December 2, 2020
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Does your organization effectively engage race at work?

The Translational Research Center recently brought together researchers and industry leaders to help answer this question. Monica Wadhwa, associate professor of marketing and supply chain management and moderator of the event, led a discussion on how failure to do so not only leads to social justice issues but could also prevent an organization from reaching its full potential.

Patrick McKay, Stanley and Franny Wang Professor of Human Resource Management at the Fox School, Philip Heath, CEO of Tabula Rosa, and Valerie Harrison, Temple University senior advisor for equity, diversity and inclusion and former president of Lincoln University, offer their perspectives.

Know the difference between diversity and inclusion.

McKay, an expert in diversity and diversity climates, has spent decades researching how diverse and inclusive climates affect an organization. Historically, diversity has been about checkboxes and headcounts in order to meet federal compliance requirements. However, diverse organizations are not necessarily more inclusive.

McKay says, “When a top management team or group really values diversity, they’re going to put in place policies or an infrastructure to support it, such as selection fairness in promotion or advancement opportunities.”

“Equity and equal opportunity recognize the impact of systems of privilege and disadvantages in decision-making,” Harrison says, sharing her experience from a systematic perspective. 

For example, consider college admissions. How well can a student, who is born in poverty and attends a high school with limited resources, compete with a student from a well-off family that can afford to send her to an elite high school? Harrison argues that pure merit does not account for a flawed system that was historically designed to exclude. 

Understand how implicit attitudes can affect organizational culture.

Everyone has implicit biases. “The biggest remedy for implicit biases is to shine a light on them,” says McKay. “We have to stop vilifying bias. It doesn’t make you a demon to have a bias because we all have them.”

Recognizing that bias exists is the first step towards understanding how it affects an organization’s culture. And these biases are rooted deeply in society. Harrison reflects, “The creation and spread of negative images in the media of Black people have been and continues to be a powerful tool to encourage bias. The contemporary media continues to play a significant role in perpetuating negative images of Black people.”

Those representations impact the workforce, as employees and managers unconsciously act on their implicit biases. That’s why, says Heath, “Every level of the organization has to be intentional.”

McKay has studied the extent to which diversity climate influences various worker and business unit outcomes. “When you treat your workers fairly and include them and make them feel like they’re a valued part of the team, they work hard,” he says. “The other component of success is the diversity of thought and ideas. With homogeneous groups, you have a tendency to groupthink and have similar patterns of thought and beliefs. So, you don’t have dissension that can push originality and innovation.”

Companies without inclusive climates—that enable those to feel comfortable to speak up, share their opinions and be in leadership roles—quantifiably lose out, impacting innovation, turnover, job performance and even customer satisfaction.

Get comfortable with uncomfortable questions.

Wadhwa recognizes that both researchers and industry executives need to get out of their comfort zones in order to affect change. 

Heath, a healthcare executive with more than 25 years of experience, suggests the term “courageous conversations” when encouraging discussions of race at work. He advises industry leaders to ask themselves the uncomfortable questions to more deeply understand the impact.

“Take a look at your department and share with me how you make your decisions about the people who are promoted,” he says. Those answers might shed light on the implicit biases that limit diversity in leadership or inclusive organizational cultures.

Heath offers another question that middle-level managers or team leaders can ask themselves. “If they are in a situation where they had an opportunity to select people to be a part of their workgroups and teams, I ask, ‘I see that there are absolutely no women in your workgroup. Is there a reason?’”

He challenges these employees to think about what that means and how it can be addressed. If the answer is that there are no women qualified to work on the project, are the employees selecting the right criteria for evaluation, or can they identify opportunities for professional development?

There’s a limit to what data can do.

All three experts agree that data can be a guide for tracking improvements in diversity, but should not be the only guide. As Wadhwa summarizes, “It’s important to qualify data. A good guide needs to understand decision-making power; for that, one needs to do surveys.”

These systemic issues that prevail across society need conscious, intentional and deliberate actions in order to advance equality for all. And companies, as research proves, benefit financially from effectively engaging race at work. 

Watch the recording of the event

Diversity and Workplace CultureEquityHuman Resource ManagementImplicit BiasInclusionMarketing and Supply Chain ManagementMonica WadhwaPatrick McKayTranslational Research Center