Begging for Leadership

Story time! When I walked into U.S. Embassy Lusaka, Zambia, I walked into an employee benefit nightmare.  Our locally engage staff (nearly all Zambians) were told one thing about their retirement benefits, but then received something much different and much lower.  While my manager had been working on this for a bit, it was squarely my problem to deal with and I was immediately taken as the enemy by much of the staff.  I had to manage up with all my might and advocate for employees while I could not tell them how hard I was trying.  I towed the company line of “this is what the benefit is until we can get it changed.”  Once it got changed and benefits massively increased, management got the glory.

This is what HR does or at least should do every day.  We work hard on behalf of employees while sharing management’s words.  It’s a thankless job often with zero glory, but when employees reap the benefit of our hard work, a swelling sense of pride comes over us.  When it doesn’t, everyone suffers.

For me, this is why it is critical to have an industry association that gets how tough it is for us and is willing to take on the burden rather than following business organizations like sheeple. An association that both represents us to the world, but also advocates to help us make life a little easier for the employees we serve. Sometimes taking hard positions even if it could cost our employers more money or take away some of the shortcuts we’ve been used to for so long.

For the past three years, I’ve watched the Society for Human Resources Management fail HR, saddling up to an Administration desperate to take rights away from our LGBTQ community, strip our workers of their ability to work, and ignore or “all lives matter” our Black and Brown colleagues. I’ve voiced my concerns to SHRM directly at Special Expertise Day before SHRM National 2019, I’ve spoken with representatives, I’ve asked folks to contact their representatives, I’ve tweeting my concerns repeatedly, I’ve spoken to Board Members. I believe I’ve done everything in my power to make change inside the organization. So, it’s time to go outside of it.

I prepared a Change.org petition asking for the bare minimum from SHRM:

  1. SHRM says “Black Lives Matter.”  SHRM can hold all the diversity summits, symposiums, webinars it likes, but until it recognizes that Black lives actually matter, all of that work means little. 
  2. SHRM advocates for the LGBTQ community.  SHRM did not file an amicus brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to find that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classes under Title VII.  SHRM has not expressed even a whiff of concern as this Administration as advocated that business should be fire or not serve our LGBTQ friends and colleagues.  SHRM said nothing as the Administration issued a final rule stripping our friends and colleagues of health benefits.  Instead, SHRM’s president enjoyed watching the State of the Union with Congressman Mark Walker of North Carolina – a man adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage.

This petition does not ask for an ouster in leadership, it simply asks for some leadership. For our Black, Brown, Indigenous, immigrant, LGBTQ friends and colleagues, silence is violence. We should not be silent anymore. After all, as a very good friend once said, “You shouldn’t be in Human Resources if you don’t believe in human rights.”

If you would like to join the hundreds of folks who already have, please click here.  Thank you.

HR’s Response to Racism In Viral Form

Social media is one helluva thing.  It can rapidly spread information (both fact and lie), keep us connected to friends and family around the world, and put a glaring spotlight on our abhorrent behavior.  Like Amy Cooper’s.

If you missed Monday evening’s social media, Christian Cooper, a black man, was out watching birds in New York’s Central Park when he saw Amy Cooper, a white woman, out with her unleashed, rescued Cocker Spaniel.  Christian (because there are too many Coopers in this story to keep everyone straight) asked Amy to leash her dog per the Park’s rules and the many signs posted near the area.  What happened next is subject to this video and represents a potentially lethal cocktail of lies, threats, racism, white privilege, and police involvement.

Within just a few hours, Amy was identified as a Vice President for Franklin Templeton, an investment firm, and placed on administrative leave.  She turned her dog over to the rescue shelter where she got him.  Not surprisingly, the video went viral while #AmyCooper and #FireHer trended in tandem.  And, perhaps surprisingly, Franklin Templeton’s website appeared to crash.

Imagine for a minute that you’re in HR for the organization Amy works for.  What do you recommend? 

Put her on administrative leave? Absolutely, leave is exactly the right thing to do immediately, especially on a holiday.  Leave buys everyone some time to cautiously go through what happened and prepare next steps.

Investigate?  Investigate this particular incident?  No. The video is pretty clear, and she’s admitted her conduct.  A decision can be made right now.  However, should you investigate whether Amy’s behavior has impacted employees in the organization.  No doubt about it.  You have to.  Because Amy appears to have supervisory authority, her attitudes towards race may have impacted decisions she has made involving performance reviews, hiring, firing, training, etc.  Going through those decisions is going to be a must.  Not only will the video be Exhibit A in any discrimination case brought against Franklin Templeton that involves Amy, it will also impact the employees she supervises and works with.  Some may believe that the racism she displayed in the video affected her decisions and will want to know from you that you’re taking it seriously while determining if it actually has.

Talk with employees?  Absolutely.  This incident is going to affect your workplace.  Black and brown employees are going to be particularly affected and will be paying close attention to how the organization responds.  Let’s assume the organization wants to be antiracist.  A message from the CEO must happen and happen quickly.  Open forums (even over video) should take place so you can hear from employees, and employees should be encouraged to bring up concerns in any format they choose.  Amy’s managers (and potentially every manager) should hold meetings with staff talking about the organization’s commitment to being antiracist.  You can casually check-in with other staff too, touching base with them. Check-in especially with staff who you believe would participate in a forum if it was held in-person but who don’t appear at the virtual forum.

Remind employees about your policies?  You betcha!  You’re going to remind employees about your harassment and discrimination policies (which no doubt would cover the kind of conduct in the video).  You’re also going to remind employees about your policy about talking to the media, namely that they are not authorized to speak for your org unless specifically told they may.  If you don’t have this policy, that’s okay, but make sure you tell employees they cannot speak for the org.

Fire her?  You have no other option.  Leave was the right decision Monday evening, but you have to recommend her term today.  Is this a trial by media?  Of course.  Did she admit the conduct?  Yes.  Is it affecting your workplace?  Your servers crashed, your organization is in every major newspaper around the globe.  Employees are outraged.  Customers are likely outraged.  You have no other viable option.  Sensitivity training isn’t going to cut it. Keeping Amy will forever bind her acts of racism to your employer brand.

Now, imagine you’re in HR for the organization Christian works for.  What do you recommend?

Administrative leave?  No.

Investigate?  No.

Talk with employees?  Absolutely.  Talk with Christian.  See how he’s doing.  If he’s okay, tell him you’re happy he is.  The media spotlight is going to be glaring at him for a bit, so ask him what you can do to help minimize any negative impact.  Does he want to you to share with the media that he is your employee and that he’s great or not-so-great?  Does he want you to remain mum?  Ask him.  Your support is important.  You should also hold other meetings with employees, like open forums to talk about the incident and how it might affect them.  Managers should be equipped with talking points about how the organization is going to respond.

Remind employees about your policies?  Yep!  Same reminders as above.

Fire him?  Nope.  Christian did nothing wrong.

Remember, Justine Sacco?  The lady who tweeted a racist sentiment before getting on flight to Johannesburg?  She was fired mid-flight.  Amy is going to get fired here too.  And, that’s the right decision.  What’s more important though is how you in HR respond to Amy’s conduct.  How you address employees.  How you give them the opportunity to share their feelings and ideas on how to be better.  Not giving employees the opportunity to share, not addressing the situation will make everything worse, for a long, long time. 

Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash