The Trayvon Martin Effect And Managing Race Issues In The Workplace

The Trayvon Martin case shook America to the core and is shining a much-needed light on U.S. race relations. What does this mean for offices everywhere?

No matter what side you stand on, the recent Trayvon Martin verdict put U.S. race relations in the national spotlight.

While the facts of the case are hotly debated, the one thing that both sides agree upon is that George Zimmerman thought that Trayvon Martin was a “suspicious person” before the events that ended in the fatal shooting. While no one truly knows why Zimmerman assumed that Martin was suspicious—maybe it was his attire, maybe because of recent crimes in the neighborhood, maybe it was Trayvon’s age, maybe it was his demeanor—the truth of the matter is that humans make assumptions about others, and they are often based on race.

In Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he discusses how humans think with two systems—one that acts quickly based on emotion and intuition and the other that is slower and uses logic and deliberation. Most neuroscientists today agree that the brain uses shortcut thinking much of the time. This usually works well (and uses up little energy) but relies on assumptions and stereotypes to help form our actions and behaviors. Unfortunately this “fast thinking” can unintentionally lead to big problems when it comes to race relations in the workplace.

The research is clear— a company with diverse employees is a company with a wide range of workplace experiences. While the majority of acts of discrimination are not blatant violations of company policy, diverse employees are commonly treated differently in small, subtle ways. For example, black employees may now be subjected to a barrage of seemingly innocent questions like, “What do you think of the Trayvon Martin verdict?” Unless these employees are attorneys, they are probably wondering why THEY are considered “experts” on the matter.

Many organizations have already put into place several initiatives to prevent employees from behaving this way, such as sensitivity training and diversity committees, but most are still missing the mark on the behaviors that stem from the subconscious biases from otherwise well-meaning employees. These issues are even more difficult to address than obvious discrimination because they are the result of highly personal, emotional, and complex attitudes and assumptions.

The truth about workplace discrimination

In 2002, the Harvard Business Review published “Dear White Boss” by Ancella Livers and Keith Caver. "Dear White Boss" was a fictitious letter based on Livers and Caver’s research, written from a black manager to his white boss. In it, the black manager politely points out the various things he experiences as a black man in the workplace that his white colleagues need not endure.

When he attended his first offsite management team meeting shortly after his hire date, he was subjected to a “barrage of questions about issues related to diversity” which were not related to his business expertise. He left the meeting feeling demoralized and felt as if he was singled out because of the color of his skin.

During lunch one day, the black manager was seated with his manager and another member of the management team in the corporate dining room, and they asked the black manager, “Can you tell me why all of the blacks are sitting together?”

One weekend, the black manager came into the office to complete a last-minute project for his manager. He was wearing casual clothing, like other employees who come into the office on the weekends, and he was stopped by a young man (not a security guard), who requested to see his identification. No other employees were questioned, and after that, he felt as if he needed to wear professional clothing when working in the office on the weekends.

The cost of subconscious discrimination

Unintentionally alienating a large part of the workforce is not only wrong on a social level, it’s bad for business.

Recruiting and retention costs are high, and employees facing uncomfortable work environments are not likely to stay or be productive in the organization. Employees of different cultural backgrounds are valuable in terms of innovation and providing a variety of business perspectives that mirror the needs of customers. According to Cedric Herring, in the April 2009 issue of the American Sociological Review, companies that had the highest levels of racial diversity made more than 15 times in sales revenue than companies with the lowest levels of racial diversity.

The good news is that there are numerous options that can help address these types of subconscious behaviors that may be occurring in your organization.

Create or review your diversity committee

If you already have one already in place, survey them about the current company culture and then review their goals and action items to ensure the committee is getting quantifiable results. Appoint a non-HR senior executive “champion” to the committee.

Conduct a workplace survey for all employees that will give you a point-in-time gauge of current perceptions of the workplace. Ask employees specific questions about the current work culture, their opinions of the organization, and how they perceive their colleagues’ behaviors.

Begin a cross-cultural mentoring program

Encourage mentorship matches between employees of different races and genders. Research conducted by Frank Dobbin of Harvard University compared the effects of various Human Resource initiatives on management diversity. He and his collaborators found that mentoring programs had the largest effects in improving the composition of diverse management for women and most minority groups. (Compared with networking alone, which showed some improvement for white women but a negative effect for black men.)

Audit exit interviews—and watch for trends

Parse the exit data by race demographics to see exactly why past employees of color left the organization and then compare the results with your predominantly white employees. You can also look at this data by years of service to see when these types of employees are reaching their “breaking points.” Because of the ongoing nature of exit interviews, you have the opportunity to continually track performance in these areas. Comparing the work experience and turnover trends among diverse employees in comparison to the total population should be a standard metric that HR reviews semi-annually.

Implement new hire surveys

Survey all new employees at predetermined thresholds (such as immediately after their start dates, at the 30-day threshold, or at the 90-day threshold). Gather this data to get a realistic view of how all new employees are being welcomed and assimilating to the corporate culture. This type of data will also show you if employees of color are having different experiences.

President Obama recently said that he could have been Trayvon Martin. He shared that he has experienced every one of the fear responses (such as women clutching their purses), that his presence provoked simply because of the color of his skin. Likewise, it’s important to recognize that every diverse employee may experience a series of similarly humiliating actions every day in the workplace. If we want to create a successful work environment, we must understand, recognize, admit, and identify where these actions are taking place in our companies and seek to eliminate them as best we can.

—Beth N. Carvin is President and CEO at Nobscot Corporation, an HR technology company that specializes in key areas of employee retention and development. Beth is a nationally recognized expert on employee retention and exit interviews, and has assisted with exit interviewing strategy for large, multi-national companies, in every industry, and in more than 20 countries. Beth can be reached at bncarvin@nobscot.com.

[Image: Flickr user Gosheshe]

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4 Comments

  • maddog22

    If Blacks would quit expecting special treatment for what happen 200 years ago they would be excepted . The problem in America is when you have one group that thinks they our intilted to a job or a college over someone else just because they our black ,you will never end racism .  They call themselves Africian americians but they failed to read the consitution the part were it says all men are created equal that means no special treatment .

  • Beth N. Carvin

    The issues we raise in this article are about exactly that - being treated equally.

  • @drstroman

    Thanks for the courage to even address this important topic. It is also critical to note that we often discuss race with the diversity lens. Diversity focuses on the people who are disadvantaged. It is more beneficial as a country and as a business unit, to address policy. That is, the system that creates the injustice, discrimination, and bigotry. Let's unwrap the invisible power that keeps all people from real collaboration and trust. We have much to gain if leaders take the bold steps of implementing inclusion policies and recognizing privilege. 

  • Seamuswardowski

    Recently a colleague of mine told me I better be quite, or they would 'go Treyvon on me'...I didn't know what he meant until I read your article. Thanks!