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That part of my career spent in HR has been filled with new learning about people. All kinds of people. One thing I have come to learn is that there is a huge difference between understanding something about another person’s experience and feeling what they feel. I can’t know how they feel about certain things because I am not them. I do not have the experiences that they have in life. And they do not have mine.
The women and men in HR generally believe that their role includes assuring all employees are respected and treated with dignity. They are also obligated, on behalf of the shareholders and owners of the companies they work for, to assure compliance with the laws regarding employment. Many of these women and men also feel they have an ethical duty to stand up to their leaders when they are doing something that is wrong. Even something that might not be legally wrong, but perhaps morally wrong.
When it comes to discrimination of any kind, we try and step up to it and correct it. And by discrimination I mean any act of one employee, manager, or leader that in any way lessens the value of another. Employees are not equal in their capabilities and contributions, but they are equal in their humanity.
I’ve learned that it is difficult to truly make that happen. And sometimes, it is my own lack of perception about the inequality that is presented.
Take, for example, the time I met with members of our PRIDE group at work. They wanted my opinion on something, and I think I helped them move their issue forward. At the end of the discussion, one of them asked me about help in another area. “What would it take, do you think, for us to get effective medical coverage for trans employees to aid in the cost of transition?” “Well,” I said, “That is a pretty big ask. I think our employees overall would have a negative reaction to that, given the continual push toward less coverage on average.”
About an hour later, alone at my desk, I realized how that must have looked to them. And why one of those present essentially shut down after my comment. In my head, I was thinking about the change management process, not the validity of the request. But there is no doubt my answer came out as narrow-minded and definitely not in support of this group. I was embarrassed by my behavior and did some follow-up with them.
When stopped by the police for a traffic violation earlier this year, I did not worry about what could happen. But I know many people who would be concerned about what could happen, and how they need to assure a simple traffic stop doesn’t escalate. But if I saw something escalating as it was happening to someone else, would I pull my phone out and record the moment, in case that objective camera view might be needed? I’m not sure.
That’s why I have to say that at best, I am woke-ish. I don’t always perceive the social injustice that happens to others. Not only do I have straight white male privilege, I am blessed to work in an organization that expects equality as the norm. As we are an organization made of humans, we aren’t fully there yet. We all have our biases, some of which we are unaware.
What I need is for people to call me out on my biases when they see them. Fortunately, I work with some amazing people who do that. People that I can confide in with tough questions or that will seek me out if they hear that I said something that didn’t sound in character for me. Unfortunately, that still happens from time to time. My brain starts to problems solve and doesn’t always think about who is hearing what I say and how they might hear it.
I read this article from Huffington Post this week which goes into great detail explaining white privilege. I know what it is, and I know that it exists. But reading this specific entry brings to life what the experiences are of those who do not have it.
So, to all you in HR who are reading this – do your actions match the call to equality? I have to wonder, given recent events at Uber, why it sometimes takes a former employee to make a company look closer at itself, and not employees themselves. I know from my experience not every complaint is valid. But very few that I have handled turned out to be nothing. Most required some specific action and a few resulted in immediate terminations. When does adherence to some perceived corporate culture outweigh the value of co-workers and of doing the right thing?
Social injustice is never acceptable. And in the workplace, where you have accountability to help every employee bring their best selves to work, you have the opportunity to be better than many social norms of today. Make sure you have someone to help you see when you might be part of the problem.