. Here’s a passage worth remembering:

 “There is a rich body of research showing that we feel another’s pain most acutely when we feel like they are part of the same group: when they support the same soccer team, adhere to the same religion — and, many studies show, belong to the same race. And given that only 5 percent of American physicians and 6 percent of nurses are black, the majority of black patients are treated by clinicians of a different race.”

If we do a good job of looking inward about our role in fighting inequity and injustice, and if we practice the kind of empathy that moves us to action, we will be better leaders, professionals and neighbors in a healthier society.


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