The Problem is the Problem

Over the past week, the United States has been rocked by protests related to the killing of George Floyd. Despite the threat of a global pandemic, protesters have marched on the streets, seeking justice. Riots, property damage, and looting have marred the protests. As I have watched these events unfold, I have been struck by something Bomani Jones said in relation to the NFLs’ recent attempts to reinvigorate the Rooney Rule. He said that “the problem is the problem.” Looking across organizational responses to sexual harassment, employee engagement, and diversity, I can see that the problem is, in fact, the problem.

Since the advent of the Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and recent unionization movements there has been an increase in struggles for change from the employee perspective. The problem across all these movements remains the same: the lack of action in response to legitimate organizational issues. Whether it’s sexual harassment, workplace safety, the safety of minorities in their communities, the lack of cogent organizational response is the problem.

Consider the #MeToo movement. Sexual harassment became codified in law in the 1970’s and 1980’s, ultimately coming to prominence in the 1990’s during the Anita Hill case. Since the 1990’s, there have been countless training programs and policies around sexual harassment. Yet a movement was needed to bring this topic back to the forefront in the 2010’s. It took a global movement to remove some of the worst perpetrators of sexual harassment from their positions of power. The rules were there. The policies existed. The training had been conducted. And yet…it took this movement to bring about real change.

Now let us look at the situation with George Floyd. Why was Derek Chauvin, the officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, allowed to continue to work after 12 citations for violence? There is a clear policy from the police department regarding police actions, yet he remained on the job. During the protests we have seen police chiefs on Twitter and other social media make it clear what appropriate policing should look like, yet the behavior of police on the ground shows a stark contrast. Amazon has a clear policy on workplace safety, yet there’s concerns about worker safety in their fulfillment centers.  If organizations are developing these policies and not living up to them, then these issues are not related to unconscious bias, feelings, or emotions. It’s a failure of organizations to follow through on their own policies. The African American community has suffered enough. Why should it take mass protests to bring about significant change?

We see a similar pattern when it comes to employee engagement and employee listening programs. These programs suffer from the same inertia. Employees often complain about organizational surveys because there is a lack of action related to employee feedback. Employees simply do not see the results from these actions. Minority employees decry diversity initiatives because they do not result in inclusion or increase fairness. Women become frustrated by succession plans because they are shut out of them despite their talent. It should not require global, grassroot movements to bring about organizational change when HR professionals and business leaders already acknowledge these issues. It is simply organizational inertia.

Organizational inertia takes many forms. In my experience, the most common form is taking specious or useless action. It is for this reason that I stress the needs assessment process to my students so fervently. Look at the response of a company like Ben & Jerry’s to the George Floyd protests. Their team lays out specific steps that their organization will take in the face of these extraordinary circumstances. Contrast that with facilitating a half day seminar on diversity.

Perhaps the moral imperative I have outlined above is not a compelling enough reason to create this change in your organizations. Consider the economic imperative instead. The United States and organizations that operate within the US context have benefited enormously through the promotion and branding of the American Dream. Immigrants are drawn here because of the potential for opportunity. Investors see that there is possibility here because the USA offers a pluralistic society. Companies invest in the United States because of the national brand. Chaos and injustice are not conducive to investment and hinder our ability to work. When even staunch allies like Australia critique US policy, everyone must take note.   

Whichever argument you find most compelling, the problem remains the problem. It should not take worldwide protests and attention to make these changes. It is time to address it.

Sy would like to thank Dr. Vivian Woo for her feedback on a draft of this piece.