Do you have a Level Playing Field?

Balaji Krishnamurthy

Food for Thought is our way of sharing interesting concepts on corporate leadership and management with others who might find it useful. The thoughts offered are intended to be controversial and thought-provoking. They are intended to help our readers intentionally realize their potential, what we call Potentionality.

The heightened national interest around the treatment of women in the workplace caused me to ask a more basic question: Do women have a level playing field? Whenever a particular group has historically struggled to get a fair shake in society and socioeconomic indicators suggest that opportunities are unevenly distributed, there is a desire to deploy external force fields and level the playing field. Examples of such marginalized groups might include racial or religious minorities as well as “non-minority” groups, such as women. Examples of opportunities might include housing, distribution of wealth, employment or career advancement. In the business world, a common example is the hiring and promoting of groups that have historically been marginalized. Business leaders are asked what efforts they’re making in this area.

Instead of prescribing what you should do, consider a model for thinking this through and becoming intentional about how you want to address it. I suggest that you could adopt one of four different attitudes to the issue.

Attitude of Indifference: You take the position that this is a social issue, not a business issue. Your place of business is the wrong place to address this social issue. Although you have a legal responsibility to not discriminate based on factors restricted by law, you have no legal or moral responsibility to address the larger social problem inherent in society. Such a position might be adopted by people who truly believe that a business should not have to compensate for past injustices, and also by those who are intrinsically biased against the group in question. Should you adopt this attitude, you have a serious responsibility to ensure that these biases do not resonate throughout your organization and lead to behaviors of mistreatment. The difficulties faced by Starbucks in the recent Philadelphia incident might well have been because of a lack of sensitivity resulting from such an attitude.

Attitude of Neutrality: You maintain absolute neutrality in your consideration. A candidate who happens to belong to a minority group neither hinders nor helps in your consideration of their candidacy. You attribute any statistical deviation within your workforce to social and environmental causes influencing the sample from which you draw your candidates, such as the disproportionately low number of female engineers graduating from college. However, you are cognizant of the social history and the residual biases in the society. You recognize that left unattended those biases will permeate your organization rendering it not neutral. So, you take active steps to ensure that those biases are erased, that all considerations are bias-free and that neutrality is actively instilled and maintained.

Attitude of Affirmation: You recognize the value of diversity and advocate for creating a diverse environment. You acknowledge the social and economic statistics and admit that left unto natural forces, those minority groups will be under represented. You argue that it is in your best interest to ensure that candidates from any minority group are not overlooked. So, you commit to taking affirmative action in the surfacing of potential candidates but resolve that your ultimate decision will be based purely on a candidate’s merits and not on being from a minority group. (Some people suggest a slight preference, such as "All things being equal you would prefer the person from the minority group," but, in my opinion, all things are never equal.) Your commitment here is to ensure equal consideration of, but no ultimate preference.

Attitude of Equalization: You adopt a view that diversity is not only useful, but its value also needs to be considered in the selection and composition of the entire group. You recognize that the desired diversity of representation from those minority groups will not occur by itself and that you must force that to happen. You acknowledge the social and economic statistics and impose a societal stewardship responsibility to help equalize the injustice and enrich your workforce through that diversity. So, you commit to an increased level of representation, recognizing that it might lead to an apparently less than optimal candidate at face value, but that it provides other value — both for yourself and the society — of diversity and minority representation. Quantified versions of this approach lead to quotas for minority groups.

I recommend that you intentionally choose which attitude you wish to adopt in your company. Not only make it an intentional choice, but also explain your rationale to people. Share your thoughts and explain to your employees the attitude you have adopted for your company. And then, practice that philosophy by putting in place the kind of actions that implement that philosophy.

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