American workers want to be able to discuss social and political issues at the workplace — despite what companies such as Coinbase, Basecamp and New Relic might want you to believe.
It turns out 68% of workers think they should be able to discuss racial justice issues at work, according to a survey conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of DEI consulting firm Paradigm.
Among Gen Z and "young millennials," 67% felt they should be able to discuss racial justice issues at work. The sentiment was strongest, however, among workers between the ages of 35 and 44 (78%). Sixty-three percent of respondents under 45 said they would consider leaving their company if their employer didn't speak out about these issues.
Recent real-world events reflect that data. Software company Basecamp saw a mass exodus of employees last month after executive leadership at the company pulled a Coinbase and said workplace conversations about social and political issues would no longer be allowed.
"People are wanting to talk about these things more frequently," Paradigm CEO Joelle Emerson told Protocol. "A lot of the reason people join tech companies is because they have a vision of the future that is different from today."
That's why workers at tech companies expect their firms to engage in social and political discussions, and "why the tech industry has seen the most public backlash," she said.
Emerson recommends companies facilitate these conversations in employee resource groups or internal Slack channels committed to social justice. But, she cautions, companies need to equip their workers to have these types of conversations in order to not cause harm to folks from underrepresented groups.
For workers in majority groups, "it can be really easy if you're not used to a particular topic to cause harm or microaggressions or get defensive," Emerson said.
That's why she recommends companies provide ongoing ally skills training to give people a framework for how to engage in discussions pertaining to identity and privilege. This type of training can help people "hold two realities in their head," Emerson said, "that [they're] a good person and the simultaneous reality that [they're] a person who causes harm to people from underrepresented backgrounds in my day-to-day work and life."
'Progress is remarkably slow'
Paradigm, founded in 2014, spent its early days working solely with tech companies such as Pinterest, Slack and Airbnb. The firm has since expanded to also support companies from a variety of industries.
The tech industry has become somewhat less homogenous over time. Many tech companies have made slight gains in representation of women and people of color, but "progress is remarkably slow," Emerson said.
"In tech and every industry we work with, I feel consistently surprised and disappointed with how slow progress is," she said. "Most organizations want to see outcomes change, but when they realize it means they have to change inputs and the way they make decisions, that's when it becomes difficult … it requires meaningful effort and often changes to really ingrained processes and ways of thinking."
That's what prevents true progress, Emerson said. It's not that companies aren't putting the time or the money into DEI efforts — it's that some are resistant to making the types of changes that would have the most real impact such as addressing biases, overhauling recruiting strategies and hiring criteria, and rethinking performance review structures.
The police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd sparked a renewed interest in diversity and inclusion in tech. Many tech companies in 2020 spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter, made racial justice commitments and publicly laid out new DEI goals.
"I don't think that has yet led to a dramatic change in outcome," Emerson said. "But the question is: Is this truly an inflection point that will get people to make different decisions, or just something that will lead to a lot more talk and fizzle away?"
She noted, however, that employee activism and energy around these issues can be very effective.
"[The] companies I see making the most meaningful changes — it's not because the leaders are great but because employees are standing up powerfully with a clear voice and are unequivocal in what they're asking for," she said.