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If Employers Are Serious About Meaningful Change, They Must Reorient Jobs to Center Around Workers

4 minute read
Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation, an international social-justice philanthropy with a mission to reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement.

These last 18 months constitute a watershed. On one side, history’s tributaries run in one direction; on the other, toward something new.

Years from now, we will refer to these periods as the B.C. and P.C. eras: before coronavirus, and post. With thousands still dying daily—the vast majority in the Global South—and billions more awaiting a vaccine, this crisis remains far from over. And yet, in many parts of the world, a transformation is underway—and it is proving to be especially profound in the way our workplaces promote equity and justice.

We have known for years that work wasn’t working—at least, not for workers. Millions across the globe suffered from unfair policies, unsafe conditions, and intolerable mistreatment, often in exchange for inexcusably low pay.

And so, even as workers in the Global North look forward to rejoining colleagues in person—and all of the serendipity such proximity sparks—organizations cannot go back to their old ways. We must, instead, reimagine and reorient work, to center workers and their experiences.

To me, this is deeply personal. Over the years, I’ve been privileged to sit at the board table and participate in decisions that affect countless lives. But in far too many of these rooms, I have also experienced the isolation of being the “only”: The only person of color, the only Black person, the only gay person.

Today, in a long overdue shift, organizations in every sector realize that inviting an “only” to the table will not suffice. Ethically, it’s unconscionable and, as companies are learning, it’s bad for business. Together, slowly but surely, we are moving beyond tokenism, and transforming how organizations prioritize and realize diversity, equity and inclusion at every level.

This approach must extend far beyond the board room. If employers listen closely to their workers across the globe, and adopt policies that address their needs, we can help our entire society—and indeed, our entire world—move forward.

People with disabilities, for instance, have long been denied the basic accommodation of remote work opportunities, because many employers assumed it was unfeasible, contributing to the damning fact that in 2019, before the pandemic, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was more than double that of people with no disability.

Now, we know better. Forced to comply with public-health regulations, countless organizations adopted remote work policies almost overnight, and proved just how feasible equity can be. If we retain these essential accommodations, we can open the figurative office doors to more workers with disabilities than ever before.

The same is true for other essential workers, whose indispensability grew even clearer in 2020. Care workers, for example—like home health aides and childcare providers—earn a median hourly wage of just $13. Paradoxically, many lack access to sick days, paid leave, and affordable healthcare and cannot afford the very services they provide to others, leaving many to depend on public assistance to meet their own family’s needs. We can no longer deny them better wages, stronger benefits, and fuller protections. We must prioritize these measures for all workers across industries, sectors and hemispheres.

Finally, rather than focus solely on a return to work, we must reimagine how people can secure work in the first place. For too long, the one in three American adults with a criminal record has faced nearly insurmountable barriers to employment, including requirements to disclose conviction history on job applications and thousands of restrictions on trade licenses across the country. This is a crisis of both equity and opportunity, culminating in an environment where up to half of all Americans on parole or probation lost a job during the pandemic. By dismantling these barriers, we can welcome more people into the workforce, towards a second chance at success for individuals and society at large.

From these communities and their experiences comes a consistent principle for any organization looking to become more equitable, inclusive, or just: The best, most effective workplace policies ought to be informed by the people they impact—and by all of the stakeholders we intend our organizations to serve. As we work to end this pandemic once and for all and plan for a future in its wake, we have a generational opportunity to commit workplaces around the world to providing more accessibility, safety, and opportunity.

With workers leading the way, we can achieve fairness and dignity in a post-coronavirus economy that sustains and benefits us all.

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation

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