Soundbite: Work can be ‘where we begin to heal’ on social injustice

The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and others are causing a reckoning in America, says Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at software firm Workhuman. And as difficult as witnessing social injustice is in light of those deaths and more, Pemberton is hopeful for change.

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Steve Pemberton is CHRO at Workhuman.

“[It] holds up a mirror to a society that needs to ask some really hard questions as to whether this is the kind of society it wants to be,” he says. “What’s different about this time around is that I think we have allies. I’ll be honest, the majority of this battle, it’s just been us as African Americans. In my lifetime, it’s the first time that allies who are not African American stood alongside us and said this was not acceptable.”

Related: COVID, social unrest prompting ‘real change’ from HR

What does that reflection mean for HR? “It means everything for HR,” says Pemberton, who held chief diversity officer positions for companies including Walgreens and Monster before taking over as CHRO of Workhuman in 2017. “I think there’s this realization for white Americans that their African American colleagues have come to work bearing a burden they don’t often talk about or don’t often express. That is so critically important.”

Related: Why this D&I leader got personal about racism

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As many organizations are figuring out how to navigate social unrest and taking a hard look at their diversity practices as a result, Pemberton sees the workplace as an area that can make significant, lasting changes.

“I think the workplace may be the last best place for us to tackle these issues,” he says. “You think about your week–where in the course of a week in this voluntarily segregated world are you likely to encounter people of different faiths, ethnicities, languages, generations–all oriented toward a common goal? It’s the workplace. I think there’s this awareness now that the places where we work can also be the places where we begin to heal.”


Check back soon for more from Pemberton and other HR leaders about how HR’s role is changing due to COVID and social unrest.

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.