‘Empathy alone is not enough:’ How HR can boost workplace equality

Massive street protests across the U.S. and globally in the wake of recent race-related tragedies including the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans are demanding attention, action and change for equality and social justice.

With that, recent research from Mercer lays out the reasons employers would be wise to examine not only their influence externally, but also their efforts to create equality internally, with renewed urgency and perspective.

Related: 4 strategies for addressing racial tensions, unrest

“They have a unique opportunity to establish an inclusive culture for their employees and be a role model for society,” says Angela Berg, partner and Mercer’s Global Diversity & Inclusion Consulting Leader.

According to Mercer’s Let’s Get Real About Equality research, which covers organizational policies and practices related to diversity and inclusion, one out of three U.S. organizations does not take the simple, critical step of tracking employee representation by race/ethnicity and career level. Also, nearly half do not track rates of hiring, promotion and exits by race/ethnicity and career level.

Berg says that, to cultivate a workplace environment that addresses racism and inequality, promotes justice and inspires inclusion, employers should follow several strategies.

For one, they should be humble, transparent and genuine about wanting progress by acknowledging that they can and will do better. Also, senior leaders should take personal ownership of progress of workplace racial equality.

“There has long been a significant and discouraging ‘say/do’ gap between the values companies express publicly and the impact of those values on real behavior and equality,” Berg says. “Real change requires real actions; empathy alone is not enough.”

Employers also should identify and publicly commit to specific actions for leaders and for the company as a whole, Berg says, including examining internal race and ethnicity data from multiple dimensions to ensure that employees of color have equality in opportunity, experience and pay. It also means “hard-wiring” the organization to make sure programs, practices and policies are unbiased and drive measurable progress.

Employers also must listen by opening multiple channels to support ongoing conversations with Black employees and must be prepared to follow up with specific actions to address workforce inequities.

See also: 8 ways to reflect on your HR ethics

Berg says organizations can avoid common practices that tend to fall short by taking some critical steps, including:

  • Placing accountability for D&I outcomes on senior leaders instead of HR.
  • Focusing first on inclusion and then diversity, using unconscious bias training as just one of many tools to shape an inclusive culture.
  • Partnering with employee resource groups or business resource groups for guidance and feedback but not to lead D&I strategy.

She explains that longtime observers believe the history of civil rights and equality in America has been a long and frustrating cycle of promises to do better, followed by inadequate real or sustained action for change. Berg notes that business also plays a role here, being unable to significantly bridge its ongoing “say/do” credibility gap.

“While companies may have good intentions, impact has been low,” Berg says. “The current actions they are taking are not driving sustained improvement.”

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