Privileged have a leg up on employment scale

March 26, 2012
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The next time managers decide to hire or promote someone, Randy Osmun encourages them to ask this question: Why?

Why did they decide to employ that particular person or tap them for a higher position? Too often such decisions in Grand Rapids are based on earned and unearned privileges, said Osmun, executive director of the nonprofit The Source, an employee support organization in Grand Rapids whose two dozen-plus partners include American Seating, Grand Rapids Foam Technologies and Pridgeon & Clay.

At a recent Partners for a Racism-Free Community Lunch and Learn Series at the Dominican Center at Marywood, Osmun said there are inherent “givens” that continue to shape the city’s work force based on earned and unearned privileges.

Osmun estimates there are at least 25 privileges or “values” on which the majority of society marches in lockstep, including English spoken as the first language, age, beauty, mode of income, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender and whether a person has a police record.

“Many doors are open for certain people through no virtue of their own,” said Osmun. “There are many people of privilege who oppose social inequities but are unaware of the inequities in their own daily lives.”

That’s where the underbelly of problems continues to fester. The aforementioned values tend to pigeonhole too many groups of people who are denied, often covertly, gainful employment or promotions within a company, he said.

“Typically, people of privilege don’t feel these things because their lives are the norm,” said Osmun, who spoke to about 25 people in the nonprofit, HR, for-profit and education sectors of the community.

But there’s a cost to companies that don’t actively seek to inculcate an inclusive work force, added Osmun.

Voluntary turnover of managers and professionals costs an annual average of $64 billion a year. A joint 2002 study by Rutgers University Graduate School of Management and Saratoga Institute, a division of PricewaterhouseCoopers, found the total cost of losing one position to turnover can reach 150 percent of the employee’s fully loaded annual compensation figure.

Moreover, job-related stress costs $300 billion, according to the American Institute of Stress, despite $8 billion spent annually on diversity training.

“Our society is changing,” said Osmun. “Forty years from now, white will no longer be the majority.”

Safeguards in the workplace should include:

  • Pay attention to how you’re talking and listening;

  • Reflect on the role you play in the system;

  • Listen with empathy;

  • Listen and speak with your heart;

  • Listen for facts, feelings and values;

  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Osmun honed in on that last point.

“We make decisions every day that go against our nature,” he said. “I would suggest minorities are forced into uncomfortable situations every day.”

Osmun cited the presentation that controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan recently gave at Fountain Street Church as an example of breaking out of his comfort zone.

“It’s not just accepting what we think we know, but evolving ourselves,” he said.

Headway can and is being made, Osmun added.

“Cascade Engineering is one of the first manufacturing companies in the United States to have an anti-racism statement,” he said. “The goal is to create and maintain an environment where employees feel safe to discuss race.”

If employees and their supervisors fail to get on board and support Cascade Engineering’s corporate culture, they end up needing to find another source of employment, said Dave Barrett, the company’s director of talent.

“We’ve got a captured audience (when they’re at work),” Barrett said during the audience participation segment of the lunch and learn. “A lot of education has to do with changing hearts and minds.”

When it’s all said and done, people are not that different, said David Luna, vice president of multicultural affairs at Saint Mary’s Health Center.

“At the level of chromosomes and mitochondria, we are all pretty much the same,” said Luna. “However, we attach social meaning to our differences.”

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