When you can’t fix the root cause

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“We have to end racism.”

I’ve heard and read this sentiment countless times. Believing it might just be the, or at least a reason George Floyd is dead.

And yes, what follows matters to you as a business leader and manager. Bear with me.

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I grew up in a Chicago suburb that was so Jewish, as a child not only didn’t I know anyone in the world was anything else, I didn’t know there was anything else for them to be.

When an older me did encounter antisemitism, I found it quaint and comical. Serious, violent antisemitism was, I thought, something everyone had grown out of, except, perhaps, for some laughable yahoos who were barely worth ridiculing. I’d thought it was like smallpox — eradicated except maybe for a few lab specimens.

Now, it’s a growth industry.

If we still haven’t eradicated antisemitism, why would anyone think we can end racism and other bigotries?

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Nobody is a bigot. Nobody looks in a mirror and sees a bigot looking back out at them.

Where I see bigots, the bigots might see themselves as protecting a way of life against an invading force. They might seriously believe they’re fighting a secret cabal that runs the world … never mind that they hated the group that runs the cabal before they ever heard of the cabal.

They might believe, with evident sincerity but no knowledge of population genetics or cognitive development, that racial mixing is a thing, and a bad thing at that.

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In just the past few weeks we saw the videos of Amy Cooper and Ahmaud Arbery. Now we have George Floyd, who followed Eric Garner as a black man choked to death by police officers. If you’re a young black man, to you the police are exemplars of lawlessness. If they don’t have to obey the law, why should you?

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Imagine you’re Medaria Arradondo, the chief of police here in Minneapolis. You aren’t stupid or unperceptive — you know racism and other forms of bigotry are entrenched in the local police culture. Heck, your entire career depended on you having a thick enough skin to shrug off the occasional tasteless race-oriented “joke.” Or not so occasional; these things aren’t generally reported.

You know you have a problem with bigotry in your workforce. You know you need to fix it. You also know you can’t just fire all of the 800 police officers who work for you and start over. It would be a bad idea even if you weren’t the city’s first black police chief and weren’t willing to deal with complaints about reverse racism.

What’s your plan?

What your plan isn’t: Tell everyone to stop being a bigot. Even if your plan is to tell them over and over and over again … “And I mean it!” you might say … there’s no point. Nobody looks in a mirror and sees a bigot looking back out at them.

Which is why I blame “we have to stop racism” for George Floyd’s death: Trying to end racism is futile. It wastes energy and accomplishes nothing. Better to focus on what can work.

# # #

Let’s get to it: You aren’t Medaria Arradondo. You probably don’t have 800 armed employees reporting to you, nor do you have to deal with a history of your employees killing other people in questionable circumstances.

If you’re leading and managing a workforce of any size, what you and Arradondo probably do have in common is entrenched bigotry. Telling everyone that bigotry isn’t okay won’t accomplish anything for you either. And for you, like Arradondo, identifying even the worst bigots in your workforce isn’t easily accomplished. Nobody wants to be thought of as a whiner or a snitch. A minority employee who already feels like an outsider is even less likely to complain.

It’s your workforce and your problem. What are you going to do about it?

Organizations run on trust (see Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology, Chapter 4: “Relationships precede process.”) And as trust and bigotry can’t coexist, bigotry will hurt your organization’s productivity.

So even if we ignore the question’s obvious ethical dimensions, doing nothing is still the wrong answer.

The right answer? I’m not a fan of zero-tolerance policies, so how about a one-tolerance policy: If an employee says, or even hears something and doesn’t say something, and you learn about it, that’s one. One earns that employee a spot on your You Can Think What You Want but You Can’t Say What You Want task force.

If overt bigotry happens again and they’re in earshot, that’s two.

But it’s your workforce and your problem. What are you going to do about it?

Please share your thinking in the Comments.

Comments (17)

  • My hopeful answer is that when you work with people that are “other” and you ultimately befriend people that are “other” you stop thinking of them as different and relationships normalize. An integrated workplace with integrated housing and integrated schools should normalize those differences to become irrelevant.
    Except history seems to suggest otherwise. In 1930’s Germany every Berliner knew and worked with Jews. That didn’t stop their ultimate behavior.
    It leaves me despondent that hatred will never cease. Obviously people love to hate. I suspect that you can drive overt racism from being exhibited in your workplace — but you might just move it to other forums and it will find an outlet elsewhere. That’s okay for the workplace but doesn’t improve society. Sorry if this comes across as a downer but I don’t really suspect I’ll live to see the end of even overt racism.

  • Bob,

    if you open the mythical HR handbook in the sky one answer you will find is “Training”. This can include sensitivity training, multicultural training, workplace rules of behavior training, etc. I was a training professional for a while, but even I am ambivalent about this answer. It does have the benefit of providing a legal foundation for HR actions if people knowingly break the rules in the future.

    Obviously some type of culture change is a better answer, but the problems in Minneapolis maybe deep-rooted and resistant to change from even the most well-meaning leaders.

    Unfortunately if MN is viewed as an unattractive place to do business by major companies then there may be economic consequences of this under-current of racism.

    My random $0.02 ..

  • All that we can do is respond to actions that people take that are against policy or are illegal. Being racist isn’t something that we can do something about and sadly there are racists of every ethnic background. But what we can, and should, do is make policies about acting on racism and enforce those policies. Verbal racist comments are just as bad as other racist actions and all racist actions need to be against a formal written policy in the employee handbook that every employee signs and those policies need to be enforced.

  • Thanks for this.
    Hardly anyone would think of themselves as bigots but, as tribal creatures we pick sides, us vs them.

    As you note “the bigots might see themselves as protecting a way of life against an invading force. They might seriously believe they’re fighting a secret cabal that runs the world … never mind that they hated the group that runs the cabal before they ever heard of the cabal.”

    It is a visceral thing but that that no license to intimidate or harm others.

  • Your suggestion to have other officers turn in the bigots has a problem if the bigot is not taken off duty immediately. Imagine you are the officer that told the chief and the bigot suspects you. On a call where you could be in danger, you ask for assistance and the the bigot is expected to respond immediately. But he suddenly has “traffic” or other problems so you are left on your own. And it is not only the bigot but his “friends” or “like thinkers” that can be slow to respond. Maybe the best solution is what happened – he and the others involved were fired immediately. They only get paid if their appeal is found in their favour.

  • Bob, clarification- by “or even hears something and doesn’t say something” do you mean someone hears an inappropriate remark and doesn’t tell “management?” Or something else? If that’s the case, as an employee I would be very concerned, especially if my manager is not internally in agreement with this policy. I might be afraid of backlash. Maybe if the reporting mechanism is in HR it can be perceived as safe, but even then, I remember a situation where a bunch of people reported a much higher up to HR, and I know that I worried!

    • Who does an employee “say something” to? As you suggest, hat depends on the company, a person’s manager, and the professionalism of its HR organization.

      If the answer is none of the above, my suspicion is that it’s time to start looking for work in a better company.

      • So if we hear something we report it, with myriad possibilities of this blowing up in our face. Sounds a little like North Korea. Report even the slightest words or actions against the state, or if caught not doing that, be sent to a re-education camp.

      • Well, now, I don’t think that requiring someone who hears another employee use a phrase like “damned n—-s” to reporting it elevates (descends?) to the level of the thought police.

        It is, as I said, the difference between thinking whatever you want and saying whatever you want.

        And nothing about this had any parallel to “the state.” Complaining about management is a time-honored tradition and not to be messed with. Complaining about an ethnic group is non-parallel.

        Isn’t it?

  • I suspect your one-chance policy is at least somewhat workable but I would allow more chances with forced education/training requirement after each one. In a large population I would assume these sessions could be a group exercise. The issue with discharge involves union activity and getting them to agree with the policy. I do agree that preaching doesn’t work and that we humans are prone to have built-in bias that must be in control.

  • Seems to me there are two different issues. One is bigotry. the other is abuse of authority. As you said, you cannot identify the worst bigots in your organization, but you can identify the ones who display bigotry overtly. I suspect training, in face-to-face groups not on-line, and discussing the problems it causes the business is the only way to address it.

    That’s because most folks aren’t bigots. (sarcasm–most folks don’t think they are bigots. The have lunch with Latonya down in accounting (of course she’s not like those others you read about on the news)).

    The problem with the cops and with your organization is most often abuse of authority The person who hires people won’t hire certain types or even interview them. If you want to identify those people in your organization, it’s not too hard. Look for two different behaviors–a “low man on the totem pole” set up in the team (not necessarily non-white or non-male) and also look for a “top dog” on the team who has pretty much zero skills and is kept on the job by the boss. Many bosses keep less useful employees on the job but only the abusers keep them as seconds in command.

    Those are the ones abusing their authority in subtle ways that cause the most long-term damage to your organization. Some over-excited mid-level employee who spews a random Presidential-style tweet once isn’t usually a problem, not if they display the least amount of embarrassment.

  • My mother grew up in Chicago and my grandfather owned and rented apartments. One day I came home from middle school (in the 70s), full of knowledge explaining to my Mom about how blacks were mistreated. She became violent and told me how my grandfather had to carry a gun because of those people.

    My wife is from a town in Wisconsin that still uses a profanity about blacks as the nickname for a bridge.

    Unfortunately our parents can program stereotypes into us. Similar to children who are abused, we can move into adulthood with baked in stereotypes we may not even be aware of. I realized this from a young age and tried to shake this. At my first job, I was the token white guy on a softball and basketball team. I visited the homes in all black neighborhoods and I felt uncomfortable and different. It made me realize all the more how messed up things were.

    Am I perfect today? Not close. As a business leader I do not tolerate any racism and am quick to jump on any signs of it, especially when it is mean spirited. Sadly I know I am barely making a dent.

    My token while days did teach me something. Take time to me uncomfortable. Feel what minorities are feeling and find ways to become comfortable. I currently do this with disadvantaged students at a local high school.

    I get the outrage – I was outraged. I just hope we can find a place to work through this in peace. I understand why that isn’t trusted, but it is the only way out of this.

    • To shift Mike M’s point a little, addressing the abuse of authority, and abuse of force issues provide a more concrete fulcrum for organizational change than the more cerebral racism angle (even if the evidence suggests racism as a contributing factor – or even the factor). The wrong action provides a clear point of aim. The difficulty in targeting the attitude hinders straight forward solutions.

  • I wrote my State and Federal representatives that we need to have a national database of police administrative actions and complaints with reporting from every police department on a quarterly basis. Every Department would need to consult that database before hiring new officers so that bad actors can’t go from jurisdiction to jurisdiction without consequence. I said that database should be accessible to the press and public too.
    I also said mayors and city councils need to fire bad actors, and as far up their chain of command as necessary to clear out the issues.
    My thinking is that things that get counted are things that get done.
    This of course only solves the police issue. It does nothing to address the rest of society that “others” people of color and minorities. But, it’s a start.

  • You can change minds easier by finding common ground first, rather than using either rational argument or any kind of authority. Ask your employees how they think racism and other bigotry can or should be addressed. Involve them in uncovering the problem, identifying the issues, and finding a solution, and your solution is more likely to be used by the whole workforce.

    I don’t recommend the one-strike policy. It creates too much of an “us-vs-them” mentality and resentment – of the “others” who created the problem in the first place (from the bigot’s pov). Then there’s defining what counts as a “strike” – bigotry against who exactly? There’s a very long list. And how severe is the problem that counts as a “strike”. Some single incidents are likely severe enough that the employee should be fired – not get a second chance. Others are minor enough that calling them out under a one-strike policy feels too extreme: “Do I really want this guy fired because he made a couple of unthinking remarks?”

    Instead, every example of bigotry should be called out at the time, immediately. By management, to set the tone of your new culture, but also by anyone, those being targeted by the bigotry and by allies. But although the bigoted remark or action is called out, the aim is education and building commonalities, not punishment. Here the HR trainings can be helpful, to set some guidelines of how to call bigotry out – and also how to respond if you’re the one called out. Role play it, and make sure management knows both how to call bigotry out in a non-divisive way, and also how to respond if it’s management’s own actions/statements that are being called out. Relationships need to be maintained, people trusted – that can’t happen if there is consistent bigotry, but it also can’t happen if identifying the bigoted actions leads to a destroyed relationship.

    Living and working in diverse populations is one of the best ways to address the stereotyping and “otherness” that provoke a lot of bigotry. To this end management has to work hard to promote diversity among the workforce – to overcome management’s own bigotries, hidden and overt both. One method is to review resumes without names or photos attached. Stop worrying whether someone will be a “good cultural fit” – perhaps your culture needs some diversity, not yet another cog that will slide right in and not really add anything. Interviewers can easily find one thing or another to disqualify a candidate who has some “other” attribute – interviewers are likely not even aware of doing this; they just “feel uncomfortable” with the candidate, and then put the blame on some mannerism of the candidate – “she didn’t dress the part”, “he was nervous, uncomfortable”, “he’s too arrogant, not a team player”, “I’m sure she’s hiding something”, etc. The importance of the interview should be minimized – right now it’s simply much too easy to use it as a way to hire more of the same.

    To sum, my main suggestions are:
    1. Involve all employees in identifying the issues around bigotry and how best to address them.
    2. Find solutions that build commonalities among people, rather than increase divisiveness and fear.
    3. Have management recognize and address its own bigotries. (We ALL have them; we may not be able to eradicate them, but we can recognize them and make strong efforts to counter them).
    4. Increase diversity in the workplace (and among your customers and vendors, etc., too, for that matter). Specifically by not allowing the interview to remain a barrier to diversity.

    • I’m not sure the techniques for changing minds works for changing hearts. And in the meantime, those whose hearts haven’t changed will continue to do damage. I think this is a situation where preventing further damage takes precedence, and making it clear to the victims of prejudice that we’re taking it seriously in a tangible way is, to my way of thinking, an important part of this.

      As someone once said, deadlines have a wonderful ability to focus the mind. The one-tolerance approach sets a deadline (right now) without being so draconian that an offender isn’t given a chance.

  • Sara Wasserman has provided a well considered viewpoint. Way more positive than mine and some others ).

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