Promoting Equality in the Plumbing Industry

As a business owner in your community, you aren’t required to make a public statement about this moment in history, but you can use it as an opportunity to thoroughly examine how it aligns with aspects of your operations like employee hiring practices

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The plumbing industry is overwhelmingly white. I'm white. The odds are that you, the reader, are also white.

With that said, how do you feel about the protests, demonstrations and riots that have gripped the country over the past few weeks? Maybe you feel sad. Maybe frustrated or defensive. Do you feel like an ally? Maybe you feel angry or completely indifferent. 

For many white Americans, this moment in history may feel like it has nothing to do with them or their business. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

While polls show that feelings of anti-black prejudice are historically low, feelings won’t break down institutional and systemic racism. We must use deliberate actions and deliberate words. Using words may feel like an act of bravery. Fears of misspeaking, saying the wrong thing, or upsetting customers' sensibilities may keep you silent.

I spoke with Eboni Green of TTV Consulting, a black-woman-owned communications consulting firm with offices in Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tennessee. We had a candid conversation about these fears.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Green says that while every business need not make a statement, “every business owner who sees the state of events and cares, should take a stance.” She continues, “If you make a statement, make it very clear. It will read as inauthentic if you don’t.”

But it’s more powerful, Green says, if you share what you are doing within your organization to end discrimination and make a positive impact on the black community. Don’t just say you stand with Black Lives Matter and move on with your day. Take action. Making organizational changes is likely in your best interest, anyway.

Jamala McFadden is a partner at The Employment Law Solution, an all-black-women-owned boutique employment law firm with clients across the United States. She sees how race affects businesses every day. These lawsuits are often a result of what she calls “blind spots” in human resources. That’s a tremendous problem because, she explains, “most small businesses can’t afford a lawsuit. One employee claim is often enough to bankrupt a small business.”

It’s frustrating but important to understand that lawsuits result from both unintentional and intentional behaviors. For instance, racial claims may stem from subtle micromanaging, negative attention, or tougher performance evaluations. An employer may be liable for a hostile work environment if issues exist between co-workers — especially if a manager or supervisor is aware of the issue. The last thing you want is for an employee to say, “They knew and they didn’t do anything.”

No employer can afford to ignore race. “It takes intentionality” to decrease your exposure and liability, says McFadden. If black employees have left your company, examine that situation and consider if issues of co-worker or managerial aggression may have been a factor. Ask yourself if you are applying policy exceptions equally and consider to whom you give the benefit of the doubt in he said/she said situations. 

Accusations often stem from what has been termed microaggressions. Defined as indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination, it may frustrate employers that seemingly small moments could lead to a lawsuit. But, McFadden says, “when you are black, and you see it constantly, it is not so micro. It feels macro.”

It’s not too late to check in and ensure that you are providing an equal and comfortable workplace for all of your employees. Defending a lawsuit is not only costly but will also take time away from your business and may damage your reputation.

Examine Your Hiring Practices

If any of you are thinking, “Well, I’ll just avoid this altogether by only hiring people who look like me,” let me stop you right there.

“Your team should reflect your community and client base,” McFadden says. If it doesn’t, you need to look at your hiring practices.

“Compared to white individuals, black individuals are twice as likely to be unemployed, and earn nearly 25% less when they are employed,” according to the Poverty Action Lab. Every time you pass over a black candidate, you are adding to this statistic. Focus on qualifications and bring conscious efforts to eliminate discriminatory behavior to your hiring decisions. 

I have taken a critical look at my hiring practices and considered areas where we can improve. There are moments in the past — policies that we have used — that give me pause. A few leave me cringing or keep me up at night, wishing I had made different decisions. But our policies evolved through information and a constant effort to do better. 

One thing you can — and should — do immediately is remove “the box” from your employment applications. I’m referring to the “have you ever been convicted of a felony” box. The better practice is to inform the candidate on the job application that any job offer is conditional pending a background check. In fact, asking this question before making a conditional job offer is illegal in some states. Background checks are still fine, but they need to happen later.

If the background check results in you pulling that job offer, make sure you are applying what McFadden calls a “bright line” rule. “At the manager’s discretion” is a terrible idea because it creates room for the perception of biased decisions. 

Instead, create a clear policy and apply it equally. You can’t make an exception for the white guy who “just got into a little trouble in his youth” if you wouldn’t give the same consideration to a black man.

You may feel that previously incarcerated individuals have no place on your team. If that is your stance, be sure you are making an informed decision. Nearly 46% of all imprisoned people are there for a class E offense — drugs. Then consider that we incarcerate African-Americans at over five times the rate of whites in the United States. We do this despite the fact that white adolescent males use drugs at a higher rate than any other segment of the population. Overall, drug use across all races is relatively equal. But the war on drugs is not equal.

Before refusing to hire a person convicted of a felony, consider whether the conviction is relevant to the work they will be doing. Also consider how long ago the felony took place. A felony drug possession several years ago has nothing to do with that person’s ability to install a toilet today.

If you want to learn more about how mass incarceration disproportionately affects communities of color, consider reading or listening to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. It’s not a light read, but that’s a function of what makes the book so powerful. It isn’t full of anecdotal stories and feelings. It’s a deeply depressing collection of data that paints a clear and convincing narrative.

Moving Forward

If you recognize that you have work to do, Green of TTV Consulting doesn’t want you to think of your actions as a diversity initiative. Instead, think of it as a cultural issue.

“That’s saying if we try and it doesn't work, we go back to the way it was. If we adopt it as a principle — a weight on which we put our business, that’s where real difference is made. Any size company can do that,” she says.

By putting diversity at the center of your organization, you gain the necessary perspective for success and growth. If you are a white person, if you are a hiring manager, if you lead people, if you own a business — listen to the black community and then take action. It’s smart business and good humanity. 

About the Author

Anja Smith is managing partner for All Clear Plumbing in Greenville, South Carolina. She can be reached at anja@acpupstate.com.



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