It’s no secret that I think that a good number of HR professionals are in the wrong role. I wrote a bit about it 2 years ago when I talked about racism inside of HR and shared some of my personal experiences. In those 2 years I have started and stopped, on multiple occasions, to create a comprehensive training on how to conduct workplace investigations with a little bias as possible. It has proven to be extremely difficult because I would be essentially asking some people to have a mindset shift that is well beyond their comprehension. How do I help someone understand that it’s quite possible that their core beliefs and values contribute to workplace discrimination?
I’ll give you an example. If I experienced race or gender discrimination, as Black female employee, I would not feel comfortable going to HR if they had a confederate flag poster visible anywhere or came to work wearing a make America great again hat.
As a Black employee, I view that as openly hostile. It would make me feel like no matter what I say, I will be told that it wasn’t racism, nor was it sexism or any other ism. There are items, symbols, quotes, etc. that when displayed, give me the impression that I would be automatically disbelieved.
A lot of the investigation process and determining if the complaint is substantiated or not is completely subjective. It often boils down to who do you believe more or if you were the person with the complaint, how would you have reacted to the behavior or situation that the person is complaining about. And therein lies the issue.
It’s been shown that as Americans, we disagree on what racism actually is. Which brings me to the next comparison. In general, men are not seen as being able to determine what is, and is not sexist against women. Women are not generally seen as being able to determine what is, and is not, sexist against men. In most cases, there is an agreement that men don’t experience the world and the workplace in the same way as women so women are seen more as the arbiters of truth in situations determining what is truly sexist against women.
Remember #metoo and the slogan “Believe Women”? Take a look at Jude Doyle’s definition, “The phrase is “believe women”—meaning, don’t assume women as a gender are especially deceptive or vindictive, and recognize that false allegations are less common than real ones.”
When you apply this definition to workplace investigations you get what is a pretty good standard. Women’s complaints are being investigated in an unbiased way by people who understand and can recognize what discrimination against women looks, feels, and sounds like. Anecdotally, in recent years that has been true.
I have heard why we should “Believe Women” explained very well in terms of gender discrimination: “The research showed a disturbing gap between male and female perception of sexual harassment in the workplace”, said Joe Levenson, the director of campaigns at Young Women’s Trust. “While of course there are many excellent male managers, some men may not be aware of the experiences of sexism suffered by women in the workplace – sometimes it may be brushed under the carpet or dismissed as banter,” he said. “So much sexism at work goes unreported, women fear that they will not be taken seriously or it will be bad for their career.”
Where can I find something that explains so clearly that there are the same issues with racial discrimination and harassment?
The issue is the same, because some people are not aware of the experiences of racial discrimination, they dismiss those complaints.
For the most part, if a woman is claiming sexual harassment or gender discrimination, the thoughts and opinions of other women hold weight. Typically, the woman with the complaint starts from a place of credibility. I’m in no way saying that it happens that way all of the time, nothing is 100%, but in general, these complaints are received and investigated with positive intent.
So, let’s turn this around.
“Believe Black People”.
How did that feel to read? How did your reaction to that differ from your reaction to Believe Women?
Hold on to that feeling. Take a minute to jot it down before you continue reading.
The bottom line is, don’t assume that Black people, or any other person of color, are especially deceptive or vindictive, and recognize that false allegations are less common than real ones. The same goes for any underrepresented group. And don’t try to investigate something that you don’t, and probably will never, understand. As I said earlier there is a huge divide about what is deemed to be racist and what is not. While I don’t agree with party lines, I think that it is important to know that in a study by The Washington Post, they found that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to agree that a behavior or view is not racist. This is important because the Republican party is 85% white vs 60% for the Democratic party. As with gender discrimination and harassment, people who will never experience racism should not be the arbiters of truth when it come to racial discrimination and harassment.
So back to our earlier example. Walking in to discuss racist behavior to the person with the confederate flag or make America great again hat does not make me feel like that person understands that I am not deceptive or vindictive with a propensity to file false claims. While the person in the hat may not feel that sporting that red hat is racist, I do. And that should mean something. Because I have seen the triple digit upticks in hate crimes and I know that exposure to racist rhetoric has a negative impact on anti-racism, the sight of that would stop me in my tracks. I would not want to bring my complaint to that person.
People can experience the same situation and still perceive it differently. A Black woman went to the movies with her white husband while on vacation in San Diego. As they bought their tickets, the manager approached the woman and advised her of the no food policy. The manager didn’t approach anyone else and he didn’t direct the conversation at her husband. She hung around for a while to see if he did approach anyone else but he didn’t. She was also well aware that she was the only person of color in the lobby at that time.
Because they had some time to kill before the movie, they walked around, saw some sights, and did a little shopping. When they got back to the theater there was a little bit of a line so they waited for their turn to get their tickets ripped and get the show going. As they got to front of the line, the manager rushed over and demanded to go through her purse. Taken aback, she asked him why. He said that he wanted to make sure she wasn’t sneaking in food. She opened her purse, he looked in saw there was no food and let her know she could go on her way. She walked into the theater angry and didn’t enjoy the movie.
When she discussed this later with her husband, he said that he didn’t notice if the manager did it to anyone else and even if he didn’t that doesn’t mean that it was because of the color of her skin. After being married to a Black woman for over 10 years, he still can’t identify racism and his first reaction is to defend the behavior.
They were in the same situation, but had much different perspectives.
Another Black woman that I know moved to a predominately white town and every time she went to the grocery store, the cashiers would ask her for her EBT card, assuming that she is on government assistance.
We’ve all stood in line at the grocery store at one point or another. You know what it’s like, you can hear the conversations around you. What she never heard was the cashier as any of the white customers for their EBT card. And to add insult to injury, after the 5th or 6th time telling the cashiers that she didn’t have an EBT card, one of the cashiers urged her to get one.
After that occurrence, upon returning to her 7-figure home, she told her white husband about the incidents, and he said that they probably ask everyone and it didn’t really mean anything. When people of color are are not believed it continues to contribute to intergenerational trauma, which is not just a Black thing. Trauma is trauma.
No one wants to think badly of their husband but those two responses were textbook examples of racial gaslighting.
Back to work. For a lot of people, going to HR is already hard enough. Now imagine again, the Black woman who needs to go to HR. She is already extremely hesitant just because it is HR. When she gets there the person in HR has physical things present that are emotion triggers and symbols of hate. When the investigation is deemed to be unsubstantiated, she is left feeling is that work isn’t a safe place, and she can’t trust anyone at her job and her HR team is gaslighting her.
And when HR doesn’t believe a person of color, the person with the complaint is left with few choices. Continue to be mistreated, quit, or go to the EEOC. Unfortunately, for those who go to the EEOC, they are, quite possibly, doing even more damage their mental health. In 2005 a lawsuit was dismissed because the judge felt that “threats to “kick plaintiff’s ‘black ass’” and the use of racial slurs, including the n-word and “boy,” reflected conduct that was “isolated,” “sporadic,” and “random.” The judge also wrote “the evidence did not show “the conduct — apart from the racially offensive graffiti — was frequent, severe, physically threatening (with the exception of the nooses), humiliating, demeaning and/or unreasonably interfered with his job”.
Take that in for a moment. How often should someone be subjected to racially offensive graffiti and nooses hanging from the ceiling for it to interfere with someone’s job? How much racially offensive graffiti is hostile? The number should be 1. But because I understand that it’s corporate America we’re dealing with, I would give 1 time for it happen and be reported and the second time it happens, the perpetrator should be fired. However, the answer from another judge on what qualifies as hostile is “environments so heavily polluted with discrimination as to destroy completely the emotional and psychological stability of minority group workers.”
Please take a moment to read that again.
For minority group workers, we have to be destroyed completely by discrimination before it matters.
The very sad part is that most of us already are completely destroyed by discrimination and racism, we just hide it well because of that intergenerational trauma.
Help end the trauma by using this golden rule. If the behavior, situation, or action, supports and centers on white as the default/norm leaving people of color to be the other/not normal, it’s racist.
So how do I create a comprehensive training on how to conduct workplace investigations with a little bias as possible? How do I get people to understand that the people and causes that they support can be racist and hurtful? How do I get people to understand that saying that you are being discriminated against because you voted for a racist isn’t actually discrimination? How do I get people to understand that just because they can’t “see” racism, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t present? And how do I do that with people who should already know this, people who are supposed to be employee advocates?
So instead, I created a test.
If you had any sort of negative reaction when you read “Believe Black People” you don’t belong in HR.