In this first of seven installments in this series, Prof. Laura Morgan Roberts of The Darden School at University of Virginia joins Wharton’s Stew Friedman to discuss strategies organizations can implement to combat racism in the work-from-home environment. 

The pandemic has profoundly disrupted life and work. Yet some people are affected more than others. One way in which people of color have been hit harder is in the particular difficulties they face in working from home. Laura Morgan Roberts, a former Visiting Professor at Wharton and a current Professor of Practice at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, spoke to host Stew Friedman on his Work and Life show on SiriusXM Wharton Business Radio.

Here are highlights from their conversation, available in full here as a free podcast.

1. Code-switching, implicit bias, and micro-aggressions exist in the workplace, even when that place is home.

“Our article, the piece with Courtney McCluney on Working from Home While Black, amplifies the ways in which home is a safe haven for Black people and other people of color when workplaces have not been hospitable for them, when going to work has been another way of exposing yourself to the risks and the dangers of racism that could impact your life.”

“’Code-switching’ is a strategic tactic that Black people and other marginalized groups adopt when they express their full, culturally authentic selves in those safe spaces – the home life, the personal life, the social life – and then ‘switch the code’ by expressing different values, cultural behaviors, and styles through the way you talk, the way you dress, the kinds of social activities you participate in at work with your coworkers.  Those align more with the majority or the dominant group.  But now you’ve got your co-workers in your home, too. It’s not the safe haven anymore. Code-switching is disrupted.”

“Because of the cultural stereotypes that are so pronounced in our society, we make a lot of judgments about people’s private lives, and we make some faulty associations with what we might see in their personal space in their homes. For people of color and, perhaps in a different way, for women of color, there are severe pressures to show up in a certain way that might not be who you are outside of work.”

2. Business leaders need to address and combat racism in their organizations, whether the work is remote or in person. This can be approached in three steps Prof. Roberts calls the heart, the head, and the hands.

The heart: Assess personal motivation.

“I start with heart because I that’s where it all originates and that’s how it sustains. You work with the folks in your organization to help them identify their ‘why.’ What is their personal reason for caring about this? What’s their skin in the game? For most people, they don’t have any. These issues and dynamics have not touched them personally. It’s just like COVID. Everybody across the globe has sacrificed, but there are certain people who have been impacted with grief and loss on different levels. Likewise with experiences of racism and other forms of injustice and inequality. There’s an underlying work experience for everybody, but some people have been impacted more than others. So, you’ve got to help everybody connect into that ‘why.’”

The head: Collect data.

“What organizations have to do is be curious and courageous, and interrogate what’s happening in their own organizations. First ask, ‘Why are we silent about so many of these dynamics?’ As organizations are more curious about that, they systematically gather data to examine the experiences that different people in their organizations are having just in showing up and working and trying to get ahead.”

The hands: Identify tools to drive impact.

“It’s important to ask, ‘What are the tools and techniques at my disposal?’ This is when we start to talk about re-examining our hiring, recruiting, and performance evaluation practices; putting in place benchmarks around increasing equity, diversity and inclusion within the organization; choosing benchmarks that align with our strategy and our core values; and doing some training and re-training.”

3. Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are gaining traction, but these initiatives must be prioritized and present in all companies, industries, and position levels to solidify lasting change.

“With the same theme of sacrifice, we like to think about inclusion as ‘make room at the table’ or ‘scoot over and let (a person of color) pull up a chair.’ As an example, when I was a Visiting Professor at Wharton in 2007, I hung out there for a quarter, and that was awesome! I was welcomed, I had a cool time, and I pulled up my chair. But, when it was over, then I moved on to my other full-time faculty position. That’s kind of what’s happening in the rotating or revolving door process. But when your dean recently retired from his deanship, the institution had to choose the next leader. There is one opening for deanship and the school chose Dean Erika James. That is the kind of moment that signals a different level of change.”

4. Organizations and allies have a part to play in supporting the movement.

“It’s important to not just stand side-by-side and link arms, but stand in front of and try to find ways to protect the people who are most vulnerable. It means on a daily basis being more vigilant around microaggressions that could be taking place. Where I see things trickling down is when the resources start to be pulled and when diversity becomes a ‘nice to have’ and not a ‘must have.’ So, even in tight economic circumstances, an investment in strategic diversity, equity, and inclusion must be constant. That’s what will dictate whether or not this is a moment or a movement, if we continue to invest our time, our energy and our resources into leading this work.”

— Erin Lomboy, W’21

Posted: October 9, 2020

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