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In the Pursuit of Diversity: The Importance of Accepting Responsibility for Failure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nkechi Onwuameze
June 27, 2019

As the second decade of the 21st century rounds up, the nation still faces a major setback in the workplace—the lack of diversity. Researchers and employers in public and private sectors have invested time, money and effort to address the lack of diversity, yet the progress remains slow. In this article, I am focusing on racial diversity, which has been the focus of several research studies for several decades. Whites continue to be the largest group in the labor force (78 percent) while African Americans make up only 13 percent of the labor force.

The racial inequality at the executive level management is even more remarkable, as white men represent 61.3 percent of executives nationally and have an executive parity index of 1.81 while Black men have a score of 0.63. Only 8 percent of Black men and women are represented at the professional white-collar workforce category. The pattern of recruitment that has produced disproportionate racial representation has continued to plague the workplace with no end in sight as organization leaders resort to shifting blames rather than accepting the responsibility to address the problem.

Perhaps the most often-cited reason for low representation of African Americans in employment is the claim that there are no suitable candidates that match the qualifications for the employment. While it has served as a convenient excuse for so long, it is now under scrutiny. After Mayor Wayne Motley of Waukegan, Illinois, who is white, hired four firefighters/paramedics and two policemen in 2016 who were all white males, some resident frustrated with the lack of diversity, expressed concern with the hiring process. The Chicago Tribune reported that during a city council meeting, Margaret Carrasco, a resident of the city, said to Mayor Motley, “Just recently, you hired (new) firemen — not one was black, not one was brown and not one was a female.”  

Your old excuses for not hiring women or minorities are hogwash,” said Carrasco.

Another resident, Clyde McLemore, who is African-American was also critical of the hiring process, as the Tribune reported he told Mayor Motley, “Last week, you hired four firefighters, and none of them look like me. Why is it that black citizens in Waukegan can’t pass the (hiring) test?” Such expression of frustration is the outcome of failure to address the serious issue of systematic exclusion that research has demonstrated hurts everyone. The excuse that there is no minority to employ is now being increasingly questioned as the progress in achieving diversity remains slow. The hands-off approach, or shifting the blame rather than looking for solutions, makes it harder to make sustainable progress. The following points are a few factors to consider by leaders who find themselves in the tough spot of leading an organization that lacks diversity:

  • Accept responsibility: If you are a boss and your organization lacks diversity, start by accepting the responsibility that there is a failure and map out a plan to fix it. This is the first step to achieving any meaningful change. Do not waste time looking for excuses or how to shift the blame. Pushing the blame to others means you are not ready to face the task ahead to change your organization.

  • Embrace inclusive organizational culture: Don’t think about bringing in a single minority employee if your organizational culture is not inclusive. It won’t work. You are going to experience sudden new employee departure catastrophe if your organization lacks an inclusive culture. Several studies show that African American employees may leave if they experience excessive bias, discrimination and intimidation at work. Start by examining your own self. Be introspective as your position as a leader exerts a high degree of influence. Then engage your organization in an honest path to achieve an inclusive culture.

  • Address subtle biases that keep minority employees away: While society has put structures in place to outrightly reject overt racism when it occurs, the same cannot be said for frequent subtle, subconscious biases, classified as microaggressions experienced by minority employees. Sue, Capodilupo, et al., 2007, p. 273, defines microaggressions as, “Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward persons of color.” Microaggression is common in the workplace and negatively impacts employee well-being, including contributing to job burnout, job withdrawal, and decreased job commitment.

  • Evaluate your hiring practices: Organizations struggling with achieving diversity need to address biased hiring practices that keep minority applicants away. A common example is the rigorous testing requirements for firefighters and police officers that make it difficult for minority candidates to sail through the hiring hurdles. Any organization serious about achieving diversity should evaluate their hiring practices and remove barriers that ensure minority candidates are kept out.

  • Be intentional with your interview panel selection: Selection of individuals on the interview panel has to be well-planned and intentional. First, ensure the interview panel is diverse and that the individuals understand the importance of achieving the goal of a diverse organization. Being open and honest about this in an organization sets the pace to achieve the goals of diversity. In addition, your panel should be trained to understand the unique qualities of these minority candidates. As gatekeepers, this group holds the power to build or break the diversity initiatives of an organization.

  • Use data to inform the process: Data is an important tool organizations should use to keep track of diversity efforts. Using data to measure the status and progress of diversity is key to making progress.

As the topic of diversity has taken center stage of public discourse in the United States, organization leaders must be willing to take the responsibility to examine its failures and find the right path to sustainable progress. By accepting responsibility, leaders are able to position themselves to engage in an honest pursuit to achieve diversity, which has been proven to be beneficial to everyone. 

Author: Nkechi Onwuameze works for the Illinois Board of Higher Education and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Springfield. She earned a Ph.D. in sociology of education at the University of Iowa. Her research interest include educational inequality, gender discrimination in the workplace, workplace diversity. [email protected] or Twitter: @Nkobis

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