How Employee Protests and Systemic Inequality Are Connected

It’s difficult for most employers to talk about civil unrest and systemic inequality with employees without sounding like a robot who learned all the buzzwords and messaging and parrots them repeatedly. Companies post big messages in black and white on their websites about not tolerating racism and donate money to nonprofits doing equity work. Some employers insist their organizational culture is diverse and inclusive while pointing to carefully written talent policies and procedures, even as the diversity numbers in their organizations demonstrate most people of color and women are scarce at the mid-level management level and higher and have high turnover rates in the organization.

Embedded Deep in the Organization

Systemic inequality refers to a system of privilege created by organizations for a particular group or groups of people, which means other groups are excluded. Systemic inequality is a broad term that embraces five types of inequality: political inequality, equality of outcome or result, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment, and equality of membership in society. It exists in countries, societies, and companies worldwide and impacts different groups of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, etc. In the U.S., systemic racism is the focus of attention and found in social organizations and the workplace. 

Concentrating on the workplace, the use of the word systemic is intentional because it means unequal opportunities are embedded in the organization’s systems – recruitment, hiring, promotions, training and development, benefits and compensation application, and management decision-making. The civil turmoil taking place right now focuses on Blacks’ biased and discriminatory treatment in society and the workplace. For employers, systemic racism means everything from talent practices to workplace culture to daily treatment by those who aren’t Black is skewed against giving Black employees equal opportunities and respect. 

Looking Past Policies and Procedures to the Real Employee Experience

Recognizing there is more than one type of inequality, and each one is expressed differently, goes a long way explaining why the turmoil exists. HR policies and procedures on discrimination, diversity, and inclusion, seemingly etched in stone, are intended to remove bias and discriminatory practices as required by law. Despite them, systemic inequality remains rampant, and employers struggle to understand the why and how of inequality. The bottom line issue is that rock-solid equality and equity policies and procedures offer no assurance that a Black employee’s workplace experience reflects the policies’ good intentions. 

Here is an example. Employees who are people of color are traumatized by the news. UnionProof has frequently addressed the fact that work and personal lives are inseparable now, largely due to technology. A Black employee uses a smartphone during a lunch break to watch the news and sees a video of a Black man killed by a policeperson or large groups of peaceful protestors taking a stand against systemic racism, and the emotions are overwhelming. The person goes back to work while dealing with strong emotions.

The Black employee thinks about the fact he wasn’t offered equal training opportunities and a well-deserved promotion because a white manager continually selected people who have the same life experience and look the same, justifying the decision by pointing to a college degree from a prestigious Northern university versus a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). Blacks with college degrees, in general, are more likely to be unemployed than other graduates. How can that be when employers say they aren’t biased? The Black employee thinks about the time her supervisor told her to see if she could straighten her hair or the fact he does the same work as a white co-worker and is paid less (yes, it still happens quite often).

The Black woman wonders if she will ever break through the glass ceiling into upper management. Black employees think about the jokes a manager makes at the expense of people of color, or a Black woman remembers how a mentor told her to think, act and talk more like a senior manager (all white men) if she wants to get ahead. All of these acts and statements are based on unconscious biases based on personal beliefs. The policies are in place, but the bias remains. 

Enter the Unions

Is it surprising that Black employees’ emotions are like a bubbling cauldron of hurt, fear, and anger that boils over? It really doesn’t matter if the employer agrees or disagrees with the politics, the emotions, or the protests. What matters is the Black employees’ ongoing experience in the workplace. Employers see the boil-over as employee protests and a growing interest in unions. Black employees and their supporters turn to organizations like unions and the ACLU because they want real change. Unlike the “old days,” employees protest over cultural biases deeply embedded in society and systemic inequality in the workplace, not just over issues like compensation and safety. The unions are fully supporting and are instigating formal walkouts over systemic racism in the workplace.

A good example is found on July 20, 2020. A national coalition of social justice groups and labor unions called for a national “Strike for Black Lives,” which would involve employees striking one full day. Employees who couldn’t strike a full day were encouraged to at least walk out for eight minutes to reflect the time it took for George Floyd to die after an arrest. The strike’s purpose was to show support for “dismantling racism and white supremacy to bring about fundamental changes in our society, economy, and workplaces.” Tens of thousands of employees and their supporters in 160 cities walked the streets to demand social and economic equality for Black lives. All major labor unions were involved. 

In fact, some of the largest public and private sector unions issued a statement making it clear they plan on organizing walkouts for teachers, truck drivers, autoworkers, clerical staff, and others to protest systemic racism between now and the Presidential election. Employee protests are intended to disrupt industries and companies because Black employees say they are tired of promises of equal and fair treatment, only to find the reality is quite different. 

How many times did tech companies promise to increase diversity in their workforce, setting publicly stated goals? The reality has been a failure to meet those goals. Without decision-making that actively supports equality policies, little changes. The National Basketball Association (NBA) players protested for Black Lives Matter and stopped the NBA playoffs for three days. It was a remarkable show of power in the workplace that demonstrated to other Black employees they can unite with or without a union to bring change. 

Employee Voice is Louder and More Public

Employees are speaking out about systemic racism in their companies. They are going on television, posting on social media, and posting reviews of companies on job recruitment sites. A Glassdoor Economic Research study, summarized in How Companies are Bringing Social Justice Protests to the workplace, considered how employers are communicating and how employees feel about diversity and inclusion. It found that employee reviews on the Glassdoor site discussing racial justice and diversity increased 63 percent after George Floyd’s death, and 71 percent of those reviews expressed dissatisfaction or concern about company responses to racial inequality. Many reviews described personal experiences with workplace inequality. The study also found that diversity and inclusion related job openings declined at twice the rate as overall job positions after the COVID pandemic began.

The editor at LinkedIn News wrote the post, “Workers push back on discrimination.” In it, she discusses employees at Adidas demanding an apology for the company’s past racial discrimination practices; thousands of scientists in the STEM industry striking to protest systemic racism in the industry, and how authors in the publishing industry protesting discrimination began publicly sharing the amount of money received pre-publication of books. 

Mallory Johns, Director, Business Development + Partnerships, eCommerce at Vox Media, LLC, offered her experiences that sums up the issues of so many Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in companies that will quickly claim they don’t allow bias in the workplace and then point to well-written, carefully crafted corporate policies and procedures. Johns states she is a BIOC and writes, 

Throughout my career, I’ve been verbally abused by managers and dressed down in boardrooms. I’ve been more prone to layoffs than my white colleagues and held to unreasonably higher standards that have set me up for failure. I’ve been brought into many an organization to “right the ship,” only to be penalized when it doesn’t happen overnight (or in three months).

At one publication I worked for, I was paid less than a white male colleague who previously held the same job and title before me. At another, I was routinely mistaken for another BIPOC who looked nothing like me. And even more egregiously, at one organization, I was mistaken for the kitchen staff. At one well known global brand, I was brought in for my ideas and penalized by leadership for experimenting—even though our consumers responded favorably to my work. And I received my first and only promotion (in my 10-year career) only after producing a well-documented report on why I deserved it.

Your policies and procedures may prohibit bias and discrimination, but do you know what your diverse employees are experiencing daily? Even if the data shows equal hiring, equal pay, equal training and development opportunities, and equal promotions, do you really understand what part of themselves they must give up to succeed? Do you really have an authentic culture of inclusion and belonging?

Moving Beyond “Woke”

“Woke” is an African-American term that briefly refers to a perceived awareness of important racial and social issues. Wanting to prove being woke, companies have proactively committed large amounts of money to social groups and programs, posted statements on their landing pages that decry racism and other forms of discrimination, reset hiring goals and promotion goals (yet again), and promised to reinforce anti-bias training of leadership. These are good steps, but what Black employees want is a real change – an end to systemic inequality. Without honest diversity and inclusion, the unions will certainly grow their membership. 

The following are some ideas to bring that real change:

  • Encourage and seek out employee concerns and questions, making no assumptions about their workplace reality
  • Use the concerns and questions as a starting point for driving thoughtful and meaningful dialogue with emotional intelligence about sensitive issues
  • Develop allies in dialogue, i.e., white person or diverse person who is not a member of the group experiencing discrimination and is willing to participate in honest conversations about race in the workplace
  • Encourage managers and supervisors to examine their personal beliefs and perspectives and identify how they specifically drive decision-making; (Glassdoor offers several ways for managers to self-audit for unconscious bias)
  • Develop leadership’s ability to connect with employees through greater emotional intelligence, empathy, and the ability to successfully acknowledge the harm Black employees have endured, affirm psychological safety, and act to affect change (these are employee engagement best practices)
  • Develop and implement a specific plan for furthering the advancement of Black people (and other people of color) in the organization rather than relying on current policies and time to close gaps; the World Economic Forum (WEF) offered guidance on ending systemic racism in the workplace, and number three is “promote diverse leadership” because Black people account for 3.2% percent of senior leadership positions in large corporations
  • Re-evaluate talent practices through the biased lens, like where recruiters go to find qualified employees, i.e., if you only go to white communities or reject online job applications based on what names sound like, then your managers are likely claiming, “I can’t find qualified Black talent”
  • Recognize intersectionality (i.e., Black woman or LGBT+ Black male) because it compounds the impact of bias and discrimination

It takes courageous leadership to end deeply embedded racism.

Responding to Employee Protests

It’s also important for leaders to develop a response strategy to protests built on NLRB interpretations of the rights of employees to conduct political demonstrations. Consistency in policies and impartial or neutral enforcement is crucial. Employees have a right to join political protests during non-work hours, including during paid lunch or breaks, and not expecting retribution upon returning to work. However, employees can be disciplined or fired if they miss work without permission. 

Here’s the catch-22: You can only discipline or fire the employee for missing work to attend an employee protest as long as you consistently discipline or fire employees for missing work for any other reason. Consistency in policies is so important. Political speech and activities outside the workplace are protected, but they aren’t protected inside the workplace when they interfere with work or disrupt the business. 

Your employees can’t decide to walk out or strike for just any reason and claim they are engaged in protected activity. There must be a relationship to employment concerns, and you must have” lawfully and neutrally applied work rules” in the past. Section 7 of the NLRA gives employees the right to engage in concerted activity for their “mutual aid and protection.” The NLRB and the Supreme Court have held that protection applies to personal situations and the support of other employers’ employees. 

The practical issue is whether it’s wise to fire an employee for protesting when the social climate is so volatile. It’s another catch-22. Don’t enforce your policy now to keep peace in the workforce or be accused of inconsistency when you decide to enforce it later. The unions love these kinds of employer challenges because they easily lead to giving them a reason to claim employees are treated unfairly or breaking the law.

Leverage the Protests as Opportunity for Making Real Change

If it sounds complex, it’s because it is. When developing a policy and strategy for a protest response, the very first thing to do is consult a labor attorney to ensure you understand the current law. Then work with the UnionProof consultants to add the policy to your union-free website and communicate it to the workforce. You can also rely on A Better Leader to train your leaders to strengthen employee engagement, a clear path to a better understanding of the real employee experience. Transparency and honesty are two of the key principles for avoiding unionization, even in difficult times.

About the author

Jennifer Orechwa

In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a UnionProof culture. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.