Commentary: The drive for fair treatment

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates. 

Recent police killings of black men have spawned protests, calls for legislative change, debate over policing, and outrage from every corner of the globe. One of the most valuable consequences may well be the soul-searching that’s taking place in my company, in other logistics firms and in businesses everywhere.

As logistics leaders, we are influencers whose opinions matter to clients, employees and other stakeholders. We cannot stand idly by, turning away from uncomfortable conversations. We must commit to act.

According to a recent FreightWaves survey of motor carriers on racial attitudes, nearly half (47%) of respondents viewed racism as a problem in the trucking industry. A poll of strictly front-line employees would probably yield a higher percentage. The findings are supported by 800 to 1,000 annual allegations of race discrimination by transportation and warehouse workers with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Regardless of whether your organization has been directly affected, it’s time we all took stock.

Part of the solution

My first response following the George Floyd killing was to reach out to employees with a letter that acknowledged the wrongdoing. While as a white man I am unable to understand at a first-hand level the black experience in America, I can relate. I wrote, “Growing up, I knew family members and acquaintances who survived Nazi concentration camps. Their crime? Being Jewish. My background and experience have made me especially aware of the destructive power of hate.”

(Photo: Jetco)

I also leaned on Jetco Driver Advocate Stafford Wilson, who has been a partner in culture change over the past decade. Even though reported episodes of racial discrimination have not been an issue at my company, it’s clear that the pain of injustice has burdened employees I hold dear. Stafford told me about a trainer at another employer who systematically failed black trainees, preventing young African-American drivers from moving up in the ranks until his own racist ploy was discovered. He also reminded me that as recently as the 1990s, some delivery orders unbelievably specified, “white drivers only.”

My company has avoided overt conflicts regarding race in large part by building a value-based culture where respect is a core value.  We’re always looking for ways to improve, including our performance around fair treatment of all employees. To bring the company to the next level, we established a driver committee. The group, which Stafford Wilson leads, has resulted in action on issues such as pay structure and professional advancement. The committee has spurred employee engagement, contributing to a culture of respect and transparency that rewards performance by removing barriers to success and replacing them with pathways to growth.

A Jetco tractor delivers a container at a key port.
(Photo: Jetco)

Inaction is not an option

The events of recent weeks have been a chilling reminder that business does not exist in a vacuum. Commerce, especially transportation, links us to every element of society. We are not allowed to isolate or ignore.

In the letter to Jetco employees I wrote, “There is no place for prejudice in our society and our company… We must take an honest look in the mirror by committing to overcome our prejudices. It means holding ourselves – and each other – to a higher standard.”

In that spirit, I call on my peers to join me in taking an honest inventory of our attitudes and behaviors. I’ve committed to the following practices and I hope others will, too, as we work to create a culture where no one is comfortable until everyone is comfortable.

1. Encourage dialogue and be inclusive about the input you seek; listen to the whispers. If you build a wall around yourself, it’s impossible to see what’s going on. Part of this means moving outside of our comfort zones – embracing personal responsibility to grow and change. 

2. Look for racism and call it out. Regardless of an employee’s technical abilities or collegial nature, a racist team member must go. Holding on to such an individual is just wrong, and it undermines your credibility to lead change.  Discriminatory behavior often is hidden, such as Stafford’s example of the trainer who had a pattern of failing his black drivers. You have got to look out for it and be ready to act.

Doing the same job…
(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

3. In transportation we do not operate inside the bright yellow lines of a manufacturing plant. Empower your people to report discrimination wherever it occurs and have a plan to address it. 

4. Prioritize action, not platitudes. By banning the Confederate flag, NASCAR did more to change culture than any lofty pronouncement could have. The white man who disgustingly imitated George Floyd’s homicide in front of Black Lives Matter protesters was a FedEx employee, and his action cost him his job. Firing this employee sent an unmistakable message about unacceptable behavior and its consequences. What are the simple, impactful action steps that you can take now to send a message to your team?

5. Monitor the image you project, especially on social media. If your page or site tracks malicious comments, delete them and ban the trolls. Comment boards are not graffiti walls where haters can spew their venom. 

A professional truck driver.
(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Our industry is robust and adaptable. We saw that in our response to the pandemic when logistics companies were forced to pivot with little warning. When it comes to the destructive power of hate, we’ve had plenty of warning. Let’s use those same adaptive skills to fight it.

All too often, we’ve seen commitment erode as headlines fade.  I hope that is not the case in this situation. The letter I wrote to Jetco employees closed with a message I repeat here: “Let George Floyd’s senseless death be a challenge to all of us. Individually, as a company and as a society, we can and must do better. Much better.”