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Firing an employee for racism won’t solve your workplace problem

September 9, 2020 Category: FeaturedMethodShort
If race can end someone’s employment at your company, it has to start it too.

About two-thirds of Black and Asian Americans report talking often or sometimes about race, compared to half of white and Latinx people. It’s rarer still at work — here’s a piece on talking about race at work. When issues of representation and equity never make it into job descriptions or interviews, there can be quite a gap in understanding between employer and employee — especially in times of heightened attention to issues of racial equity.

Yet there seems an increasing expectation to hold account professionals for how they understand racism.

Look at the firing of the white woman who appeared to racially profile a Black man as she walked her dog, or the 20-year-veteran Inquirer top editor who resigned for publishing an insensitive headline — or many many many other recent examples.

“It’s a lot easier to just fire one person than for the organization to actually confront, do we have a bigger problem?”  said Jael K.D.L.V. Chambers, the president of Cultured Enuf, a diversity consulting firm. Chambers is hosting a pair of cultural competency workshops on Friday, Sept. 25 at Introduced, a conference focused on ‘building better workplaces’ by our sister site Technical.ly.

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Organizations, in the private and nonprofit sectors alike, like very much to believe that they somehow let one bad apple into the bunch. (This here is a lovely depiction of how bad apples go bad.) It is considerably more challenging to ponder: what is it about our organizational culture that allowed this person, or these norms to thrive?

Recently, storied city institutions like the Free Library of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the Philadelphia Inquirer have all faced public questioning along those organizational lines.

“Most job applications don’t include a requirement to have an expertise in race or diversity or even to say we value cultural competency,” said Chambers. “But you certainly can be held accountable for it. You have to ask: Did you set this person up well?”

That’s not to say when an employee badly represents your organization, or when it becomes exceedingly clear that there is a misalignment between an individual and your organizational mission, that a board or a manager shouldn’t give that person the boot. The point is that’s often the symptom, not the cause.

Talking about race “should have always been important,” said Chambers. “Instead it only becomes important when someone makes a mistake. It became important because you got caught.”

Chambers advises: “Either diversity is part of how you build your organization, or it will show itself someway, somehow.”

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