When Will the Protests, the Noise in the Workplace, Finally Stop?
Like many other leaders, you are likely looking at your bottom line and desperately hoping these courageous conversations will finally come to a halt. I mean—you did your part, right? You wrote the inclusion statement that spoke to your organization’s commitment to diversity. And you meant every word. You held a townhall where you encouraged open discussions about racial tensions. You honored Juneteenth for the first time and donated funds through your Corporate Social Responsibility platform. Maybe you even made a personal donation because you really wanted to support the moment. Still, you can’t help but wonder…can we finally stop the Noise and get back to some semblance of normalcy?
Truth is…going back to “normal” is not only unlikely, it’s also not good workforce practice. Because, to be honest, for many of your employees “normal” was never really good, adequate, just. We just didn’t acknowledge it for what it actually was. Normal was the Noise-cancelling headphones we used to drown the sound of systemic isms. In the workplace, normal was oftentimes bias veiled in pretense and pseudo-professionalism.
Normal leaned on denial
Normal asked your employees- particularly those marginalized- to suspend their identity when they entered the workplace. It propelled teammates to interact politely, quietly, across a chasm of unspoken pain points and differences. It asked some of your employees to turn down the volume of their upbringing and socialization. To be cautions of “them.” To quiet the voices—of parents, siblings, neighbors, and systems that persistently told them that “those people” were less than. Less intelligent, less capable, less ethical, less worthy. The voices said, and some may have unconsciously believed, that “those people’s” lives and identities mattered less, if at all. Normal skillfully stuffed stereotypical stories, implicit biases, generalizations, and multicultural misunderstandings beneath competent business suits, gentle-looking scrubs, analytical lab coats, and inviting faces dutifully plastered with welcoming smiles. Normal was predicated on our collective pretense.
Then came the pandemics. First came COVID causing us to rethink and reframe the way we worked. We tightened our smiles, tried to ignore the Noise of an unprecedented health upheaval. But then there was George. And Breonna. And Ahmad. And Elijah. Y tambien lo que le paso a Carlos Ingram-Lopez and countless others whose names sometimes escape us. Some of us. Not all of us. For many of us, their names then became the tipping point. And life imploded with a choir of Noise—protests (peaceful, at first), the sound of statues tumbling, the chanting of requirements for police reform, firecracker storms peppering nightly skies. This pain, sometimes perceived as something else, was countered with another kind of Noise—resistance.
Noise marched up the storied steps of the Supreme Court and came back transformed and two-pronged.
DACA and LGBTQ decisions inspired some, infuriated others. Noise kept moving, walking, growing. Painted DC streets with bright yellow letters of artistic, spiritual affirmation. Showed up on other streets and emerged raspy–the scraping sound of calloused hands and angered hearts rubbing against baseball bats readied for war. Noise became audible, a reminder of the differences and indifference that divide us. Noise then worked the graveyard shift. It became the backdrop to street unrest that chanted, “Black Lives Matter!” or “All Lives Matter!” nightly. The next day, Noise rose. Stretched its arms out, cleared its weary throat and made its way back to your workplace. No longer forced into quietude or willing to be stuffed beneath suits, scrubs, and smiles, Noise now walks into cubicles and offices and boldly defies pretense and pseudo-professionalism. It speaks its mind in protest and counter-protest.
“Our theater has come to a halt and the workplace is in a state of indefinite, chaotic intermission.”
Now, Noise is loud enough to break through what was once an impenetrable barrier—a society’s collective denial of systemic isms: racism, sexism, ageism, ableism—and everything that stands between us. We can no longer normalize daily microaggressions and centuries-old macroaggressions from biased practices (non-diverse candidate pools) to inequities (gender-based pay gaps scaffolded by race—just ask Black, Latinas, and Native American women) to systemic injustices (see COVID-19 health disparities, academic achievement gaps, and policing impacts on communities of color). Today, your workforce is unable to, unwilling to, quiet the Noise and simply focus on job performance. Our theater has come to a halt and the workplace is in a state of indefinite, chaotic intermission.
What’s a Leader to do?
1. Create a Direct Reporting Line between your DEI Lead and Leadership. This is not the time to power through. This is the time to take a deep look at your organization, learn where your inclusion gaps are and work diligently to fill them with an infrastructure for inclusion.
2. Resource the Work with Rigor. Develop a budget scaled to meet your need—as you would with any other bottom line priority. Do not tag on “diversity” on someone’s job description as an add-on and then use hope as a strategy (“let’s hope this works” vs “let’s prioritize this to ensure it works”). Whether it’s an internal lead or a consultant, ensure she/he/they report in at the highest possible level (to the CEO is the best direct line). Listen to them when they list out the resources needed to do the work. Message to your organization that this person has authority and support. And remember that messaging is less about words and more about designing an infrastructure that signals prioritization (i.e. who they report to, their assigned title, how engaged they are in bottom line decision-making discussions, budget, etc.).
3. Debias your Workplace. Dismantle your organization’s isms—racism, sexism, ageism, able-ism—and everything in between by conducting a Diversity Diagnostic ™ on your operations, structures, practices….and, yes, even people. Especially people.
Let’s, recognize that the challenges that are marching their way through the streets have been tenuously co-existing in your workplace for some time.
They have been sitting at the homogeneous governance table when strategies have been made. They have been informing your talent acquisition processes. They have been using their thumb, unintentionally and sometimes intentionally, to tip the scales of opportunity to slant promotion, tenure, and leadership decisions in favor of certain candidates. They have snaked their way into your workforce and have drawn a line of segregated policies and practices.
The Noise may appear to be the “why” behind productivity’s slowed, halted, maybe even arrested state but it is not the root cause. The root cause has been our collective indifference and denial. By normalizing societal isms like violence, prejudice, and injustice in the world, we have also normalized implicit bias, inequities, and injustice in the workplace. And this is now the soundtrack, the Noise, that stands between us— disturbing, disruptive, deafening and decidedly wedging itself between your talent and its ability to meet your mission.
What’s a Leader to do? Build a new normal, a better normal where you can hear employee voices in full, surround sound—different as each one may be. We may not get to harmony tomorrow. But maybe we can replace the Noise-cancelling headphones we have used to drown the sound of systemic isms with the sound of candid dialogue, and feet marching more steadily toward inclusion.
That’s what Leaders can do about building a new normal. Strive to understand the #DEI issues, the why, behind the Noise. It matters.