Racial Discrimination in "the trades"

I was recently asked by a manager in the construction trades: how to help their black employees become more effective and productive. This is a good concern to have. Unfortunately - the reason the manager was having such problems - despite having good intentions and actively recruiting for diversity - was because her understanding of what the problem was - was coming from a place of bias and privilege.

People talk a lot about bias and privilege and people bristle when they are told about it. All that is being said is that - there is a blind spot and you don't really understand the problem because - of the blind spot. I am sharing with you this example - so that you can see how bias and privilege create those blind spots so you can recognize them and fix them.

Please keep in mind that while this example specifically comes out of the construction trades, this sort of blind spot problem occurs in all industries. To create more diverse workforces, we have to start overcoming our biases - so that we can solve the problems preventing our teams from becoming truly diverse.

First - the problem: 

This manager said her company wants diversity and they actively hire for it. But every black person they have hired either quits, or gets fired. As I asked her to explain the problem she was having in more detail, she said that the black employees just aren't getting as much work done as their white counter parts and when this is pointed out and attempts made to increase productivity so that they can get the amount of work done that is expected  - reasonably so because white employees are able to meet these standards - that their black employees get angry - talk about racism and quit. Those that don't quit - end up getting fired because they simply aren't as productive as the company needs them to be. She came to me to find out how she could help the black employees learn how to be more to be more productive.

(If you are black and reading this - please take a deep breathe and let me handle this. In fact - this may be triggering - so proceed with caution. I am sharing this - because this person is well meaning - but ... her assumptions - were preventing a fix).

Here is how she worded her problem:

"So, we have a rather diverse workforce, but we still don't have very many African-Americans working for us. They don't tend to stay long, as, individually, they seem to not have the work ethic to do well. If something specific doesn't happen, they are often let go if there's a slow-down in work because they aren't working as hard. But I'm wondering if it's a defense mechanism. I know people make terrible decisions as defense mechanisms - "Oh, they're just going to (do something to let me down). Why bother?"  I need help articulating this idea that African Americans can be reached, if you understand their underlying behaviors as defense mechanisms, and that they possibly can be coached out of those behaviors, if you see their point of view. And not being willing to meet them in their space is part of systemic racism. But honestly, I don't know where to start.

The manager's understanding of the problem was flawed. From her perspective - the problem was that the black employees just weren't as productive and for some reason  - she had no idea why - they just didn't work as hard as their white counterparts, so - she wanted to help train them on things like conscientiousness and time management etc - to help them be more productive and less defensive when attempts were made to help correct productivity problems. (deep breathes).

The problem is - their decreased productivity isn't necessarily caused by the employee. It could very well be - a symptom of something else. And as long as she focused on increasing productivity without actually addressing that something else - the situation was never going to improve.

Why biases matter: 

We all have biases and those biases cause us to make assumptions about the nature of the problem.  In this case - she was making assumptions about her employees - that they just didn't know how to be productive or worse - that they didn't want to be productive.

The best way to overcome bias - is to ask questions. In this case, the best way to find out why people are leaving and not working to the expected standards – is to ask them.  But that requires a willingness to listen and adjust behavior to make space for the person who is choosing to leave instead of deal with whatever it is they don’t like.  Often, the fixes are insanely simple – because it has to do with giving and showing respect in a way that is meaningful for the person feeling aggrieved.

If someone isn’t respected, they often do the minimum work required – in a passive aggressive way. This may be what she was seeing. It may not be. The question is – if this is what you are seeing – why are you all triggering this response? How can you stop triggering this response?

To get past this – the hiring manager needs to understand their role in the communication problem and how to get past it.  The starting assumption should be: these people are willing to work and are capable of working to the required standards, but for some reason aren’t. Why? It’s entirely possible the reason they aren’t is because they feel disrespected in the workplace. If that’s the case, this is a harassment, discrimination and communication problem.  It also means – their behavior may be a result of them not feeling safe.

There is recent work on psychological safety and it’s impact on team performance. https://hbr.org/2017/08/high-performing-teams-need-psychological-safety-heres-how-to-create-it

The problem in using this information is – the resistance to using it. It is very easy for team leaders to say – the work I have to do to create safe workplaces for marginalized people isn’t worth the effort when I can get another employee who doesn’t require that extra work. This is a management failure where the management failure is rationalized to blame the marginalized people. Her instincts on this needing to be addressed is correct.

The person that needs to address it and who has to want to address it are the managers. They have to be willing to find out what is happening on site or wherever - because it may not be the manager creating the bad environment. It may be and probably is the people they are working with day to day. But until or unless there is a willingness to REALLY listen and learn with the goal of helping these people succeed and stay – nothing will change.

Another possibility:

Another possibility is this: We know women aren’t respected and their ability to be productive is negatively impacted by men withholding information and resources they need to get their work done. The example I’m thinking of is the guy who used his female employees email address and suddenly – customers who respond right away to him – were withholding and it was taking him A LOT longer to get the same amount of work done – because his clients weren’t as forthcoming with him because he was suddenly female. It’s entirely possible that the employees - who are being deamed - not productive – are working their asses off and not getting as much done because – the people who they are working with – are withholding from them and slowing them down. But again – you won’t know – until they are asked.

My manager friend was making assumptions about the motivations of her employees and why they weren't as productive as she hoped they would be. The result was - her focus was on fixing what she thought was the problem - and not what the employees understand the problem to be.

The only way to fix what is wrong – is to have honest – open conversations to find out what exactly the employees in question are experiencing and why they are experiencing it so that you can fix the problems or help them work around what they are experiencing so they can actually be productive despite the fact they may have hurdles that other - white employees don't have.

This is where privilege comes in. White employees don't have to deal with racist customers and vendors. Black and brown employees do.  Racism - impacts productivity. It's silly to pretend otherwise. If you want to change this dynamic - you have to make space for and protect your black and brown and female employees so that they can be productive - despite the racism and sexism.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...