This Labor Day Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is For Equity
Summer is coming to a close and things are finally beginning to cool down where I live. And Labor Day approaches. Labor Day is more than just a time to gather with friends for hot dogs or barbecue on a day off. Labor Day was officially recognized as a federal holiday in 1894. The Pullman Strike highlighted poor working conditions around the nation. Labor Day was created to honor workers' contributions to the United States prosperity. At that time those who labored were highlighting how the working conditions they worked in created conditions where the extracted value from their labor was not reciprocated back by the companies they worked for in ways that are fair and equitable.
Our expectations for what it means to labor in reciprocal ways has shifted dramatically in the last two and a half years. For many, the pandemic highlighted the inequity between the value of our labor creates compared to what our companies reciprocate back. People are beginning to demand a rebalancing. We see this in movements for unionization, the Great Resignation, and the (poorly named) phenomena of quiet quitting. While companies and organizations may resist these changes, I believe these resistance efforts will create a long term shift in how we labor in our future.
I've seen this call for better working conditions show up a lot in my restorative work as a racial equity, diversity and inclusion consultant. Often restorative work focuses on supporting groups of people to process harm that has happened, identify with what is needed to repair the harm, and make commitments to take action to repair the harm so the people involved can maintain their relationships and move forward together. I love restorative work. I’ve witnessed the power of having vulnerable conversations and making commitments to make relationships right again. Almost every time I facilitate a restorative conversation, people end up *seeing* each other and feeling seen. If people are truly committed to doing the actions needed to stay in relationship with each other, it can transform the workplace.
And there's the rub. Oftentimes, when leaders approach us for restorative work, they think it's just about listening and conversation, with no intention for action. Listening is a critical part of restoration, but it is not enough. Restoration involves telling the truth about the harm, identifying what is needed to repair the harm, committing to take actions to repair the harm and then finally acting to actually repair the harm. Restoration is more than conversation; it is action grounded in accountability.
When we are called in for restorative work, there's been some kind of breach of trust because something harmful has happened to people of color. When I speak to the staff of color, they share that the harm is not a single instance, but multiple instances that feel like death by a thousand cuts. Staff of color often name things like inequitable hiring, pay inequity, and lack of promotion opportunities as the problem. Staff of color are aware that they are being treated differently than their white peers. It shows up in hiring. It shows up in pay differences. It shows up in promotion differences. It shows up in differences in how they are rated in performance management systems. Research has shown that these differences in opportunities to thrive exist despite there being no difference in performance and quality. What staff of color are bearing witness to is that the companies they are working for are consistently extracting value from their labor and not reciprocating in the same way they reciprocate to their white peers for the same labor.
When people of color at a company are less likely to be hired, despite equal qualifications, consistently paid less and promoted less often than their equally qualified white peers, the leadership of the company is communicating through their actions, “We believe we have the right to extract labor from people of color and reciprocate less to them than we would white people.” Through their actions, these companies are saying they value the labor of people of color less than labor of light white people. This devaluation of labor of of people of color has its origins in slavery. The United States economic system was founded on extracting labor for free from people of color. While slavery ended in 1863, the country's companies worked hard to maintain systems that allowed them to to drive down how much they would pay for labors of people of color. The inequities we see today are a result of practices that have been around in our country since before its founding.
When staff of color call out these inequities and call on organizational leadership to address the harm of the inequity, they are naming that the company that they work for is extracting their labor in exploitative ways. If you want to repair the harm of extracting value from labor inequitably, you owe these staff members value back. To get specific, you owe them financially to make it right.
This is where companies fall short. They don't follow through financially to rebalance the value exchange for labor. When I’ve facilitated restorative conversations related to organizational inequities, staff of color are VERY specific in their requests for repair. Fix the pay inequities. Fix hiring. Fix performance management. Fix how promotions happen. And yet, organizational leaders seem confused and unable to act in ways to repair the harms. Company leaders ignore these requests for repair and try to placate people of color on their teams with words. Black boxes on instagram and statements on websites that say “we hear you - we stand with you,” do NOT give back the value you owe your staff of color.
I believe companies fall short of authentic accountability to repair these financial harms because their economic models are predicated on the ability to extract value from people of color and women in inequitable ways. Much like the plantations in the days of slavery, these companies’ success is dependent on stealing labor from people of color. To put it plainly, if you paid people of color fairly and you promoted equitably, it would cut into the bottom line. So companies avoid this action. They have chosen to continue to steal value from people of color to bolster the bottom line. This is what you are committing to when you choose not to fix your compensation system, to not to invest in diversifying your team, to not change your performance management system - you are choosing to continue to harm and extract from your staff of color in exploitative ways.
Often when leaders are approaching us for restorative support, it's after months and months and sometimes years of harm and conversation about what's needed to change, with no action to change. These leaders continually make hollow commitments, and then they're confused why their team is getting more and more angry with them due to lack of follow through. Research shows if employees are in a work environment where they feel like management and peers aren't meeting their obligations for care and equity, they will disengage or quit. The lack of follow through from company leaders to repair harm will weaken your company performance. If you find yourself in this and you want to know why your staff of color is still pissed, even though you've made these commitments, it is because you have not ever repaired the harm. It is because you are not listening - you do not stand with them. Your promises for equity are empty because you are not changing your behavior and systems.
What staff of color want is to be paid fairly. What they want is to be promoted fairly. What they want is access to leadership positions. What they want is to be able to develop and grow and thrive just as much as the white staff on your team are able to. If you want to repair the harm that you have caused, which is a necessary step to stay in relationship with your staff of color, you have to put your money where your mouth is. Fix it with cash and real change. Anything less than that is just window dressing. And trust me, your staff of color see right through you.
It's time to stop the extractive behavior. Act reciprocally and equitably with your staff of color, repair the harm with money and resources. Do the work to stay in relationship with your staff. You'll find a path to justice, equity, trust and stronger relationships with your team when you do.