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Why a clinical approach is crucial to fix workplace discrimination

“It is important for companies to acknowledge that they fell short and clearly identify the means they will take to ensure that the mistakes are not repeated.”

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Ongoing police killings of Black Americans, as well as the economic injustices unearthed by the coronavirus pandemic, have finally pushed these issues into the national spotlight. There’s another issue that also needs our full attention, and it’s one, in the words of researchers Derek R. Avery and Enrica N. Ruggs, “that directly affects almost every facet of Black American lives”: workplace discrimination.

Dr. Avery, the C.T. Bauer Chair of Inclusive Leadership at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston, and Ruggs, assistant professor of management and director of the Center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion at the Fogelman College of Business and Economics at the University of Memphis, recently published a paper in MIT Sloan Management Review that offers “evidence-based insight on how discrimination is manifested in organizational settings and some broad suggestions on how it might be curbed,” Avery said. It’s based on researchers’ independent work on the topic as well as other published work on the topic.

The discrimination faced by Black Americans is far-reaching, starting even before they land a job. Previous research cited by Avery and Ruggs has shown that people with Black-sounding names are less likely to land interviews, while individuals with darker skin complexions face greater challenges than lighter-skinned applicants. When Black Americans land a job, their earning potential is often hampered.

“Black employees start off making less money than their white colleagues, a disparity that compounds over time,” the researchers write. “Black employees also receive promotions less often.”

And in times of crisis, Black Americans are most likely to suffer job loss, even after accounting for factors such as experience or education levels.

“There is no one-size-fits-all or even a one-size-fits-best approach.”

These facts should horrify all of us, and it’s on every single person to do something to start making changes, whether we’re a CEO, manager, employee, contractor, client, or customer. No matter our relationship to a business, we can exert change by applying pressure. According to Avery, both internal and external approaches are effective.

“Internally, pressures can arise from lower level employees to drive bottom-up change or from senior leadership in more top-down oriented efforts,” he said. “Externally, customers, clients, and municipalities can exert considerable influence on companies to be more egalitarian in their business pursuits.”

There’s no prescriptive advice

For those businesses with the courage to acknowledge they have a problem, the first step to fixing it is “honest self-diagnosis,” Avery said.

“To do so effectively will often entail utilizing external consultants who can apply a more objective lens when reviewing the company’s policies and practices for potential bias,” he tells Inverse. “It is impossible to identify the appropriate approach or begin to implement it without an accurate appraisal of the status quo. Given that there is considerable range concerning where the company might be (right now), it is impossible to provide prescriptive advice. It’s tantamount to asking a doctor to prescribe a drug for a patient without allowing her to first examine the patient. The diagnosis should determine the approach and they will vary depending on the company’s internal and external environment. There is no one-size-fits-all or even a one-size-fits-best approach.”

Of course, the work to end workplace discrimination doesn’t end after identifying the problem and instituting changes. It’s an ongoing process that must be checked in at six months, one year, and again and again.

“The best data-driven advice is to approach the incident as a learning opportunity.”

“If we keep with the metaphor Derek laid out about medicine, racism is, in some ways, like a disease,” Ruggs said. “What this means is that even when companies make some progress on reducing inequality, it’s important to not become complacent where you are at. Inequality can arise as people fall back into systems of the status quo or ignore some forms of bias, so it’s not the case that once prescriptive advice is implemented, that the work is done. Companies should continue to check in to ensure that old biases that led to inequality have not re-appeared, and that new biases are not coming into play.”

Broken trust

For companies that have been publicly exposed to have discriminated against people of color — for example, Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen has seen an exodus of talent for allegedly paying its BIPOC contributors less than their white peers — there’s no easy way for them to regain the confidence of the public, investors, and potential employees.

“There is no simple way to regain trust once it has been broken,” Avery said. “The best data-driven advice is to approach the incident as a learning opportunity. Conduct as thorough and complete an investigation as possible. It is important that investigators be as impartial and empowered as possible so they can follow the truth wherever it may lead them. Trust the findings. The modal response to conclusions of culpability and wrongdoing is denial. This will not rebuild trust.”

He continued, “Rather, it is important for companies to acknowledge that they fell short and clearly identify the means they will take to ensure that the mistakes are not repeated. Putting new systems of accountability in place are important. So too is transparency. By taking these painful steps, companies can show they are learning from their mistakes and begin to rebuild trust among the communities they have wronged.”

Ruggs added, “Another key component is patience. Honesty and transparency show that the company is taking steps to correct or redress some problems regarding equity. However, people need time to see whether the words and actions taken now are meaningful or whether they are simply virtue signaling to distract from deeper unresolved issues of inequality. As companies move forward, engaging in actions that are more proactive with regard to reducing inequality, or at least not so starkly reactive to specific societal or organizational events of injustice, also goes a long way in showing true dedication to equality, which can help in regaining trust.”

NIMBLE IS A REGULAR SERIES FROM INVERSE. Every executive talks about it. NiMBLE is how to be about it. Strategy guides, C-Suite interviews, digestible reports on the latest scientific research for high-performing businesses, and essential stories about enterprising leaders, from the editorial staff of Inverse.

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