Most people expect organizations that take a public stand in support human dignity and social justice, whether those be nonprofits, religious or private sector groups, to live out their values internally as well as externally, to “walk the talk.”
To live out values in a coherent and consistent way, I want to suggest that organizations would benefit from being deliberate about practicing what I think of as “social justice management.”
At the core of this management approach is an embrace of the unique potential of each person. In this practice employees are not automatons or just a means to an end; they are recognized to be the single most important resource held by the organization. Organizational leaders strive to create a learning environment in which employees at all levels have access to some form of personal and professional development, and are connected to the organization’s mission. Human development is a holistic process, and employees are viewed as whole beings.
In addition to this orientation to the human person, a social justice management practice includes a commitment to supporting equity and the hiring and advancement of people who do not bring to the workplace the advantages of growing up in a middle class or affluent environment and who have not benefitted from forms of racial and gender privilege. For white-led organizations this means not only hiring people of color but pursuing their advancement and co-leadership in the organization. It means supporting LGBTQ people in leadership roles and encouraging people to bring their whole selves to the workplace.
Often organizations will hold to certain hiring standards based on academic degrees, absence of criminal background and/or work histories. These standards create a contradiction. The organization advocates for the marginalized but then effectively excludes people from those communities or backgrounds from working inside the organization.
This commitment to equity in hiring and advancement also needs to include young people and the willingness to invest in preparing emerging leaders of color, women and others who have historically had less access to career paths.
The practice of social justice management, with its focus on human development and equity, is fueled by the dynamism of inclusion. A strategy that intentionally includes and invests in those who are often marginalized generates a kind of creativity, energy and intelligence that a more traditional hierarchical approach does not. I have witnessed this in many settings over the years when an organization decides to take an inclusive approach to young people. When an organization invests in the leadership of youth of color, it creates a dynamic quality to the organization that brings multiple benefits.
Finally, in an organization practicing social justice management, we find basic policies that support people and families: health insurance, retirement benefits, parental and family leave, and support for LGBTQ employees and people with disabilities. Just as we challenge government to treat budgets as moral documents, we must also view our internal budgets as moral statements. How are we investing our own funds to support people?
I’m sure what I have written above will strike many managers as aspirational, and it is. Less established organizations struggle to provide adequate pay and benefits. In the crunch of an organizing campaign, we all can function as automatons, just trying to get through the tasks and meet deadlines. What matters though is to be clear about where we are trying to go and who we are trying to be. To be explicit with our internal values and to have internal discussion and reflection on how we can do better leads to growth over time.
I think it’s also important to stress that the “cause” does not justify bad management. Sacrifice for the cause does not justify treating people badly or underpaying employees. There is no rationale that justifies an abusive work environment.
Large gaps between an organization’s external values and internal practices and policies do great damage to an organization over time and erode an organization’s ability to deliver on mission. In these organizations, staff experience burnout, stress and disillusionment. We see high rates of staff turnover, and a legacy grow of burned-out former employees.
The practice of social justice management depends heavily upon organizational leaders who have a personal commitment to self-awareness, self-reflection and to their own on-going spiritual and moral development. In many ways, the internal culture of an organization mirrors the internal life of the CEO. In our internal life, if we seek to rise above an egocentric view of the world and to grow habits of relating to others grounded in appreciation, gratitude and curiosity, we will create a pattern that others will seek to emulate. These types of leaders are essential to the development of powerful, magnetic and influential social justice organizations.
Jim Keddy assists social change organizations in growing their capacities in community organizing, advocacy, policy analysis and development, organizational growth and fundraising.