Injustice and Demonstrations: Will The Pandemic Help Or Hurt?

As violent and asymmetric as the pandemic has been, we’ve had a lot of conversations about the positives. People are spending more time with their families, business leaders are more empathetic, and companies are trying harder than ever to create a safe and financially healthy workplace.

Well this week we take a step backwards, and we laid bare the injustice of this new economy. It’s the lowest income people who have lost their jobs; only people in high incomes can afford to work at home; and the plight of black Americans remains bleak. And this is the injustice that is causing riots in our cities.

I encourage you to watch the new movie 13th, which details America’s progress on black issues since slavery. Not only does it explain how black injustice is institutionalized in our criminal justice system (more than 2.2 million people; 34% of which are black), it also cites that in today’s America, one in three black American men is likely to go to jail (it’s one in 17 for white Americans).

I’m not here to discuss political issues, but I want to remind HR and business leaders that there is a new economy today, what I call The Pandemic Economy, and we have to make it fair.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is a symptom of police misconduct, anxiety from the Pandemic, and poor behavior on the part of a few individuals. But the reason we have riots in so many cities is because Americans feel frustrated and hopeless, and the issue of injustice is at the core. As Martin Luther King put it, “a riot is the language of the unheard.

This is not a problem of Diversity and Inclusion. It’s a problem of simple fairness. Something that’s badly missing in business.

I talk a lot about PowerSkills in the context of HR and leadership. What about the PowerSkill of Fairness? Equity? Forgiveness? Opportunity?

Josh Bersin PowerSkills

These are important human values that make people and organizations thrive.

Our politically charged society seems fueled by anger and division. We in the business community have to do the opposite. Not only do we need strong diversity and inclusion metrics and programs, we just have to make sure our companies are fair.

Let me mention a few things that may surprise you.

  • Millennials and Generation Z workers today have less economic power and opportunity than we have seen in more than 200 years. This article points it out in graphic detail. What are you doing to help younger employees succeed in your company?
    economics millennials
  • The income of black Americans is a third less than whites (half that of Asian Americans). What are you doing to make sure wages, jobs, and promotions are available to all? As I described late last year, employers have not invested profits in wage increases, and now this unfairness has become striking.
  • When you furlough or layoff people, these individuals enter an economy where finding a job is trickier than ever. What are you doing to help them transition to the next opportunity? Programs like the People+Work Connect initiative are excellent programs to help furloughed people find new jobs. Are you helping too?
  • How diverse and inclusive is your entire talent system? Are you carefully making sure race, gender, nationality, and other forms of diversity are neutralized?

I know many of you think deeply about these issues. But the events of the last week remind us that while the economy may start to turn around, the injustice of the Pandemic Economy remains.

It seemed popular to talk about income inequality, wage growth, and fairness at the top of the economic cycle. The 1% were getting richer and we all felt the pain in our cities and towns. Well, the Pandemic has not eliminated these problems, and in fact is likely to make them worse.

The Economist puts it well. While the Pandemic may help equalize incomes over time, the immediate impact is stark:

“Workers on the lower rungs of the income ladder have borne the brunt of job losses. America’s unemployment rate rose to 14.7%, in April—the highest since the Depression. The jobless rate for workers with a college education went up by nearly six percentage points, to 8.4%; that for workers without a high-school diploma leapt by over 14 percentage points, to 21.2%. A new paper published by the Becker Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago reinforces the point. Between February and April, employment among workers in the top fifth of the income distribution dropped by 9%. In the bottom fifth, by contrast, it plunged by 35%.”

The civil unrest we see today is not just a result of race relations and inclusion: it’s a symptom of years of injustice in education, pay, and opportunities for minorities. I was particularly moved by Trevor Noah’s video on this topic: society and politics are about a contract. The contract states that if we agree to abide by certain rules, the system will fairly take care of us. When injustice appears, the contract is broken.

In this time of disruption, reinvention, and change, let’s take time to look at our systems of pay. Among the many things we transform in this pandemic, maybe we can also make things just a little more fair.