HR: Among the most important drivers to achieving equity

As Black History Month dawns, I find it hard not to think and reflect upon the “The Great Migration” — and not the current “great migration,” aka “The Great Resignation,” for which, at times, “Great Migration” has instead been used inappropriately. I mean the real, the original Great Migration, where more than 6 million African Americans fled the rural South for the urban centers of opportunity in the Northeast, Midwest, and Western states from approximately 1910-1970. 

Let’s be clear not to conflate or co-opt these two. Principally, the Great Migration was about Black Americans escaping the South's violence, racism, and oppression by becoming migrants in their own country, while “The Great Resignation/Reshuffle/Reprioritization,” etc., is centrally about expressing and acting on choice — a perceived or given one, at that.

While these are vastly different phenomena, there are some worthwhile similarities. In times of great tumult and change, it's important to understand mutuality — points of intersection and thematic commonality.

Both movements, coupled with the social unrest of 2020 and the ongoing pandemic, continue to bring much into clarity while having some central thrusts:

  • Recognizing and bucking injustice and systemic inequities
  • Pushing conversation and action centered on humanity and dignity
  • Defiant expressions of independence
  • Major disruptions to the status quo
  • A search for greater equality
  • Hope and resiliency compulsory
  • Both requiring courage and commitment

Moreover, both have left an indelible mark, permanently changing the country’s climate, consciousness, and reality. 

When change and progress happen, it takes both visible and invisible hands of influence. Critically, that is where you come in as leaders — decision-makers who often are the unseen or under-appreciated influencers of organizational culture, employee experience, and financial betterment and equity.

HR professionals and their broader community are among the most important drivers to achieving organizational equity, leadership, and personal equity. You are keepers of culture and change agents. It is an incredible responsibility that has only ramped up as the working and practical definitions of well-being and inclusion now more pronouncedly include deeper emotional and social aspects. Organizations and leaders are under incredible scrutiny and required to deliver in new ways.

It’s imperative to have inclusive benefits and mindsets that meet the needs of broader and more diverse employee groups. Quite simply, HR, including Total Rewards, is being executed through dignity, inclusion, and diversity in elevated ways. 

While the concept and relevance of organizational purpose has never been so important, evident, or well understood, there is a need for tangible respect — like development, inclusion, community, and equitable opportunity — which is vital.

Throughout the pandemic and global social justice movements, it has become evident that Human Resources leaders, as the right hands of chief executives, have been reinforced and yet, at times, had some of the quietest voices when more was needed. It’s equally evident that those who are leaving organizations and the workforce — are a disproportionate number of women, Black, and Latinx. Furthermore and quite concerning, they are leaving the known (known company cultures) for the unknown (“greener grass,” new organizations, or even entrepreneurship), like The Great Migration.  What was required in the past is still necessary: bold action, resolve, and resilience in centralizing dignity and purpose to create an equitable climate.

Structural inclusion and equity are what make behavioral inclusion stick and sustainable. Folks are “looking for dignity at work, in work, and from work,” and that will not happen without effort, agitation, and positive deviance.

I’ve been fortunate to work with and for some genuinely stellar, inspirational leaders across industries that effortlessly fuse people operations, human capital management, and organizational purpose. They had traits and mindsets that align directly with and are the markings of equitable leadership and organizations.

  1. Drive a culture of transparency, inclusion, and belonging from the top and understand and ensure it shows up in company values, leadership behaviors, and competencies.
  • Ensure and encourage — as a DEI leader — that employees and their leaders feel safe to speak up–inclusive leadership is tough and often unpopular.
  • Aspire and enforce that physical safety and psychological safety is paramount.
  • When centering respect and equity–then and now–manifests as flexible work arrangements, employee choice, and development.
  • Part of why purpose-driven organizations thrive is because individuals frequently have personal values that align with organizational values. I recall the simplicity of my charge: “go create a world-class program”  a call that was inspiring, clear, empowering, and explicitly aligned with organizational purpose.
  • They support and understand that, though unorthodox, a hyper-focus and targeted investments and programming create a milieu of respect and inclusion that push forward culture in a much-needed manner.  It also means “differential investments” — investing in programs or equalizing systems all benefit while focusing on those historically marginalized or overlooked.
  1. Recognize the diverse and changing needs of the workforce to facilitate the work of the now and future.
  1. Foster both individual and company purposes.

While these examples have been part of my experience in leading DEI efforts, it is not the norm.  Often those that are experiencing HR feel their HR leaders haven’t pushed enough, haven’t been courageous enough, and at times even abdicated their responsibilities. I know you are tired from an exhausting cart-tipping and paradigm shift of the last few years or maybe even are clenching to new positions of influence with past perspectives with hope for status quo or homeostasis. Still, these realities beg reflection and practical application by the broader HR community to forge a path toward excellence with relentlessness by placing respect, dignity, and courage at the center — to hold yourself, your leaders, and your organizations to a much higher calling and standard. It’s needed now as much as ever.

It includes being the voice of truth, to the reality that treating people fairly doesn’t mean treating people the same. Creating an inclusive environment is accelerated when leaders and organizations understand and act on employees' inherent motives and needs. These are “tough looks in the mirrors,” and examinations that determine the now and certainly determine the future. 

Use the following to ask and agitate toward equity, differential investment, and dignity:

  • Why haven’t we achieved pay equity?
  • What’s stopping us from covering gender affirmation benefits?
  • How can we do more to support elder and dependent care?
  • How can we provide “anytime, anywhere” operations/modes of working?
  • What are we doing to normalize transparency?

Investments in tailored and well-designed benefits programs, comprehensive well-being programs, and practical digital workplace tools to improve productivity and health are the way to push to the front.

I implore you to further your journey, harbor hope and defend the future, take your decimal point out even further. And remember that progress and even migration aren’t linear — and journeys by nature are not complacent. What was needed in the past is necessary now: bold, norm-defying, visible action.

Adopt and adhere to a growth mindset and effort. You play a significant role in setting the tone for your organizations. Set the tone for yourself, your organization, and others.

In the words of the famed poet Langston Hughes, “… the only way to get a thing done is to start to do it, then keep on doing it, and finally, you’ll finish it.” (The Big Sea, 1940)

Fred Wills, Principal Director, Inclusiastic Consulting 

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