Examining our History: Building Inclusive Organizations
September 22, 2020 | Ann Kowal Smith
Addressing inequality doesn’t happen overnight. Many companies try to address issues of diversity and inclusion with one and done events. In this series, beginning here, we explore why one and done is as good as none. This, the second of a six part series, focuses on the historical inequities embedded in organizational processes.
A fifty-one year old White man, heir to the company started by his father, must decide between the final two candidates for a senior-level position. His colleagues are split. One staunchly supports a White woman with a pedigree and experience set so similar to theirs that they could instantly be lifelong friends. The other supports a younger Black man who brings a different set of skills and fresh ideas, along with a more guarded demeanor.
Both candidates represent diversity in the historically patriarchal company, but one candidate significantly pushes the boundaries of “business as usual.”
A common business scenario? Yes. But in this case, it’s the plot of a short story by Charles Johnson. “Executive Decision” details a dilemma that immediately engages the reader – in part due to its familiarity, but also because the entire story is written in the 2nd person. This is “your” decision, Johnson writes, what will “you” do?
Revealing systems of discrimination at work
This is where a story like “Executive Decision” becomes gold. The characters struggle with a hiring decision that brings their biases and assumptions into play. The social elements of their interview process (the evaluation of the spouse as well as the candidate) clearly benefit certain candidates while they hamper others. The long-time colleagues falter as they balance desired impact with organizational “fit” – an opportunity to expand organizational capabilities diminished by their own personal comfort.
Although recent months have brought societal racism into sharp focus, it’s much harder to see the discriminatory systems at play within our companies and organizations. As diversity expert and psychologist Deborah Plummer explains, companies maintain racism and discrimination in their policies, practices and procedures: job descriptions, promotion protocols, leadership cohorts and the like. Before we can address these baked-in obstacles, we have to be able to see them.
The story provides a common platform for collective self-discovery, a safe space for colleagues to examine their own assumptions, reflect on procedures and take a hard look at their hiring decisions. A Books@Work facilitator, James Peterson, noted the power of Johnson’s story to “make the fallibility of HR decisions self-evident. The participants don’t have to admit they are flawed, but they see it.” They transfer what they see in the story to the decisions they have made in their own companies.
Recently, the story inspired a group of corporate lawyers and strategists to consider the myth of meritocracy. They reflected on their own experiences balancing a “good fit” hire with one who challenges the culture. And they openly examined the inherent privilege and power in the corporate world – attributes that can, if used with intention, help to change the status quo as easily as to preserve it.
Change starts with awareness – awareness takes time
You can’t change history overnight – especially when embedded inequities are not immediately apparent. This is why DEI is a journey, not an event. The first step toward change is awareness. But it’s only the first step.
Stories like “Executive Decision” cause us to pause and reflect on the challenges and topics people are grappling with right now. They hold up a creative and effective mirror, allowing colleagues to explore the conditions they have historically taken for granted, without shame or retribution. And they set the stage for developing new approaches to confront and change the patterns of the past.
Image: Roy Lichtenstein, Magnifying glass, 1963 via Wikiart.org
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Ann Kowal Smith
Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.