There was an alarming, sickening and, sadly, not surprising story that hit the news last week; a lawsuit has been filed against General Motors (GM) in which 8 workers outline allegations of racist behavior, threats and intimidation in the workplace. This ongoing behavior, over a lengthy span of time, included a workplace where bathrooms were declared for “whites only,” black supervisors were called “boy” and other words, nooses were hung, white employees had conversations about bringing guns to work, and a white subordinate yelled and raised a heavy metal clutch in a threatening manner to his black supervisor. The white employee was suspended for one day. One. Day.
The Ohio Civil Rights Commission completed a nine-month-investigation last March and the commission’s director of regional operations said that she would rank this case amongst the worst cases her team has ever seen. The racist behavior and culture is seemingly so entrenched that incidents even continued while the commission was conducting its investigation.
The union (UAW) apparently did little to nothing. The UAW local president discounted that racism exists at the plant and holds the belief that “people are a little too sensitive these days.”
GM apparently did little to nothing. While they didn’t deny that these things took place, their defense was that they had taken appropriate action – such as holding mandatory meetings, closing the plant for a day to hold training for every shift, and placing an article about harassment in the employee magazine.
The human resources team apparently did little to nothing; they didn’t even get a mention in the article.
This is some messed up shit; and I believe every word.
Not too many years ago (in this century as a matter of fact) the company I was working for inherited a new work group via assorted business dealings. There were close to 200 employees who moved over to our organization and, since they were doing the same work (as third party contractors to our client), the biggest change for them was getting used to a new company/owner.
The vast majority of these employees had been working at this particular work site for years; decades even. It was incredibly labor-intensive work in a challenging environment but they stuck with it while, seemingly, time stood still in this part of south Louisiana. It took the vast majority of our employees a bit of time to trust us; both the GM and I were transplanted “yankees” with our US corporate office based in the Midwest and our global HQ based in the UK. Our site, for a variety of reasons, was such an outlier within our organization that whenever we had gatherings of the several hundred HR team members, I was inevitably called upon to share some strange/weird human resources issue to both the delight and consternation of my peers.
And sometimes those HR tales were from the dark underbelly of the racist south:
- The time an employee came to me, with a timid knock on my door, asking “Miss Robin can I talk to you about something? They’ve started to hang the nooses again in my work area and I don’t know what to do.”
- The meeting when a manager told his staff (predominantly black team members) – “If you all don’t get this situation fixed I’m going to have to fix it for you. And remember I had a great-uncle who was a Nazi in the SS so we know how to get stuff done in my family.”
- The situation we tried to navigate that relegated our employees (3rd party contractors) to dingy dirty bathrooms in “their sections” of the plant floor while the client’s employees (predominantly white) used a clean well-lit bathroom that was, actually, centrally located and easily accessible to everyone in the unit no matter the “section” in which they worked.
- The moment when, sitting at our monthly meeting with the client to review operating costs and billing, their #2 guy said “I like to take a look at these financials to make sure you’re not going to try to Jew me.”
So reading the story about the goings-on at the GM Powertrain Plant? You bet I believe every word of it.
But what do we do? Can one person, one manager, or one HR professional change this sort of entrenched and institutionalized racism?
“I don’t have the positional power to make changes,” I’ve heard HR professionals lament. “I can’t speak up and afford to lose my job,” I’ve heard from mid-level supervisors and managers.
I’ve also heard the following from HR “professionals:”
- “we have to hire those people; we have an agreement with the local city council member,”
- “I don’t really want to recruit from that school; you know who goes there”
- “she’s a black girl but she’s really good”
- “I’m not racist, but….”
Today. Still. IN THIS ERA.
What do we do? What can YOU do? Here’s a few thoughts:
- examine your own biases and prejudices – unpack the suitcase, review your history, and seek to understand why you believe-what-you-believe
- acknowledge and own your beliefs and actions
- read, learn and do a bit of self-education about what it’s REALLY like, for a wide number of people, to live in these United States (and elsewhere for that matter)
- don’t expect someone else to do the work for you
- vow to change that which is toxic in yourself
- don’t put the responsibility for change on those who are marginalized or being discriminated against
- remove those who do harm to others, whether via ignorance or on purpose, from your life
- promote equity and equality in all that you do
- challenge and call out those who perpetuate and embolden racism and misogyny – whether that be on the job or on the street
We can work on this together. Because #BlackBlogsMatter more than ever.
Follow the #BlackBlogsMatter hashtag and read about the 2019 challenge, covering the next 12 weeks , at Sarah Morgan’s site “The Buzz on HR”