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The Future of Work Must Be Equitable

An interview with career revolutionary Minda Harts on what a "return to better" looks like for women of color in the workplace.

Kate Watts is CEO of Long Dash. She formerly founded Faire Design and held the role of president, U.S. at the global agency Huge.

Minda Harts

Minda Harts is a career development speaker, author, and consultant whose mission is to create more workplace equity, especially for women of color. She is the founder of The Memo LLC, a career development company for women of color, and author of The Memo, a guide for women of color on how to advance in workplaces where the odds are stacked against them. She just released her second book, Right Within, which offers advice to managers and employees on how to heal and also help others heal from racialized workplace trauma.

Harts sat down with Kate Watts, CEO of Long Dash, to reflect on last year’s surge of DEI initiatives, where we are today, and the work ahead to achieve true equity in the workplace. 

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Kate Watts: Over a year ago, we sat down together and talked about the groundswell of DEI initiatives that arose following the murder of George Floyd. At the time, we were cautiously optimistic about what that meant. Do you see signs of progress?

Minda Harts: I believe we’ve made progress. A year and a half ago, racial oppression and racial justice were not at the forefront of the workplace conversation. The fact that we’re even acknowledging that there are racial inequalities in the workplace is a huge leap. When I was in corporate America, there was no discussion about race whatsoever. If you ever tried to bring it up, you were dismissed. 

Kate Watts: So we’re seeing more intentionality, attention, and conversation. Where do you see companies falling short?

Minda Harts: I’m seeing companies fall short on accountability. We’ve had robust conversations and donations for racial justice causes, but we’re still not addressing the systemic issue. We have leaders doing a lot of external conversations but not really delving into the internal employee journey that many of their Black and brown employees are experiencing.

Kate Watts: Yes, it really feels like there was a lot of energy and motivation a year ago, but I wonder if you’re also witnessing complacency. Are we backsliding?  What more do you think companies should do to invest the time and resources to really follow through?

Minda Harts: I am still seeing patterns of abuse happening. And what I mean by “patterns of abuse” is that people are saying that these things are important and part of their mission statement. Yet, nothing has changed in the leadership gap. Nothing has changed in the salary and pay equity for those who may not be making equal pay for equal work. It makes it even worse when you say that you acknowledge it and you do nothing about it.

Companies know they can say the right thing, but not be held accountable. That is where the shift needs to happen. Even if you don’t have any diverse people on your team, who’s going to be the courageous leader to say, “We’ve fallen short. Let’s be transparent and let’s reignite this conversation. We acknowledge that and want to rebuild trust. Here’s what we’ll do now.”

Kate Watts: This conversation is coming at an interesting time for Long Dash. We recently conducted a study on how companies can engage their employees called “Attitudes Before Age.” We found that employees’ top three desires at a job are competitive salary and benefits, flexible hours, and the company’s reputation for valuing employees. Taking into account the Great Resignation, it seems that employers are still not meeting the minimum requirements. How do we change that mindset as employers, and how do we push our employees to ask for more, particularly for women of color?

Minda Harts: Recently, it was Black women’s equal payday. Black women would have to work 214 more days to reach parity of what the average white male is making in a year today. We have been having these equal pay days for so long, and companies still are not being transparent about their pay policies. They’re not conducting pay transparency audits and making that information available to their staff.

On job descriptions, there’s no salary range listed. That’s another inequitable practice. If I know, as a woman of color, that I’m being underpaid at my current company, I hope to engage with a new company who has equitable pay practices. Not telling me what the range is or talking to me about the salary in the interviews is another form of workplace abuse.

We don’t need a million dollar initiative. We don’t need another hashtag. We can create better policies and procedures that don’t just impact the employees that you have right now, but support the ones who haven’t even shown up yet. The companies that win in the future of work are the ones that are actually asking the right questions, and then demonstrating that they’ve heard what their employees have to say.

Let’s also normalize women of color, asking for what they need and not being met with dismissive answers or saying that you don’t have the experience or resources to support them. If we have our leaders in the interview process talking about some of these inequalities they know women of color are facing, then that takes some pressure off of women of color to not always have to be the one initiating equity.

Kate: Absolutely. And it falls on employers to really pay attention and take accountability for retaining their current talent. How do you think remote work has influenced the conversation?

Minda Harts: There was a report that came out within the last two months that found 53 percent of Black employees felt like they belonged at their company for the first time because they were working from home. That is so heartbreaking and discouraging that you have people within your organization that never felt like they belonged when we were in a physical environment and now they’re feeling it because they’re not exposed to all that toxic racist or sexist behavior. 

You may have a certain group of employees that are ready to get back to work because they don’t experience racial trauma. But then you have all of these other employees who do. What are you doing to create a workplace that’s psychologically safe for those employees?

I have a lot of individuals that reach out to me and say they worry about returning back to work so they’re looking for another place of employment. In relation to the Great Resignation, I do believe that there will be a lot of Black and brown employees that will not return or they won’t stay very long at their companies if they’re going back to the same set up. So I would encourage our leaders not to go back to normal, but go back to better.

Kate Watts: That’s such an important distinction. In our rush to get back to the office, we know some people want to return to work because it feels good to them. And yet, we are seeing that productivity has gone through the roof. We’re seeing that team dynamics in many cases are strengthening remotely and surprised us. We’re burying the lede by talking about people being nervous to return because of COVID but not talking about anxiety around their psychological safety. 

You have a new book, Right Within, about psychological safety and healing from racial trauma in the workplace. Why were you inspired to write about this?

Minda Harts: I looked at myself and a lot of the women and managers who read some of my work. The common thread was that racism has killed the original careers many of us set out to pursue. It’s distorted how we see ourselves in the workplace. For example, I left a racially toxic environment in 2013. That was my dream job. But I had to leave because there were bad characters involved in that. When I went on to another job so that I could continue to pay my bills, I took that trauma with me. I was worried.

Roderick Kramer is a professor who talks about “prudent paranoia.” The more you notice, the more you worry. The more you worry, the more you notice. And I realized how traumatizing that is. If you work for a manager who is not taking barriers out of your way but re-traumatizing you with their language or lack of conversations or emotional intelligence, you become stuck in a cycle of toxicity you can’t get out of. 

Again, two things can be true at the same time. We might work at the same place and you may never experience racism, but I work at the same place as you and I do and that can be my experience. We talk about sexual assault in the workplace but we don’t highlight racial trauma for someone who has been “the only” or “one of few” throughout their career. That starts to deteriorate their mental health. It was important for me to write this book from a manager’s perspective. Because again, I believe a manager has the role to create that psychological safety for everybody.

Kate Watts: And how does one do that? How, as a manager and leader, do I create that psychological safety, drive performance, and honor everybody’s whole selves and lived experiences?

Minda Harts: In Right Within, I have a manager’s pledge. I’m asking every manager to take a pledge and commit to equity. It doesn’t say “I want you to commit to treating all the women of color or people of color on your team well.” It is about committing to equity so that the team is safe for every employee.

I want to share with you two bullets from the pledge because I think this is the direction we need to go as far as competencies for managers. Some would call them soft skills, but those soft skills are what will retain your best employees who happen to be women of color. The two points are:

  • I will acknowledge that I have biases that I need to understand and reconcile.
  • I commit to the daily practices of being a better manager who is committed to equity for all.

It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or a bad manager, but we all have biases. I think sometimes we can’t have these important conversations in the workplace because people take it personally when it actually is to make the workplace safer and better.

The other point is even if I make a mistake—because we’re not going to make all the right decisions—I am committing to the practice. We’re committed to courageous conversations. I’m hoping that managers all over the country will take the pledge because once we acknowledge that equity is the goal, then we can create more equitable practices on our teams.

Kate Watts: What is it that inspires you to do this work every day?

Minda Harts: At the core of it, I like to believe that most of us want better out of our workplaces, out of our countries, out of our communities. And sometimes, we just need the education and we need tools in our toolkit on how to do that. And so, I use my voice to provide tools so that people have them when they need them.

Kate Watts: Your work is incredible and I have to ask, what’s next for you?

Minda Harts: I have a third book coming out April 2022. This one’s very special. It’s called You Are More Than Magic: Black and Brown Girls Reclaiming Their Space. I realized some of the inequalities that we experience don’t happen when you get to be an adult in the workplace—you have some of these experiences as a young adult. And so, young girls need the right language to be able to have difficult conversations and see their worth in order to own their space. I realized that I can’t just make the workplace better for the adults, but also the ones coming after us.

Kate Watts: It’s been a true pleasure. Thank you so much for speaking with me and I can’t wait for your next book! 

Minda Harts: Thank you, Kate. And you’re very welcome. 

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