The CNN headline said, “Six Dr. Seuss books won’t be published anymore because they portray people in ‘hurtful and wrong’ ways.” Since then, the sales of these books have spiked, the controversy is engaged, and the question arises… are these Dr. Seuss classics truly hurtful?
While my first reaction to Dr. Seuss books being removed from the shelves was a surprise, a look through one of the books and the running Chinese man, made me wince, and admit to myself, I get it. The Dr. Seuss books were something special to me as I grew up, and like many, we struggle when it comes to change. So much so, that our initial reaction to change is to resist. Looking at the picture of the “Chinaman” running, and using my maturing filters to decipher, the conclusion is yes, this is no longer appropriate.
And therein lies the challenge. We are creatures of habit. We grew up certain ways, we were exposed to a certain bias in our homes, in our schools, through our friends. We were sheltered from some of the truths of the world, and in other areas we didn’t get the straight story. Never-the-less, it was the story we grew up with. It was our Dr. Seuss world.
While I have been a proponent for diversity and inclusivity for years, my efforts at AMS Fulfillment have been to focus on the chronically underemployed, individuals with disabilities, individuals who have served time, young people from at-risk communities, and individuals that are facing challenges in their efforts to make a job a career. Our efforts at AMS have been blind to color, but well focused on these groups. The resulting diversity of backgrounds in our organization is rich, with likely 90% of our staff coming from a family of color.
Our equity discussions have been more focused on many of the biases we see impacting our ability to work effectively as a team. Long-term workers versus the newbie, Spanish speaking versus English, go getters versus the slower pace, family ties versus outsiders, and favoritism that comes from many sources. These were challenges for sure, but overall, our diversity seemed comfortable, and we felt pride in the level of employee engagement that we had in place. The courses we offered seemed like they were making a difference in people’s lives. Promotions were made, survey results looked good, safety has been at an all-time record, it certainly appeared that pride was well earned.
The murder of George Floyd shook up my world. It awoke our senses, and it made us more sensitive to where we are failing versus where we are successful. We took the shake-up in stages. First, we wanted to show our entire company’s allegiance to those we knew were suffering the most. Our African American associates were clearly in pain. We began planning our march. We made signs – we got the word out: “A March for Change is coming up on June 11th.” From all four of our Santa Clarita buildings we were united in our march. Masks, distancing in place, our march traveled from the four buildings to unite at one. Lunches were grabbed as people entered the warehouse, our CEO, Jay Catlin addressed the crowd, Jefferey Forest from College of the Canyons spoke, and then I finished up with a speech where my final line was, “Acceptance of a diverse and inclusive workplace will be a condition of being in this family.”
So started our next chapter. We got to work and organized new initiatives. Three months later we held a second meeting with employees where I spoke to all employees and reviewed our decisions and progress in creating change.
Our first initiative was to make our Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Breakfast meeting and our educational offerings more inclusive and take place during the paid workday, versus before or after work. We found we had been excluding many single moms and dads and people with a long commute or second jobs who were unable to take advantage of before or after work educational opportunities.
Two more initiatives were to change our ‘I want to be a Leader’ and our ‘Advanced Leadership’ classes to include more discussion on Empathy, Respect, and Understanding our ‘Triggers,’ and we changed how we role play in our Leadership classes, making communication and confronting conflict a two-way street between employees and their managers.
To better support job advancement, we started a new program called the ‘Up-Skill Matrix’ which allows associates to view and learn the skills necessary to move up in their careers. In addition, we launched a new program that allows associates to register for positions they are interested in and be notified when a position becomes available.
We also learned to look at statistics differently. Generally, when the stats are favorable, you quit while you’re ahead. Our turnover is remarkably low for our industry. But what if you look at the detail and discover that African Americans are representing a concerning amount of that turnover? Time to dig deeper and understand what is going on. We recently had a near termination that we dug into, and found unconscious bias in terms of the supervision, and felt the termination was unwarranted. It turns out we saved a star employee! This situation has driven us to create a “intervention team” that meets with employees that seem close to termination, to determine what additional support we can provide. Learning from this, we hope to modify our training to better safeguard losing good employees.
Another discovery, an employee in a recent “I want to be a leader” class asked if we could offer Spanish, as she understood that you have to be bi-lingual to get promoted to a Leadership role. Here, even our job description of “bi-lingual a plus” was bias to many of our hiring decisions, and it seemed to English only speaking employees that they had less of a chance to be promoted. Understanding that we have very few African Americans in leadership roles, we are now evaluating where our processes are failing to provide more equitable promotional opportunities.
So, as we evaluate the diversity, equity and inclusivity steps our company is taking, at AMS we feel we can be very proud. But when you dive into the details, when you listen carefully to your employee’s successes and failures, there is always room to improve. At AMS, the March for Justice we undertook in June, was only a starting line to reform, to trying new approaches, to listening, and to making changes.
We can always be better.
Ken Wiseman is workforce development officer at AMS Fulfillment. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org