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From the CEO: Racial Injustice at Work Costs Us Billions

With candid conversations and smart tools, HR leaders can begin to dismantle racism at work and guide their workplaces into a new era of diversity, equity and inclusion.

A man in a blue suit and tie smiling.

Workplace bias and racial inequity bloom in the dark. If we continue to be silent—unable to speak candidly about our uncomfortable experiences and those of others—nothing will change. And businesses will pay the price.

Employee turnover due to racial inequity in the workplace has cost U.S. organizations up to $172 billion over the past five years. The Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) new report, The Cost of Racial Injustice, released last month, found that one-third of Black employees faced unfair treatment at work based on race and ethnicity in the past year.

Over the same period, 26 percent of Asian employees and 21 percent of Hispanic or Latino employees experienced unfair treatment in the workplace due to their race or ethnicity.

Absences due to anxiety, worry, stress or frustration stemming from experiencing—or witnessing—unfair treatment based on race or ethnicity at work may have cost U.S. businesses up to $54 billion in the past year. Lost productivity during that time was even more costly, carrying a price tag of nearly $59 billion.

If we can’t talk about it, we can’t fix it. 

SHRM has consistently challenged workplace leaders to have open and honest conversations with their peers and teams about bias, discrimination and racial inequity, and then turn those conversations into concrete action. The key is keeping these discussions productive and safe for participation. I have my own tips that I’ve shared with business leaders across the globe:

Listen, don’t conflate. When individuals aggrieved by overt or subtle racism describe their experiences, listeners will naturally become defensive or try to find parallels within their own experiences. This is conflation, the most common mistake made by those guilty of inadvertent racism. Listen with empathy.

Discuss, don’t debate. Emphasize that the purpose is discussion, not debate or disagreement. There are no winners, and no one is right or wrong. This is a time for speaking your experience and listening to others, so setting up discussion rules is important to ensure conversations don’t go off course. 

Make it safe to share. Avoid blame or attribution and focus instead on behaviors. Create a safe space for each individual—both during and after the conversation—to head off later consequences.

Realize that conversation is just the beginning. It is essential that HR leaders and People Managers turn that talk into concrete action that will change work and change lives.

SHRM is supporting its members further with new tools and recommendations found in SHRM’s Blue Ribbon Commission Racial Equity Report, released last month. Derived from the commission’s six months of deliberations, these resources are designed to invoke measurable changes that users can implement immediately. The report includes video testimonials from Blue Ribbon Commission members; our proprietary, members-only DE&I Action-to-Change Toolbox; and other user-friendly resources and knowledge.

The report also previews SHRM’s new Empathy Index—a measurement tool that enables organizations to take a quick-pulse assessment of inclusion-oriented behaviors in the workplace, tracking their progress toward creating more-empathetic workplaces and benchmarking them against the most successful companies in the U.S. and their own business competition.

With candid conversations and smart tools, HR leaders can begin to dismantle racism at work and guide their workplaces into a new era of respect, transparency and genuine inclusion. 

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Photograph by Delane Rouse for HR Magazine.


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