Top tips for organizations to make progress toward inclusivity
Image from Shutterstock.com.
Two recent events—around the same time in different parts of the country—starkly exposed the pernicious nature of systemic racism: One resulted in murder; the other could have. Both offer somber lessons for the legal profession and clients’ organizations about the need to identify and root out bias in their policies, practices and culture.
Around the time of George Floyd’s death in late May, Christian Cooper, a Black man who was bird-watching in a popular Central Park location in New York City, asked Amy Cooper (no relation), a white woman, to leash her dog in accordance with park rules. When she refused to do so, he used his cellphone to record the subsequent interaction.
Amy Cooper called the police to report that she was being threatened by an African American man. Her false accusation against a Black man became another symbol of white privilege exploiting the institutional support of government to disadvantage people of color.
In the social media glare that followed, Amy Cooper was identified as a vice president at Franklin Templeton, where she managed the investment firm’s insurance portfolio and had supervisory responsibilities.
Public anger was immediately directed at the company, causing its website to crash. The next day, Franklin Templeton issued a statement announcing her termination and stating that the company does not tolerate racism of any kind.
Twitter sleuths, however, were quick to question the company’s lack of diversity based on publicly available information about the wealth management company. A law firm launched its own investigation, inviting calls from current and former direct associates of Amy Cooper if they thought they had been victims of discrimination.
Others in the media found inconsistencies in the company’s response and personnel history, reporting that the grandson of Franklin Templeton’s founder had been given continued opportunities within the organization, including a seat on its board, notwithstanding a prior guilty plea to felony domestic violence.
After the bird-watching incident with Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police was videotaped and seen around the world. And just weeks after that, the shooting of Rayshard Brooks by police in Atlanta was similarly revealed to the world through cellphone video.
These videos have been a catalyst for the protests that have taken place throughout the country. The calls for systemic change have long been sought and remain desperately needed. Perhaps there is a reason to be hopeful that we are finally at a moment in our history in which all institutions, including our legal profession, will engage in a leader-driven and leader-supported commitment to changing organizational culture. The following are recommendations for moving that process forward.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen.
1. Align your values to your message
Too often, a law firm or business accused of discriminatory behavior reflexively issues a statement emphasizing its commitment to diversity, pointing to accolades on its website as proof. That response, however, is more likely to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, a crisis if it is perceived to lack credibility.
True integrity requires a willingness to be vulnerable. An organization’s credibility depends on being willing to speak honestly of its mistakes and describe steps that it will take to prevent their recurrence.
During the protests in Minneapolis, the Minnesota State Patrol arrested Omar Jimenez, a Black and Latino reporter for CNN, while his white colleague nearby continued his work without incident. The arrest, captured live on CNN, showed Jimenez presenting his press credentials and repeatedly offering to move his crew to wherever the officers directed him to go. Jimenez was instead handcuffed and briefly taken into custody.
The Minnesota State Patrol subsequently defended itself by issuing a statement on Twitter that the CNN crew was arrested while the police were clearing the streets to restore order and released once their credentials were confirmed. The social media response was swift, and people were outraged at the falsehood because Jimenez was clearly seen displaying his credentials throughout his interaction with the police.
During a time of crisis, official statements will be parsed through a skeptical lens. In an environment where information is easily gleaned, the public can quickly learn whether the truth matches the rhetoric.
Aligning your values and your message requires a willingness to be transparent and reflective. People can forgive your mistakes, but they will always remember your lack of candor.
2. Engage in self-reflection without slipping into self-deception
Look unflinchingly at your own metrics. Is the situation that precipitated the immediate crisis an outlier, or does it reflect a culture where bias—whether conscious or unconscious—is allowed to manifest structurally and individually?
Do you truly understand what is transpiring within your organization? When was the last time you conducted an honest internal assessment to determine how your employees feel and what they are observing? Have you analyzed each component of the employee life cycle to determine whether structural bias influences decision-making in recruitment, hiring, assignments, disciplinary measures, evaluations, promotions and even in layoffs and terminations?
If you are not already addressing diversity in your organization through a strategic process driven by metrics and accountability, now is the time to start. Without a process to ask the right questions, your employees and other stakeholders likely already know that diversity and inclusion are not valued internally, despite the statements on your website.
3. Recognize that someone is always watching, and act accordingly
Every organization should act as if its behaviors will be recorded on a cellphone video. Ideally, leaders would have in place a culture that not only could sustain such scrutiny but would invite it.
No organization is immune from the devastating impact of biased behavior, whether at the individual or systemic level and whether conscious or unconscious. The ability to withstand the harsh glare of a camera will depend on whether it is revealing a match between what you say and who you really are.
When a workplace culture focuses on its core values, the video can be welcomed as shining a light on principles of respect, diversity and inclusion.
Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, is the author of The Shield of Silence: How Power Perpetuates a Culture of Harassment and Bullying in the Workplace, a recently released book published by the ABA. Her prior ABA-published book is You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams. She’s also a member of the ABA Journal’s Board of Editors.
ABAJournal.com is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”