This time three years ago, the country was in upheaval following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Since those moments, and in particular, after George Floyd’s murder ignited a second Black Lives Matter uprising, more organizations have been grappling with acknowledging and abolishing anti-Black racism in the workplace. Many organizations began their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) journeys around that time, but to date, are still missing the mark when it comes to living out their own values.
One part of this lack of progress stems from the fundamental misunderstanding of what relationship human resources (HR) should have with DEI. Amira Barger, EVP and head of health communications & DEI advisory for a global firm describes this scenario in a recent article in Fast Company. Calling for the heads of DEI to not report to HR, Barger makes the compelling case that a DEI and HR department’s purposes conflict with one another, and for DEI to be woven throughout a company (including in HR), the departments sit independently.
Pointing to the history of HR in the United States, Barger suggests, “Perhaps we ought to consider that a function born of workplace inequity, and tasked with upholding the current structures, is not the best fit for holding the keys to advancing institutional change and equity.”
No matter the size of your organization, there are lessons that can be learned from this approach. Many Black people enter the workplace or learn throughout their careers that ‘HR is not your friend.’ While HR may be responsible for the employee experience, for Black people (and in particular Black women), HR has also been their source of being denied fair compensation, promotions, professional development, protection from racism and bias, and the support that is needed to thrive in a working environment. So when that same HR department is now tasked with managing DEI efforts, it undercuts the transformation that could occur through a thoughtful and intentional DEI strategy.
Relinquishing DEI from the hold of HR within an organization can also be a support in shifting your organization’s culture. Taking a tactical, data-driven, or methodical approach to DEI is rooted in White supremacy culture characteristics including fear of open conflict, objectivity, and the right to comfort. Using old tools, systems, and beliefs only continue to protect those who already hold power, and harm the Black folks in search of justice and accountability in their place of work.
Reframing the relationship between DEI and HR can help to establish a more supportive, trusting, and empowering environment within your organization. While not every HR professional is the same, your Black team members have likely experienced enough harm from their interactions with that institution. Unraveling the connections between these two entities can begin to shift your anti-racist and DEI hopes into a more transformative experience.