How the New Civil Rights Movement Will Affect the Workplace
Is Your Workplace Ready for This New Wave of Social Activism?
Welcome to post-Ferguson America, a place where people question firmly entrenched authorities now more than ever!
These activists judge from the gut—arguing to upend (technically) lawful decisions and the systems that support them. They're not afraid to speak up, show up, or enlist the assistance of like-minded others in their crusade for change.
November of 2014 marked a turning point in America's collective racial consciousness. This event transpired as a result of the unprosecuted shooting of an 18-year-old black American named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
Protests and civil unrest quickly followed. Black Lives Matter demonstrations spread beyond the St. Louis suburb to far-flung cities across America, including Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City.
The Broader Implications of the Ferguson Demonstrations
Protesters were heard shouting:
"Hands up. Don't shoot!"
"I can't breathe!"
"Black lives matter!"
Demonstrators of all races sat down in the streets and impeded traffic. They even hurled canned food, bottles, and rocks. They denounced silence as an act of complicity while they marched peacefully and stopped traffic. Many protestors even dared to stay home on the biggest shopping day of the year.1 Students walked out of class, risking suspension.2 Athletes faced rebuke when they struck the now-famous hands-up pose for a nationally televised audience.3 Later, they took a knee and faced presidential reprimand.
There is no doubt that Ferguson was a watershed event. Americans decided they were fed up and would tolerate no more. No matter how you personally felt about the demonstrations, odds are that this new social justice movement won't limit itself solely to concerns over police brutality.
Just as the 1960's civil movement was larger than the isolated act of a woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus, this new civil rights movement will eclipse the singular issue of police misconduct. Watch for its impacts in the workplace, too.
Racism and the Workplace: What to Expect From the New Civil Rights Movement
Citizens quickly became emboldened by public support for civil rights. They will increasingly begin to call for improvements to the economic and social justice aspects of their respective jobs. After all:
- We spend one-third of our lives at work.
- Employment opportunities tangibly separate the haves from the have-nots.
- Work fulfills a key social identity function. It gives valuable meaning to who we are as people.
Here are five game-changing ways that the new civil rights movement will impact tomorrow's workplace. Will your employer be ready? Will you?
1. Employees Will Demand More Transparent Decisions
Think about all the key decisions that you entrust to strangers when you decide to go to work for a company. You have faith that decisions involving hiring, promotion, pay, and firing will be nondiscriminatory and legally compliant.
Such employment choices are critical because they affect the entire trajectory of your career. They translate into money in your pocket, status, and whether you even have a job. For example:
- Being identified as "promotable," being selected for a management training program, or even being contacted for an interview are all someone else's decision.
- In the event of a layoff, the assessment method that separates those who still have a job from those who do not also involves someone else's decision.
- Choices regarding pay, discipline, time off, training opportunities, and issues surrounding your working conditions are all up to the decision-makers.
- And when you complain? Whether your viewpoint will be considered, who hears your complaint, and what they do about it (if anything) are all someone else's decision.
In this new era of the civil rights movement, American employees will look more closely at both the consistency and appropriateness of such decisions. They'll expect explanations to be reasonable when they don't get their desired results (of course, they may or may not take the time to listen to those explanations).
Corporate Spinmeisters, Beware
For too long, company decision-makers have relied upon "spin" rather than plain-speak to present their decisions, and employees have allowed them to get away with it. Company decision-makers have also stonewalled employees with hollow explanations, such as:
- "It's a confidential matter" or
- The decision was "consistent with the business needs of the company."
In post-Ferguson America, however, Human Resources (HR) and managers will find that such empty answers won't be enough to satisfy employees hungry to understand precisely why and how. It also won't be enough to be merely "technically" correct according to law and company policy. If the decision doesn't have a straightforward explanation, then employees will be more prone to calling the company out on it. This is called the "sniff test."
If a company requires a secret formula for a layoff, then that process is not transparent. If no one truly understands how employees are identified as "promotable," then something truly stinks, and it failed the sniff test.
If middle and upper management consists of a vast wall of white masculinity, I'm sorry, but that's even more damning. This is not always overtly spelled out. People often select others who are like themselves, and may possess implicit biases that they are unaware of. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it less harmful to those on the losing end of their decisions.
2. Employees Will Question the Entire Decision-Making System
Companies should anticipate that their entire processes for investigating employee complaints may come under scrutiny. As a result, outsourcing this key compliance function will become an increasingly popular option.
When an employee complains to HR about a work issue, she expects to receive an impartial hearing and fair resolution. Although the HR investigator works for the company, she is supposed to be an unbiased trier of fact, a symbolic judge and jury (and often the detective, too). However, there is an inherent conflict of interest in HR's multiple roles. This will become more of an issue in post-Ferguson America.
Employees will be more apt to voice their distrust in both the decision-making authorities and the entire process. They will want corroboration that HR investigators are professionally trained. In addition, HR will need to be highly reflective of a variety of demographics, while being both neutrally and ethically uncompromising, despite being company employees themselves.
Employees will want more participation in major decision-making processes that impact them. They'll want evidence (in the form of metrics) that the system actually works. Companies will have to balance these demands with cost and efficiency (they do have a business to run).
Ultimately, it will be more cost-effective to outsource the HR investigations role, and this will inspire greater employee confidence in the entire decision-making system.
3. Employees Will Increasingly Focus on Interpersonal Treatment
Just as our nation has long side-stepped a real conversation about race, so too have American companies. It's seen as too delicate and too potentially explosive of a topic.
However, employers will need to be able to articulate where they stand on the issue of race and inclusiveness. They must also be prepared to back up their words with consistent action.
Continuing to pretend that race is a non-issue won't work anymore. Race is an important lens through which we each experience the world. All of us have blind spots in our perceptions of others, and simply pretending that these gray areas don't exist won't make it so.
Because personnel and workplace issues are especially complex, employees use all of the available evidence to detect whether they have been fairly treated. Much of that comes in the way of interpersonal treatment.
When people feel unfairly targeted by authorities, they withdraw their cooperation. Unfortunately, Ferguson has highlighted this issue. In the new civil rights era, employees will increasingly prioritize the extent to which decision-making authorities treat them with respect and without bias. They'll look for evidence that they are valued members of the organization, and that their perspective is being considered. They will expect the company to have their best interests at heart rather than coming off as punitive.
These perceptions are the employee's truth, and they matter (or at least, they should). Research shows that perceptions of fairness can influence how an employee will engage with the organization. This can extend to areas such as commitment, absenteeism, turnover, sabotage, job performance, and performance of voluntary work behaviors that help the company.
4. Employees Will Use Sensationalism to Gain Attention
If you work in a quiet office where everyone gets along, consider yourself lucky. Many of us are not as fortunate. There are an innumerable amount of situations involving employees where reactions can potentially spiral out of control. When people feel powerless and disenfranchised, they often resort to dramatic options to air their complaints by:
- confronting the CEO at a shareholder's meeting.
- sending a mass company email.
- posting on YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter.
- circulating petitions.
In an instant, gossip spreads, facts become fuzzier, sides are taken, and conflict snowballs out of control. A public relations crisis occurs as a result of an incident that could have been handled more effectively (in-house) had either the company or the employee reached out to one another instead of completely shutting down.
In the new civil rights era, company leaders will need to anticipate and prevent such problems through improved communications, and by giving a special effort to identifying employee thought leaders and any potential major issues that could quickly bubble up. They'll also need to be rapid responders with the ability to de-escalate employee issues that have already erupted.
5. Employees Will Mobilize More Outside of the System
There is power in numbers. The post-Ferguson protests clearly indicate that people have found effective ways to mobilize outside of a system that they feel is stacked against them.
In the context of employment, individuals certainly have the option to find other opportunities. However, more employees will perceive that it's their duty to speak out and seek change in their own circles of influence in this new social and political climate. Thus, they will begin routinely mobilizing support by:
- joining forces with other employees in their workplace who have similar concerns (i.e., class action lawsuits);
- complaining to government agencies in record numbers;
- enlisting support from powerful influencers (i.e, elected officials, celebrities, and civil rights organizations); and
- airing their grievances through the media.
An Employee's Options to File a Complaint Outside of the Workplace
If you believe you have been discriminated against, seek advice from an attorney licensed to practice in your state. There are time limits for filing complaints with government agencies.
External Government Agency
Going Public With the Grievance
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and/or state Human Rights Board
Office of Federal Contract Compliance (OFCCP)—for the many businesses that are federal contractors
Elected Officials (especially Congressional Black Caucus members)
U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD)
Picketing and Demonstrations
The End Has Yet to Be Written
The Ferguson chapter has been grist for the new civil rights movement, and it is not yet complete. We do not know how this one fully plays out yet. What we do know is that civil rights in America will never be the same.
We've seen a renewed energy (albeit an imperfect activism) sweeping the country. Just as Rosa Parks' defiance wasn't restricted to civil rights in transportation, today's activism (on behalf of black and brown people) won't be restricted to the allegations of police brutality. Eventually, it will expand into the workplace as people seek economic and social justice for themselves in those areas of their lives as well. Will your employer be ready? Will you?
Quotes Worth Reflecting Upon
"If you want to make enemies, try to change something."
—Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States
"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."
—Desmond Tutu, South African social rights activist
"Excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism."
—Oprah Winfrey, American talk show host
"It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home."
—Carl T. Rowan, American newspaper reporter
"Sadly, whites are rarely open to what black and brown folks have to say regarding their ongoing experiences with racist mistreatment. And we are especially reluctant to discuss what that mistreatment means for us as whites: namely that we end up with more and better opportunities as the flip-side of discrimination."
—Tim Wise, American anti-racism activist and writer
"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."
—Victor Frankl, Austrian neurologist and Holocaust survivor
"The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do."
—Amelia Earhart, American aviator
Reader Weigh In
Do you support the demonstrations that have occurred since the Ferguson decision?
- CBS News. "Ferguson decision ignites protests in many cities." Last modified November 25, 2014. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ferguson-decision-ignites-protests-in-many-cities/.
- Liao, Shannon. "NYC High School Students Risk Suspension and Arrests to Protest Ferguson." The Epoch Times. Last modified December 1, 2014. http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/1115649-new-york-city-high-school-students-walk-out-of-classes-in-protest-of-ferguson-decision/.
- Walters, John. "What Hands Up, Don't Shoot Really Says." Newsweek. Last modified December 2, 2014.http://www.newsweek.com/what-hands-dont-shoot-really-says-288685.
- Tyler, Tom R., and Steven L. Blader. Cooperation in Groups: Procedural Justice, Social Identity, and Behavioral Engagement. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press, 2000.
- CBS News. "Study: Most Americans unhappy at work." Last modified June 25, 2013. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/study-most-americans-unhappy-at-work/
Questions & Answers
Why are HR employee investigations important?
When companies are alerted to possible misconduct in the workplace, they have the duty to investigate the dispute. Even if the misconduct is reported as an informal complaint, the Company is officially put on notice. Its response can be a factor in whether an employee files and wins a lawsuit. Example investigation issues include alleged acts of discrimination and harassment, theft, fraud, or other violations of policy and/or the law.
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