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Charlottesville: Why Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Programs Are Still Needed

Charlottesville: Why Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Programs Are Still Needed


By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

“Racism (as well as other “isms”) still exists in the United States!” If I had made that statement prior to the Charlottesville incident, I probably would have received pushback from a number of people.

Remember Kathy Miller, the Trump volunteer from Ohio who made the comment in 2016 that strained relationships were former president Barack Obama’s fault? Well, as recently as yesterday, I read posts from individuals who still blame him for the strained racial relationships in America.

My response has always been, “No, racism never went away. It was just lying dormant in some circles. Therefore, you began to think that it no longer existed.”

Not only does racism still exist, the feelings continue to be passed down among generations. Hate groups continues to recruit young and old members in an organized manner. James Fields, the driver of the car that killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, was only 20 years old!

Get started on your management degree at American Public University.

Fields wasn’t even born during the civil rights moment, so how did he develop feelings that made him feel that it was okay to plow a car through a group of people in Charlottesville? Where was his regard for life?

During an interview with Fields’ mother, Samantha Bloom, she looked visibly shocked and in disbelief that her son held such extremist beliefs and was being painted as a racist. Bloom thought her son was attending a Trump rally and was not concerned because she does not consider the president to be a racist.

Philadelphia Firefighter Causes Outrage with Racist Facebook Post

In Philadelphia, a 20-year-old firefighter veteran, John Deluisi, may face disciplinary actions for posting an allegedly racist message on his Facebook page. In the photo, he wore a confederate hat and held a burning tiki stick with a message stating, “Going to Virginia.” The post went viral and people became enraged, especially in the neighborhoods that his fire station services.

Some of those residents are upset that they are paying the salary of an alleged racist. The firefighter considers the situation as a joke gone bad and blames his poor judgment on being drunk.

Deluisi believed his actions were acceptable because he tagged a fellow firefighter, who happens to be one of his African-American friends. In hindsight, he realizes that he might have gone too far and his post was offensive.

How Can Organizations Combat Ingrained Racism?

While I still hold to my belief that there are more good people than bad ones, I am a realist who is concerned with:

  1. How irresponsible social media posts have become
  2. The organized activity of hate groups
  3. Certain segments of the American public still hold fast to the belief that no problem exists

Politicians on both sides of the aisle publicly came forth and condemned the actions that occurred in Charlottesville. But what can organizations do?

American corporations are understandably reluctant to wade into political controversies, in part because potential customers can usually be found on all sides. But Trump’s faint moral instincts and persistent challenges to ethical norms increasingly demand a response. And history shows that business can be a powerful force for social progress and public decency.

How Do We Create a Safe, Unbiased and Inclusive Workplace?

The average employee spends approximately 40 hours a week in a work environment. While it is recommended not to violate boundaries and speak of personal issues unless it’s warranted, how do we ensure our workplaces are safe, authentic and collaborative?

I remember when diversity initiatives appeared in the 1980s. At that time, much of the training concentrated on awareness.

Unfortunately, many of the sessions focused on getting people to identify their biases and behavior, rather than addressing or changing their behavior. There were debates on how we could measure whether or not a person’s behavior was changed as the result of the training intervention.

It is hard to measure a change in behavior with a topic such as diversity. For example, what if it appeared there was a breakthrough for a person during the training session, but the “different thoughts” were forgotten once that person went home to an environment that supported the biases?

What are our expectations on how people govern their behavior in the workplace when their home life is indicative of a different belief system? Are they to “fake it until they can make it?”

The Neuroscience behind Cognitive Biases

This is an opportunity to insert the work of one of my favorite organizations (The Neuroleadership Institute) into what I believe is an ideal response for the questions that I have posed. One of the areas that the Institute addresses is the topic of diversity and inclusion. There is a sub-section that addresses biases and how they can be handled in the workplace.

Researchers at the Institute have developed a model to assist with mitigating bias, and it comes from a brain-based perspective. Why is it difficult to remove biases from the workplace? The biases operate in the employee’s unconscious state. Therefore, training alone only makes individuals aware that biases exist in the workplace.

However, many people do not associate the biases with their own thought process. Have you ever had a conversation on this topic and your colleague says, “I hear what you are saying, but it doesn’t apply to me” or “Yes, I know this information already”?

Why does this occur? According to the researchers, “we simply do not have conscious access to the operations of bias in the brain.” The Seed Model has been developed to assist with identifying processes that can interrupt and redirect unconsciously biased thinking.

There are 150 cognitive biases that have been identified and they can be placed into five distinct categories. Each category has a distinct set of actions that can be performed to deal with the bias.

We Need to Work Harder to Combat Biases – Everywhere

Based on recent events in places like Charlottesville, I say it is time to dig deep and deal with the root causes of the situation – unconscious biases. Something we thought dead has reared its ugly head.

Let’s deal with it once and for all, so we can get back to being the UNITED States of America. United we stand, divided we fall.

Making America great again IS NOT for us to reach backwards and bring the past into the present. Rather, it is an opportunity to move forward, together, drawing on the strengths from different perspectives, which encourage growth and innovation.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.