Topics: HRExaminer, by Victorio Milian


“For organizational leaders, I think one of the challenges of our times is going to be centered around privilege. What is assumed to be fixed, and what is flexible, will be a factor in determining how an organization is perceived by those who choose to interact with it.” – Victorio Milian

I was at an Human Resources conference recently and during the event I had to use the restroom. After checking the convention center’s map in order to locate one, I made my way over. Just before I entered, I stopped short. The conference center had placed a “Women Only” sign over the “Men Only” one. I couldn’t go in!

If you’re not familiar with the field, the majority of Human Resources practitioners are women. Most estimates place this figure at roughly 75% of those in the field are women. This event, which had thousands of attendees, was no exception.

After reorienting myself, I looked around for an available restroom. Unfortunately, the conference center was huge. After a few attempts to find a restroom I could use, I had a flash of anger. Then I immediately got embarrassed. Why? Because my “privilege was showing.”

What Is Privilege?

Privilege (noun): a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been places where I breezed into a men’s bathroom while women waited on line to use theirs. While I sympathized, I viewed the issue as something fixed into place, and so I ignored it. To be honest, I didn’t believe it was mine to fix. Yet, when steps were made at this conference to address this issue (and it was a brilliant and simple solution), I reacted in anger. Nevermind that the impact to me was minimal, as well as temporary. As a man, my privilege afforded me the opportunity to ignore how women were impacted by design choices that gave me an advantage.

For organizational leaders, I think one of the challenges of our times is going to be centered around privilege. What is assumed to be fixed, and what is flexible, will be a factor in determining how an organization is perceived by those who choose to interact with it. I will share two examples to illustrate this.

Example number one: Background Checks

In a number of states, laws have been enacted (or soon to be) which give employers less flexibility in using an applicant’s past criminal or credit history to determine their eligibility to be hired. In a number of industries that’s upsetting, as that’s been perceived as standard practice. Yet there’s evidence to suggest that background checks disproportionately impact poor and minority candidates.

With that, companies are coming up with different ways to address this issue. Some are narrowing the scope of which type of employees may receive a background check, or what information may disqualify a candidate. In addition, applying an overly restrictive criteria to the background check process can be an unnecessary cost. I once worked for a major retailer that insisted on doing credit checks for their sales associates, in addition to a criminal background check. As the average age of sales associates was in the mid-twenties, they often didn’t have much of a credit history. When an analysis was done, it was revealed that the company could save several thousands of dollars each year by eliminating this component of the background check requirement for this group.

Some employers are tackling the issue of background checks with creative solutions. For example, by collaborating with organizations that provide training and workforce readiness skills to ex-offenders, so that they can re-enter the job market and be successful within it. Not only does this give them a potentially larger pool of candidates to choose from, it also provides a way to support a community in need.

Example Number Two: Gender Fluidity

Gender seems pretty straightforward, at least in an organizational context. It’s a common assumption when filling out an application or other employment form in the United States that a choice to elect “male” and “female” as a gender identifier comes up. However, there’s an increasing push to recognize that there’s more than two genders, that it exists on a spectrum.

This push can be seen in changing perspectives on gender, as well as in legislation. For example, a poll of roughly 1000 people between the ages of 18-34 done on 2015 revealed that roughly half of those sampled believed gender existed on a spectrum (source). Another example: In October of 2017 the U.S. state of California signed into law the Gender Recognition Act. This law allows for individuals to choose a third gender on official documents, such as birth certificates or a driver’s license (source).

This change, legally and socially, can impact how an organization may cater to its staff and associates. One way it’s manifested is through the implementation of gender neutral bathrooms, or allowing people to use the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity Another is by offering applicants the ability to not reveal their gender identification on documentation.

A third example is through the use of Preferred Gender Pronouns (PGPs). PGPs are basically what gender identification a person may have chosen for themselves, and which pronouns they would prefer another to use to express that identification. For example, a person may choose to identify as male (him/her), female (he/she), or neither (they/them). Much like the respect afforded to people regarding their name (which is a topic I’ve written about), using the correct PGPs demonstrates the same as it relates to a person’s gender.

I’m Privileged — What Now?

Background checks can be a form of privilege because it assumes that lack of criminal history or good credit equals employability. Policies that focus on gender as a duality can be a form of privilege. It assumes that a gender binary is the only ones worth considering in the workplace, regardless of how people may actually identify. And yet, there’s a growing acknowledgement that these forms of privilege may not be accurate, and is preventing organizations from being their best.

I don’t have any hard-and-fast solutions to dealing with organizational privilege. I will say that listening to those around you, particularly voices that exist outside of what may be considered your norm, can help. Avoid inserting your ego into discussions or potential solutions to an issue impacting others not as privileged as yourself. Foster an inclusive environment. Design solutions that benefit as broad a population as possible. Don’t assume everyone is like you.

Privilege is a real thing, and it has an impact within an organization and its members. Use it to build a better one!

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