What is the role of Human Resources (HR) in an increasingly polarized world?

Our world is getting increasingly complex, insular and polarized. Companies can no longer sit on the sidelines. What role can companies and HR play to build bridges to a more open world.

role of HR
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Why on earth am I writing this post? I stayed awake last night worrying about my very diverse HR team, but also my client groups and our organization, and the environment we now live in. How do we as leaders ensure the well being of our teams, keep them secure, focused and engaged, and foster a culture where diversity produces the innovation that businesses desperately need, not just to thrive, but just to survive?

This has been a bizarre week in the US. A Google employee posts a misogynistic memo, Google CEO, Pichai, fires him, range of reactions from calls for Pichai to resign, to concern over employment laws, to white nationalist marches, to the tragedy at Charlottesville. It has been an emotional roller coaster for all.

So what does this have to do with HR?

The world is getting unimaginably complicated. Talented people go to work everyday, including the day after a Muslim ban comes into effect, or the day after an unarmed African American loses his life to senseless violence, or the day after racist marches, … and we pretend that everything is fine and that we are fine. But are we?

The greatest issue is that the behaviors that this environment fosters (both purposefully and inadvertently), are the exact opposite of what is required for the world to move forward and for businesses to grow. So the voice and role of HR, is more important than ever.

The first step is to identify and acknowledge the impact of a polarized world:

Constant distraction – as a consequence of purposeful punches and counter punches and destructive actions from varied groups

Fears over safety and security

Adverse impact on diversity, inclusion and culture

Adverse impact on innovation – we need greater innovation now, more than ever, for businesses to grow. The challenge is that an increasingly polarized world does the reverse. Innovation exists at the periphery of disciplines, schools of thought and is accelerated by diversity.

Topics such as race, religion, politics, ideology, are taboo at work. People master pretending that it is business as usual, … when it is not…

People dig in their heels into their positions, stop listening to each other and lose their desire to understand.

People use completely disparate sources of information and learning, and consume media to reinforce their beliefs.

People struggle to get to common ground and find a way to move forward.

Here’s how HR can make a difference and the role that we can play to move the dialogue forward:

Create a safe place for employees to raise issues – Ask questions, no matter how different or controversial. Make expectations on code of conduct very clear and state explicitly what is acceptable and what is not. Ambiguity can lead to disastrous consequences.

Provide talent increased exposure through encouraging them to explore non-linear career paths that gives them diverse experiences and helps them understand and explore different perspectives. Provide opportunities for cross-mentoring where diverse talent can pair up to learn and explore each other’s reality.

Drive focus on meritocracy – we need to spend more time helping employees understand how meritocracy and affirmative action work together and the synergy we derive. We might think it is obvious to all, but there are constant reminders, that it is not.

Help employees develop critical life Skills – communication, listening, openness, analytical skills, unconscious bias questioning, conflict resolution and finding common ground, etc. These skills are not just critical in an organization but to function in the world. 

Facilitate conversation – I did a workshop this year, with my immensely courageous team. Some skepticism, and anxiety later, we were talking – no, I mean truly talking. Despite our diversity, we had much more in common than we could’ve imagined. The value of a heartfelt conversation is underrated. We obsess over differences without realizing that we have many more similarities. 

Coach leaders – Leaders across levels are the ones taking a call everyday on how to deal with an employee – to let something go, or to coach or discipline. When we equip leaders, especially our front line leaders to have these crucial conversations, and provide them with a support framework, they can be truly effective in driving the right culture.

Drive diversity beyond numbers – Over the last decade, we have seen an obsession with diversity targets, which unfortunately, haven’t truly accelerated the cause. We seem to believe that the business case for diversity is obvious, and again, it is not. We have to find ways of letting employees experience for themselves the benefits of diversity – for e.g. driving diversity at team levels, or showcasing the brilliant work of diverse project teams, etc. This is a fight that has to be fought in the trenches. 

Drive inclusion inclusively – Every voice has a contribution to make to the dialogue. It is difficult to drive inclusion, or find common ground, if employees of a certain race or faith feel attacked.

Keep humor and fun alive – Office banter and humor can be an early unwitting casualty of the ‘living on knife’s edge’ atmosphere. We have to find ways of encouraging and enabling employees to discover joy, fun, and humor at work. It helps to view things, more in amusement than in annoyance.

Provide resources for mental health so that employees can reach out and have a conversation, without judgement, and have access to tools to help them process their emotions- anger, sorrow, grief, fear, helplessness, etc.

Take swift action where someone does not fit into the organization culture or values.

And maybe, just maybe, the ideas we explore in the corporate world spills over into society and creates positive momentum.

Any conversation about what we can do to move the world forward, would be incomplete if we don’t mention the courage of our leaders in these tough and unyielding times. They created positive momentum despite contrarian forces – it was heartening to see > 250 CEOs and senior HR and other executives of the largest US companies pledge their commitment to diversity goals, including Accenture, J&J, P&G, PepsiCo, IBM, Walmart, CBS.

These leaders are doing their very best to protect their team, stay true to their values and are standing up for what they believe in, and pushing with their utmost might to move the world forward.

If there are any leaders who have made a difference to you in these times, give them a shout out here. I’d like to invite you to share your stories and your organization’s on what you are doing to stay positive and hopeful and deal with the current environment.

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