Local author pens book for leaders wanting just workplaces

The book, “Leading with Justice: Supervision, HR, and Culture,” was released on Tuesday and is the Forestville author’s second title.|

How do you define systemic racism?

It was a question Rita Sever said caught her by surprise during an otherwise routine interview in 1997 for a human resources director position she ultimately got with Sonoma County’s Community Action Partnership nonprofit.

“I used the fish in water metaphor,” Sever, who is white, said, explaining that fish don’t know they’re in water because they are surrounded by it. “You don’t know what it is because you’re swimming in it all the time, and that was true for me.”

During her next nine years with the nonprofit, which Sever said primarily employed people of color, she developed a deeper understanding about the realities of racism in the workplace and the role leaders play in shaping an organization’s culture.

She said she used that experience, as well as what she learned from a prior nine-year stint with Santa Rosa HIV/AIDS nonprofit Face to Face, along with subsequent professional knowledge she acquired after she started her own organizational leadership coaching business in 2006, to pen her new book “Leading for Justice: Supervision, HR, and Culture.”

More than a decade ago, in 2010, complaints alleging workplace discrimination filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reached nearly 100,000.

By 2019, though, the annual filings had decreased to 72,710 and were even lower in 2020 at about 67,500, according to EEOC data.

At the state level a similar decline has been occurring.

California workers filed almost 7,200 workplace discrimination claims in 2010 compared to 4,300 and 4,100 complaints in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Still, experts such as Sever believe the social justice reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd last summer, has turned a spotlight on issues such as workplace equity, inclusion and diversity, making people more ready to acknowledge the existence of institutional racism.

Released on Aug. 3, Sever’s book encourages leaders to think about how their organizations’ core components can help create a more just workplace.

It ”definitely doubles down on the issues of racism and sexism, and all the other ‘isms’ that exist in the workplace, and asks organizations to ask hard questions on, ‘How are we disrupting racism (and other forms of oppression) in the workplace?’” said Sever, 67, who lives in Forestville.

She said she recognized the need for this kind of discussion after working with clients from the nonprofit sector.

Many of those leaders say they care about justice, but they often focused on the nonprofit’s external social justice work rather than considering that forms of oppression could exist within their own organizations as a result of its culture or hiring and leadership practices, Sever said.

One example of this, she added, was when a client of hers said they chose to hire a certain candidate because they felt “more comfortable” with that person.

A deeper examination of the decision revealed that the supervisor felt that way because the person was more like them. The supervisor tended to feel less comfortable with candidates of another race or who were gay, Sever said.

That same mindset can impact how managers assign work, which then bleeds into job evaluations and decisions about who to promote, she added.

“It’s not because anyone is actively saying, ‘I’m going to promote white people over people of color.’ But, it’s just that they see their contributions in a different light,” Sever said. “Maybe they doubt a young person could handle a big project, so they don’t offer them the opportunity.”

Black and Indigenous employees, and other people of color, can have a difficult time within an organization if they are micromanaged or questioned more by their supervisors about their work compared to other employees. This kind of situation, Sever added, could drive them out of that job within a couple years.

In addition, organizations may experience high turnover among these specific employees when no changes are made.

“People get frustrated, especially if they do have the bravery to speak about it … and nothing happens,” Sever said.

Sever’s book discusses topics that range from hiring for justice to power and privilege.

Sever said one particular section, “HR as a Justice Partner,” addresses concerns from employees who are distrustful of HR departments because they believe they are more supportive of the employer than the employees.

In her book, Sever argues that HR workers are in an “optimal position” to dismantle racial and gender barriers in an organization because they have the power to support workers through well-crafted practices and policies.

They can also serve as a bridge between management and staff and hold both accountable without picking sides.

“HR can be the arm of the organization or what operationalizes justice,” Sever said.

Asked how she navigated her own privilege as a white woman while writing the book, she said her years of listening and learning from her colleagues at Community Action Partnership — two of whom the book is dedicated to — have taught her how to ask hard questions of herself and others.

“I’m not an expert in racial equity or any of the other ‘isms,’ but I am an expert in organizational dynamics. I can help people see what’s happening in that realm,” Sever said, adding that she uses her privilege to point out issues to employers that employees may have already identified.

“It doesn’t mean I’m saying it better. It just means (leaders) are more open to hearing it because of what I look like,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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