We are all collectively mourning, reflecting, and contemplating how to respond to the heartless murder of George Floyd and the heartbreaking damages to cities like my beautiful Twin Cities. Many organizations are turning to HR to create recommendations and action plans. A tall order given the years of systemic racism in our country. Challenging to do during a pandemic. And an impossible task if our function doesn’t recognize our privilege. It’s time for HR to own our privilege and use our privilege to make real change.
The Privilege Institute defines privilege as unearned benefits that accrue to particular groups based on their location within a social hierarchy. Privileges are often invisible to those who have them and are based on power. So HR peeps let’s be honest. Our place in our organization’s social hierarchy gives us unique access to data, to creating policies, to employment decisions, and to organizational decisions. We didn’t earn this- it is a privilege of our role. We have or are perceived to have the power to influence who is hired, promoted, or terminated. So yes we have a role of privilege. We are also compensated by, what W. E. B. Du Bois called in his book Black Reconstruction in America, additional , unearned “psychological wages.” In Du Bois’ book he talks about white laborers who received these psychological wages including “public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks… (which) had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them.” I am not white but I am in HR, and I am given deference and access to all corners of our organization. Our leaders who “police” our organizations know the role of influence I have which effects how I am personally treated. I don’t have to work as hard as others to earn that access and as a result I start with greater political capital to invest.
Once we are conscious of our privilege it is our responsibility to use it for good. Brandon Sheffield of the San Francisco Weekly outlines steps we can take to use privilege for good. Here are few important actions we in HR need to take.
- Listen and Trust. Ask people what they need. What do they see in our practices that is missing? What needs to be done differently? Be open to new ideas and let go of assumptions of what we have to do. It’s easy to feel like you already know what the issues and solutions are. Trust that our associates have valuable wisdom to make our organization stronger.
- Words Matter. It’s (LONG since) time to put away the HR speak. Use real words and emotions. A man was murdered. Systemic racism allowed that to happen. Find authentic words and credible speakers– even if that’s not those at the top. Be vulnerable and empathic. Let this be the start of an ongoing dialogue about race and inclusion, not just a guilt-assuaging memo.
- Accept When You are Wrong and Learn From it. We make mistakes. We have good ideas that sometime have unintended consequences. Own it publicly.
- Use Your Voice. In HR we hear lots of things. We are also in lots of meetings where we need to bring the voice of others. In our recent executive talent review meeting I questioned when we used the word “unconfident” to describe a woman. It might be true or it might be an unconscious bias about style… let’s cause the debate.
- Be the Change. Systems and structures work doesn’t sound sexy, but it is the backbone of our function and needs to be strong. Take the time to inventory the work, including but not limited to hiring practices, hiring sources, compensation equity, promotion and turnover rates for diverse and non-diverse talent. Then create action plans and accountability to address gaps.
I believe it is a privilege to be in HR. I love the work I do. I am passionate about advancing people and the business to achieve our Mission. I also recognize my role confers unearned privilege upon me and it is my responsibility, now more than ever, to own my privilege and use my privilege to make real change.