Workplace Discrimination Dialogue Needs a Full Table

Business’s stake in workplace discrimination includes an annual $64 billion in lost revenue — or is it more like trillions?
by Michael Welp, Ph.D.

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As is evident from any look at recent headlines, there is undoubtedly an immense amount of work to be done to eradicate bias and discrimination in America. Since this country starts and stops on economics, change in the workplace is fundamental if a national paradigm shift is to be achieved. One report by the Center for American Progress cites the fiscal damage of workplace discrimination at $64 billion annually. But as it turns out, that number could be considerably higher — perhaps in the trillions of dollars.

I co-founded White Men as Full Diversity Partners (WMFDP) 20 years ago as an answer to a question most people never thought of asking: Why is the white male, who holds most CEO and C-level positions, left out of the diversity and inclusion discussion? From there, I, along with my co-founder Bill Proudman, developed a rather unorthodox approach to diversity, consulting by engaging white male leadership directly and, at the same time, including everyone in the discussion.

Historically, our job as white men has been to keep our heads down in regard to diversity and defer all questions to others. If we wanted to make change, we were expected to wait for others — be they women, people of color or members of the LGBT community — to instruct us on what to do. Meanwhile, we walked on eggshells, afraid of being admonished for saying the wrong thing or not doing the right thing. This summarizes what motivated our mission in founding WMFDP. In essence, we took the blinders off and laid the groundwork for transformation in a personal and fiscal sense.

And while “corporate America” may seem like an immense faceless and emotionless entity, it does respond primarily to one thing: the bottom line. And it can be broken down like this:

Recruitment: Systemic bias — often unconscious — is a costly stumbling block. Ninety-six percent of all Fortune 50 companies have sexual orientation nondiscrimination policies in place, according to the Huffington Post, but getting them understood and instinctively followed is imperative for these policies to work.

Retention: Two million workers leave their jobs each year because of unfair treatment due to race, gender, religion or sexual orientation. Replacing them costs corporations an additional $5,000 to $10,000 per worker and $75,000 to $200,000 per executive. These individuals must seek new jobs or face going on unemployment in order to provide for their families, which then costs the government and, in turn, the taxpayers.

Job Performance: Nothing demotivates a worker quite like unfairness and injustice, which can play out as lowered productivity, damaged morale, absenteeism, illness and depression. The cost of workforce absenteeism is in the billions according to Investopedia.com. One report cites the annual cost of workforce illness alone — from sick days to workers’ compensation — at $576 billion.

Litigation: Workplace discrimination exposes businesses to potentially costly lawsuits. In 2010, the top 10 private plaintiff employment discrimination lawsuits cost firms more than $346 million.

At the federal fiscal level, the economics of discrimination — in all its forms — expands exponentially. A study, released by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in October 2013, took a comprehensive look at racial inequality in America and how it affects our economy. The study addressed healthcare inequities, unjustified incarceration disparities, lesser employment and education opportunities, the income tax gap and other facets of the economy. It found that earnings gains would translate into $180 million in additional corporate profits, $290 billion in additional federal tax revenues, and a potential reduction in the federal deficit of $350 billion — or 2.3 percent of the GDP — adding up to $1.9 trillion each year.

Raising Consciousness

There is, undoubtedly, bias and discrimination, but a large percentage of it, I believe, is unconscious. What WFMDP does, through a process of experiential learning, is engage leaders across every strata of corporate America through a proprietary and unorthodox approach to transformation.

A vital aspect of our approach is our Eight Critical Leadership Skills. Through these skills, leaders are able to forge new partnerships and build new pathways to success and prosperity. The skills are courage, integrating head and heart, listening, balancing key paradoxes, leveraging ambiguity and turbulence, managing difficult conversations, seeing and thinking systematically, and being an agent of change.

These skills are fundamental, a common trait possessed by people of strength, conviction to moral right, and a keen sense of discipline and accomplishment.

We have worked with a diverse client list that includes Alaska Airlines, Dell, Eastman Chemical, Rockwell Automation and many others, and can confidently say that individual people, in fact, build a corporation. We have worked with many executives in careers that you might not consider as valuing empathy, such as finance and high tech, who have had a transformative shift in their ability to lead and partner across difference. Engaged leaders across every strata of corporate America are adapting a new consciousness.

From the micro look at an HR office to a corporate boardroom, or the macro view of a vast corporate landscape to a national economy, it is evident that more work is necessary for the nation’s healing and prosperity.

Michael Welp, Ph.D., is co-founder of White Men as Full Diversity Partners (WMFDP) and author of the book Four Days to Change. In 1990, he journeyed to post-Apartheid South Africa, where he took a proactive role with nonprofit Outward Bound while leading team-building projects within more than a dozen South African corporations. For more than two decades, he has worked extensively with Fortune 500 company leadership to build a culture where diversity flourishes and inclusion is the order of the day. Dr. Welp has designed and taught graduate courses for universities, partnered with advocacy groups, and co-authored three field guides on diversity and leadership.

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