Empathy

Photo: Josh Calabrese

Empathy, Action: What HR Can Do Now

Recently I published an article on Forbes.com about the elephant in the room. It was one of those pieces I had to do. I had to go out on a limb and just say it

We talk about diversity all the time — and on TalentCulture we’ve published many articles on improving diversity and inclusion. One offered seven tips on “managing diversity” in the workplace, and included wisdom from people working on the front lines of diversity, including diversity and inclusion consultant and author La’Wana Harris and Amy Cappellanti-Wolf, CHRO at Symantec. The post listed ways to improve more than manage, including building pipelines to more diverse talent, and letting go of seeing diversity not as a state of being but a buzzword. The step that struck me the most was examining policies to root out systemic inequality. As Harris noted, “Workplace policies, systems and processes can disproportionately impact historically marginalized populations.”

Of course, she’s right. But what strikes me now is that she didn’t put it in the past tense then, and it wouldn’t be in the past tense now. Between that post and the article on Forbes is the better part of a year, and a lot has happened to say the least. We’ve witnessed the murder of African-Americans at the hands of police and learned of one in which she was killed in her house, in her bed, and by mistake. You don’t usually see me get into these kinds of details, but the circumstances are so shocking I think they bear repeating, and repeating again. And we’ve seen — and millions have participated in — some 21 days and counting of protests spurred by outrage. 

AI and VR: Tools for Fairness

The one piece of good news is that we are being forced to reckon with that elephant. And the elephant for everyone in HR is this: we can’t improve diversity with any kind of commitment and intent if we don’t first address racism. And by addressing racism, I mean working as hard as we can to undo it in our own workplaces. It means looking hard at what we produce and offer, and asking whether it’s helping or not. IBM recently put the brakes on its facial recognition program. As CEO Arvind Krishna said, “We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.” He went on to note that AI systems need to be subject to far more scrutiny regarding bias. And that’s something that’s come up again and again, in a hiring context, on this site.

Is that where we start? We actively celebrate technology on TalentCulture: we just wrapped the HR Tech Awards for 2020, and among the many innovations there’s certainly AI. Another innovation that came up recently is VR, and I had a fascinating discussion on a recent #WorkTrends with clinical psychologist Robin Rosenberg about how VR can help radically improve empathy among diverse work teams. The podcast focused not just on diversity but on work culture as a whole — but it’s the potential to decrease unconscious bias, microaggressions and intolerance that stays with me. If we can put on a headset and literally experience what that feels like to someone else, maybe it should be part of everyone’s training — make it a required component of onboarding or skill development.  

Undoing the Status Quo

Do I expect my clarion call on Forbes to have an affect? Perhaps it will. Sometimes a post goes viral for reasons completely beyond our control, as when I talked about emotional intelligence and leadership just when EQ was getting on our radar, or more recently, when I predicted the key trends we’d see in 2020. (I’m lucky to have great readers, and grateful.) In the trends article, I mentioned a shift to tending rather than managing our workforce, advocated for leaning harder on AI for recruiting so long as it was programmed without bias, and pointed out that more of us would be working remotely. But that was written well before the pandemic threw up all into a tailspin, or survival mode, or just home, before the nation exploded, and before it became clear that we tend to stay entrenched in our own status quo. 

But we can’t accept the status quo anymore, and this is the opportunity to snap out of it. I wasn’t surprised when 63% of respondents to our June 3 newsletter survey said they’d experienced racism in the workplace either directed at themselves (39.7%) or a coworker (23.8%). But I was shocked to find out that less than 5% had reported it. HR, I’m looking at you.

HR Has a Role to Play

So let’s have real conversations about the bias that may be stuck within our work cultures (conscious or unconscious). Let’s push back against complacency or just inertia when it comes to examining and improving workplace policies. Let’s keep asking the hard questions — we just ran a follow-up survey question this week, asking who is now having discussions about racism among their coworkers. I’m very interested in those results. I’d like to challenge the top innovators to find the best means to systematically detach AI from potential bias. I’d like to know who’s reviewing accounts of unfair treatment in their workplace, and having a new reckoning to set things right. 

In the end, every business will be better and more sustainable in the future if it works to be more equitable, diverse, and fair in the present. Knowledge is power, as we well know. And HR is a field that wants to evolve — and indeed, it can’t stop evolving. We’re made for this. So let’s get to it.