Workplace lessons from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Many will write about how our society continues to struggle with race relations and discrimination in the 50+ years since Dr. King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech (video; text).

This past weekend didn’t help. There was this confrontation at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington on Friday. And, yesterday, I read this news about a bar in Iowa that canceled its plans to have an MLK-themed keg party.

So, yeah, many of us have a long way to go.

I could keep going. Last year, there was the infamous incident with Starbucks in Philadelphia. Last week, there was this story about deplorable, racial conditions at a large automobile plant.

In our workplaces, we’re far from perfect.

But, overall, I like to think that we are improving. According to the EEOC, charges of race discrimination have fallen by 25%, since peaking in 2010. A Deloitte Study from 2017 shows that 7 in 10 executives rate diversity and inclusion as important issues.

And incidents like the ones noted above can help raise awareness. #MeToo was undoubtedly the driving force behind businesses investing in anti-harassment training in 2018. But, what happened at Starbucks raised awareness for implicit-bias training.

There’s a business case for focusing on racial and ethnic diversity too. According to a McKinsey study, companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. The updated numbers reflect that diversity yields better financial results.

Hey, I’m not naive. Actions are greater than words. And, even your well-intended actions won’t have the desired effect on everyone. It’s unlikely that any amount of training will enlighten a bigot, sexist, or xenophobe.

That said, even if your business can’t convert everyone, in your own workplace, you do wield a lot of power. Your company can:

  • establish a culture where racism and other forms of discrimination are not tolerated;
  • improve formal harassment reporting processes;
  • hold bad actors accountable;
  • implement diversity and inclusion programs; and
  • foster open communication with employees on these issues.

Yes, you have the power in your workplace to promote Dr. King’s ideals.

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