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The woke corporation: how campus madness entered the workplace

Governments have always been vulnerable to forms of political craziness. What’s new is the behavior of big business

March 7, 2019

12:36 AM

7 March 2019

12:36 AM

New employees at the British headquarters of Accenture, a global management consultancy, were slightly taken aback during a recent induction morning when the head of human resources encouraged them to wear rainbow-colored lanyards declaring themselves ‘allies’ — not just at the meeting, but permanently. In addition, they were given the option of adding the word ‘ally’ in the same rainbow pattern to the footers of their company email addresses. Anyone confused by HR language — a reference to World War Two perhaps? — was referred to the company website, where the word ‘ally’ was helpfully defined: ‘An ally is someone who takes action to promote an inclusive and accepting culture regardless of their own identity and demonstrates commitment to an inclusive workplace. We currently have allies programs for Mental Health, LGBT and People with Disabilities.’

This use of the term ‘ally’ originated on college campuses as a way for the beneficiaries of racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and so on (e.g. straight white males) to signal that they’re on the same side as ‘oppressed’ minorities in spite of their ‘white privilege’. In a seminal essay by a Californian consultant called Frances E. Kendall entitled ‘How to Be an Ally If You Are a Person With Privilege’, often cited by diversity and inclusion officers at American universities, allies are advised to preface what they say with, ‘As a white person…’ This is to let others know you’re aware that ‘being white has an impact on how I perceive everything’. A good ally speaks up if there are no ‘women of color’ on a panel and ‘identifying committees, decision-making teams and departments that are “too white”’.

This madness, which long ago infected university campuses, is now seeping into HR departments of large employers. The result is the rise of the woke corporation, and it might affect the way you work. Certainly, no one should assume that their own company, however sensible-seeming, is immune.

Crackpot ideas that used to be confined to neo-Marxist professors in grievance studies departments have been enthusiastically embraced by the giants of capitalism. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Coca-Cola are all on board and anyone who publicly challenges this new orthodoxy is not merely endangering their chances of promotion, but at risk of being fired.

This was demonstrated by James Damore, a software engineer at Google, who in 2017 dared to question company dogma about why more women aren’t employed as tech engineers by appealing to some rudimentary scientific facts about average differences in men and women’s interests. He was dismissed for ‘advancing gender stereotypes’ — a decision that was then rubber-stamped by the National Labor Relations Board.

No one would dispute that the shibboleths of America’s ‘social justice’ left have thoroughly penetrated British universities. A recent internal email at the University of Hertfordshire announced that the institution had set itself the target of ensuring that 10 percent of its employees are LGBT and 20 percent BAME, even though LGBT people make up only 6 percent of the UK population and BAME people 13 percent. Such stories are now as commonplace as they are alarming. But this thinking has now spread to the British workplace.

Take the UK’s Civil Service, where applicants have been advised that they will be expected during the interview process to ‘demonstrate insight into the link between the moral and business case for equality and diversity and achieving organizational priorities’ and explain how they ‘actively promote diversity and equality… inside and outside the Civil Service’. That’s right, inside and outside. So merely being culturally left-wing at work (‘the moral case…for equality’) won’t be enough. You have to demonstrate to the assessment panel how woke you are in your private life too. In this regard, the Civil Service may be following the lead of the Law Society of Ontario which now requires everyone in possession of a license to practice law in the state to ‘abide by a statement of principles acknowledging their obligation to promote equality, diversity and inclusion’ in their personal as well as their professional lives.

Government is often vulnerable to forms of political madness. But what’s new is the behavior of corporates. The infection often enters the system via their HR departments, whose staff now parrot the theoretical gobbledegook that originated in trendy university departments — gender studies, queer studies, whiteness studies etc. They have convinced themselves it is their moral duty to eliminate ‘white privilege’. And so off they go, zealously spreading the gospel of wokeness. The accountancy firm KPMG used to content itself with giving money to charities working with disadvantaged children, but not any more. It is currently advertising for an ‘Inclusion, Diversity and Social Equality Manager’. That’s right, ‘social equality’ — an odd priority for a company that advises firms on how to minimize their tax burden.

The recruitment website Jobbio, anxious to advertise how on board it is with this new agenda, has included a page entitled ‘What happens if toxic masculinity goes unchecked in the workplace?’ Apparently, ‘toxic masculinity’ revolves around outdated ‘masculine norms’ like not crying when you’re upset, drinking heavily and valuing ‘strength and endurance’. Such values place women and minorities at a competitive disadvantage, according to Jobbio. But fear not: help is at hand. The HR consultancy Jaluch advises its clients on how to combat ‘micro-aggressions’ like claiming to treat everyone equally — which cannot be true, obviously, because we are all in the grip of ‘unconscious bias’.

‘Diversity training’ designed to reduce ‘unconscious’ or ‘implicit’ bias is an $8 billion a year industry in the US — Starbucks recently sent its 175,000 employees on a ‘bias training’ day – and a growing sector in the UK too. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that having been on one of these courses reduces discriminatory behavior. On the contrary, a 2015 paper in the peer-reviewed Journal of Applied Psychology found that people who’d undertaken bias training were more prone to racial and gender stereotyping, not less. According to Lee Jussim, professor of psychology at Rutgers University, there is lots of evidence that mandatory bias training backfires and makes things worse.

Another example of diversity and inclusion policies being at risk of backfiring is the relentless auditing of companies to discover their gender pay gap. Since no private firm wants to disclose a large gap, and their HR departments promise to abolish this gap by, say, 2025, they have an incentive to stop employing women in low-paying positions.

Sometimes, corporate executives try to justify their embrace of this woke agenda by claiming it’s good for the bottom line, but there’s scant evidence for that. As soon as companies stop hiring by ability, and prioritize other factors, they invite trouble. Once, fighting discrimination meant not asking any intrusive questions and judging people on their merits — on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, to paraphrase Martin Luther King. But the woke corporation asks employees about social class (‘Have you ever been privately educated?’) and even whether they prefer men or women as sexual partners. Telling them it’s none of their business is unwise, to put it mildly. But if this relentless focus on diversity and inclusion doesn’t improve performance, why are leading FTSE companies bending over backwards to out-woke one another?

Part of the reason is that their twentysomething employees are importing this culture into the organizations, having been immersed in it at university. The strange thing, though, is how willing their bosses are to do their bidding when they demand ‘safe spaces’ and gender-neutral toilets. Credit Suisse, for instance, has a ‘Reverse Mentoring’ scheme whereby recent graduates are encouraged to take older employees under their wing and coach them about diversity issues — presumably their ‘heteronormative privilege’ and so on. At some large firms the atmosphere is reminiscent of the ‘struggle sessions’ that took place during China’s Cultural Revolution in which gray-haired professors had to sit quietly, heads bowed, while angry students lectured them on how to comply with Maoist ideology.

It may be that business leaders of the baby-boom generation, particularly straight white men, are relishing the opportunity to curry favor with their children’s generation. It used to be the case that young political radicals demonized bosses as members of the hated ‘one percent’ and held them responsible for all the world’s ills. However, one of the peculiarities of the ‘social justice’ left is that it’s less focused on old-fashioned, vertical equality between individuals and nations, and more on horizontal equality between different identity groups. Provided multinational giants such as Procter & Gamble have sufficient numbers of women and minorities in senior management positions and at board level, and provided they regurgitate woke orthodoxies from time to time — like Gillette’s ‘toxic masculinity’ ad — the new generation of progressive activists don’t seem to care about the gap between the highest- and lowest-paid employees. In effect, the left has made its peace with capitalism and the upshot is that the multimillionaire panjandrums of the private sector can proudly stand beside their old university chums in the public sector and claim that they, too, are doing their bit to make the world a better place.

Or perhaps these wily businessmen are embracing the nostrums of Generation Woke for more mercenary reasons. The columnist Ross Douthat recently suggested it’s all about insuring against the risk of the Democrats regaining control of the White House — and fear of a Corbyn government may be playing the same role in Britain. Douthat refers to this as ‘the Peace of Palo Alto…in which a certain kind of virtue-signaling on progressive social causes, a certain degree of performative wokeness, is offered to liberalism and the activist left pre-emptively, in the hopes that having corporate America take their side in the culture wars will blunt efforts to tax or regulate our new monopolies too heavily.’ He points out that one of the side effects of wealthy capitalists becoming holier-than-thou Social Justice Warriors is that it drives America’s already alienated working class completely nuts, thereby making Donald Trump’s re-election more likely — which also serves their corporate interests. It’s win-win for the woke one percent!

Whatever the explanation, the spread of ‘social justice’ orthodoxy to the business world is a sinister development. The workplace is becoming ideological, in a way that makes people worry what they say in the evenings, or at the water coolers. Whether you work in the public or private sector, it won’t be long before you’re assigned a ‘reverse mentor’ and have to endure a ‘struggle session’, assuming you haven’t already. In the recent past, the corporate sector was either apolitical or conservative, which provided a counterweight to the spread of left-wing dogma in virtually every other area of life. Now, there’s no escaping the new commissars of progressive ideology — the wokerati.

The final frontier in the culture war has been breached: we’re all ‘allies’ now.

This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.


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