Diversity on the Front Line

Dr. Terry L. Esper


March 1, 2021

In addition to the economic and public health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 will be remembered for the global civil unrest and protest precipitated by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minnesota. During the summer of 2020, discussions on racism, inequity and discrimination ensued at both dinner tables and in boardrooms across the globe.

Many firms addressed these issues head-on, facilitating tough conversations through open forums, workshops and even training exercises on the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). The business press also cast a spotlight on DEI, emphasizing discussions, best practices and resources to assist firms in strategic DEI efforts. Yet, there remains a significant open space in the DEI domain that carries major risks if not addressed in this same head-on fashion: the front line.

Diversity, equity and inclusion efforts are not only beneficial to organizations from an ethical and ­strategic perspective, but failures also increasingly pose costly legal and regulatory risks. Read more in the article "D&I Meets D&O."

Frontline workers are those individuals who are required to physically show up to their jobs for in-person tasks or services, often engaging with external stakeholders, customers and partners as part of their day-to-day duties. In most firms, frontline work environments like warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing plants exhibit significant racial and ethnic diversity. For example, Amazon’s published workforce data shows that roughly 45% of its employees identify as Black or Latinx, despite the fact that those communities only represent about 16% among its managerial ranks. This is still a higher percentage than many other major firms.

While DEI initiatives typically focus on increasing diversity, equity and inclusion at the executive level and frontline workers are already more diverse, firms still face major cost and risk implications if they do not also pursue efforts to address DEI at the front line.

Beyond the social good and humanitarian aspects of DEI, research shows that more diverse and inclusive companies outperform those that are not. These competitive performance gains can be attributed to a number of organizational benefits of diverse voices in leadership roles, including better decision-making, improved group efficacy and an ability to better understand diverse customer segments.

But what about at the front line, where talent is not directly engaged in these types of work duties? Inclusive work environments are often associated with reductions in turnover and absenteeism, and increases in job satisfaction and organizational commitment and citizenship. These are workforce issues that go quite a long way at the front line, where labor and turnover woes have consistently been a weakness for many firms.

The following are a few points of consideration for firms interested in extending DEI initiatives to their operational teams:

These work environments are likely more charged than you realize. What was perhaps most surprising to some corporate executives during the summer of 2020 was the magnitude of workplace discrimination, inequity and bias that was lurking within their companies. These issues often do not get enough publicity or go unreported. Those in power often do not recognize or hold one another accountable for oppressive acts, large and small. Many women and minority employees have unfortunately learned they have to find ways to cope, ignore or brush off comments or acts of bias to succeed in some professional spaces. These issues are much more prevalent—and often more egregious—in frontline work settings. Because these environments are generally characterized as more “laid back” than other work cultures, and are often under the leadership of frontline managers who may be less committed to DEI than the upper ranks, discrimination and bias often go unnoticed. Thus, engaging in DEI initiatives at this level is likely to be a significant undertaking, and it is important that firms consider this at the outset.

“Turnover culture” can often exacerbate workplace discrimination issues. Labor stability remains a major problem—and risk—in frontline work settings up and down the supply chain. Recent data highlights the prevalence of employee turnover at the front line, which can often amplify workplace discrimination and differential treatment issues for both employees and employers. High turnover can cause employees at the front line to feel expendable, especially if reported concerns and incidents are viewed as not having been adequately addressed. Likewise, significant turnover can bias the way employers assess reported issues, where turnover rates might cause employers to think that addressing underlying problems would be costlier than hiring replacement workers. Therefore, a major aspect of managing DEI at the front line involves deep assessments of the risks and root causes of turnover, and the attitudes associated with it.

The issues may go beyond the internal work environment. Even when firms have taken measures to address DEI in their operational environments, the reality is that frontline workers can often experience bias and harassment when engaging with ­external ­entities on the job. For example, minority frontline delivery workers have reported harassment and discrimination while out making deliveries. These incidents often involved racial slurs, verbal attacks and allegations of harm or threat. Many of these drivers felt that they were not empowered to report these issues, or that documenting these occurrences would not lead to ­meaningful protection or change. In addressing DEI at the front line, firms must take a holistic approach by focusing specific ­initiatives on external-facing frontline workers as well.

When addressing DEI in frontline contexts, it is important to note the vital role of corporate culture will play. The difference between success and failure will likely depend on whether the organization truly values diversity and inclusion, and the extent to which this value cascades down to subcultures in outlying facilities. Generally, firms that emphasize DEI unapologetically communicate expectations on these matters, and hold leaders accountable to make progress. Thus, to make strides at the front line, operational-level leaders must be given DEI-related marching orders, provided with resources to act accordingly and held accountable through metrics and incentives. Not doing so can create a work environment that is not only lacking in diversity, but that can also contribute to increased operational risk.

Dr. Terry L. Esper is associate professor of logistics in the marketing and logistics department at the Fisher College of Business of The Ohio State University. He conducts regular executive-level educational sessions and workshops through The Risk Institute at The Ohio State University and has published several articles on strategic supply chain management topics.