By focusing on what we can do from where we are, we can make changes that lead to better long term outcomes for all.
Recent events have caused me to do some introspection. My sincere hope is that this article is a part of a broader discussion on what we can do to make long term changes from within the workplace. I sent this piece out for review and comment in an effort to receive feedback and would appreciate discussing this further with people who have already made strides in these areas.
I have found visuals to be helpful in grasping complex concepts. One such rendering that was shared with me on LinkedIn has been enlightening. This piece was created by Tony Ruth depicting the differences between inequality, equity, and justice. To me, justice resonates with the ideal being that our pledge of allegiance calls us to deliver, “Liberty and justice for all.” Tony captures and communicates key concepts in four Shel Silverstein-esque blocks:
- Inequality – Unequal access to opportunities
- Equality – Evenly distributed tools and assistance
- Equity – Custom tools that identify and address inequality
- Justice – Fixing the system to offer equal access to both tools and opportunities
Do you agree with this definition and depiction of justice as it relates to the workplace? What then can you and I do, at work and in our local communities, towards, “Fixing the system to offer equal access to both tools and opportunities.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts progressed, he incorporated a much broader stance on poverty as a whole. I was aware of the statement, “For we know, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” In this way, equality meant that all people could eat together, that they would not be separated on the basis of race, and yet there is another factor that afflicts all people and is undermining our claim as a nation that provides access to, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Economic disparity continues to be an issue that can and should be addressed from within the workplace as we work towards our ideals.
MLK made the aforementioned statement in 1968 before a group of, “More than 1,300 sanitation workers on strike, demanding decent wages, better safety standards, an effective grievance procedure, better treatment, and recognition of their union.” These protests were sparked by a history of dangerous working conditions that led to the deaths of two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, being crushed to death by a malfunctioning garbage truck.
Dr. King was present as part of his efforts to bolster The Poor People’s Campaign and this would be one of his last public speeches as he was assassinated less than a month after this event. What he says next may shock people who often view MLK as a “safe” representative or a reason to dismiss protesters. What Dr. King shares paves a roadmap for how the workplace presents one of the strongest opportunities to promote equity and build towards justice in a way that impacts those within your immediate community.
Are we providing living wages?
While Dr. King was a proponent of peaceful assemblies, the Memphis Sanitation Strike was anything but sanitary (Take a moment to look it up and watch this brief video). MLK continues in his Memphis speech,
“Now the problem isn’t only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day?
They are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.
And it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis at a full-time job getting part-time income.”
What is there to add to this? Too often business owners and managers get a pass on the discussion of living wages because we join the war of words over the federal and state minimum wages. Businesses have the immediate authority and responsibility to determine whether their wages are providing their team members with living wages in relationship to their market. How many are asking what they can do and are overlooking several simple options, within their power, that would make a positive impact in their team members’ lives? What would it look like if your company committed to raising wages by 10% or increasing paid time off by one day?
If you think these are crazy ideas, wait until you hear what CEO Dan Price of Seattle-based Gravity Payments did. Upon hearing the struggles of his own employees, he made a decision to cut his own salary from $1.1 million to $70,000 annually so that he could make the minimum wage within his own company $70K. Inc. Magazine did a great write up on how this extreme change invigorated the team and lead to soaring profits. This change was pre-COVID19 and it’s as interesting to read how their company both treated their customers, many small businesses gravely impacted by stay-at-home orders, as well as what their team did to ensure that no one had to be laid off in the economic downturn (read more HERE).
The role of protest in addressing wrongs
Remember, this speech by Dr. King is being given during a union strike, at a protest where employees were airing their grievances and demanding change after two workers were killed on the job. The impact of these fatalities were exacerbated by the reality that there was no insurance or workman’s compensation available to the families and the public works department refused compensation to the families. The National Guard was called in to keep the peace as protestors carried signs reading, “I AM A MAN.”
- “You are here tonight to demand that Memphis do something about the conditions that our brothers face, as they work day in and day out for the well being of the total community. You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor.
- Now, you’re doing something else here. You are highlighting the economic issue. You are going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights. That is distinct.
- Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
As I said, I knew the statement about being able to afford a hamburger, but MLK elaborates,
- “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at the swankiest integrated restaurant when he doesn’t even earn enough money to take his wife out to dine?
- What does it profit one to have access to the hotels of our cities, and the hotels of our highways, when we don’t earn enough money to take our family on a vacation?
- What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?”
Can the people that you employ afford clothes for their children, the opportunity to go on a date with their wives or the opportunity to take their family on vacation? While you may not have the ability to make widespread changes if you are part of a larger organization or drastic changes if your finances are not in order. The question each of us should be asking is whether we are doing what we can to be a voice, to lead by example and to advocate to bring our team’s closer to the goal of “justice for all.”
The role of work in the fight for justice for all
As I said, I think we often get distracted by what is happening between the political parties and the change that isn’t happening by the powers that be. It’s not acceptable to let ourselves off the hook by deferring to a broken system while taking no accountability for our local responsibilities.
One of the things that the events in Minneapolis should make clear for anyone, is that saying, “I was only doing my job,” is an unacceptable excuse for doing the wrong thing. It is reprehensible to justify inaction in the face of wrong anywhere, including the workplace, by saying, “It wasn’t me.” These attitudes are real aspects of workplace dynamics and opportunities for change for the better in the place we spend the majority of our lives–work. If we will own our actions and call people out who are doing wrong, we can continue the hard everyday work of changing things from the inside out. I should be leveraging whatever capital I have to make the world a better place in a sustainable way.
On a recent episode of Conan O’Brien, guest Kamu Bell stated, “It’s easy to change your Twitter avi [avatar] to a black background, or to Black Lives Matter, but eventually you’re going to turn it back to that wacky picture. We need white people to not only do the work, but show their work, because we can’t trust that the work will get done.” Simply updating your social media isn’t enough. It’s a bit of a paradox that in many suburbs well-intentioned people are protesting while the origins of the suburbs are a part of the problem beneath the surface. Business owners, managers and entrepreneurs have the power to effect real change when they apply their appeals for justice to their own organizations.
- Are you able to improve working conditions?
- Are you able to broaden candidate search parameters?
- Are you able to assist others to elevate their roles and responsibilities?
- Are you able to raise wages, incentives and/or paid time off?
Dr. King’s call for action during the protest in Memphis in 1968 still applies to today’s plight, “Now the other thing is that nothing is gained without pressure. Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. Freedom is not some lavish dish that the power structure and the white forces imparted with making a decision will voluntarily hand down on a silver platter while the negro furnishes the appetite. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.”
How inequality impacts the privileged
Heather C. McGhee, in a recent TED Talk, shares startling insights into how bias fuels bad policymaking and drains our economic potential. How, in tangible ways, prejudice hurts those perpetuating inequality and injustice. She shares current stories of how discrimination is still impacting workers’ rights, the 2008 economic collapse and public services. Heather closes her TED Talk with this thought, “So we can keep pretending like we’re not all on the same team. We can keep sabotaging our success and hamstringing our own players. Or we can let the proximity of so much difference reveal our common humanity. And we can finally invest in our greatest asset. Our people. All of our people.”
Kamu Bell shares a similar instruction for how the fight for justice leads to better outcomes for all people. “If the world is more equitable and just for black people and people of color, it’s automatically better for white people. Listeners of The DYOJO Podcast have heard the phrase, “Rising tides raise all boats.” We spoke about this on Episode 9 and it should be understood as a powerful tool in moving towards an equitable system at work and beyond. When we continue to work together we find we improve the system for all of us rather than being divided and everyone loses.
Dr. King expounds on the importance of working together to apply pressure and leverage power to affect change. “We can all get more together than we can apart. We can get more organized together than we can apart. This is the way to gain power—power is the ability to achieve purpose. Power is the ability to affect change.”
What can we do?
In an excerpt from an upcoming collaborative publication that we are co-authoring, Dr. Leroy Nunery presents this perspective, “Bringing ‘diverse’ people on board only solves part of the problem; there has to be a commitment from leaders — throughout the organization — to see the disadvantages of having homogeneous, monolithic cultures. A few easy steps to take are:
- Becoming an executive sponsor for and/or regular participant in an Employee Resource Group (ERG);
- Holding roundtable discussions with others whose cultures and communities that are different than their own, and encouraging dialogue;
- Report out the results of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, such as recruiting, hiring, and promotions; or,
- Inquiring if company advertisements that show a wonderfully mixed group of happy customers are really working to attract new customers from those respective groups.
If doing the right thing isn’t encouragement enough for increasing your efforts towards equity, Dr. Nunery notes, “The most gender-diverse firms experienced 15% stronger Earnings Before Interest and Taxes (EBIT) in 2014 than their industry counterparts, and 22% higher EBIT in 2017. Likewise, the most ethnically diverse firms experienced 35% stronger EBIT in 2014 and 2017 than industry counterparts. The bottom line is that diversity can be a driver for the business.” Rising tides raising all boats is a reality.
A few years ago, I wrote, “What do I know? Very little. What can I control? Very little. What will I do? What I can.” While this may seem short-sighted and maybe fatalistic, to me it’s the opposite. I believe that by focusing on my roles, responsibilities, and my circle of influence, I can affect change in a meaningful way. The workplace presents real opportunities for raising the tides within our communities which can create momentum for broader change.
What I want to focus on is the reality that I cannot use, “I was doing my job,” as a dismissal of my responsibility to do the right thing. Part of doing the right thing includes an ongoing commitment to educate myself and expand my understanding of equality, equity, and justice. The workplace presents an opportunity for me to be involved in change and for others to be directly impacted by those efforts. If I focus on where I have the most influence, to create pressure, and where I can leverage power to effect change, I can be a part of moving towards justice for all and so can you. This doesn’t mean we stop our efforts for broader change, but we start where we are.