“I hate the EEOC!”: A Martin Luther King Day story

Dr. Art Shriberg

Most business school professors know their students can learn a great deal from the practical experience of local business leaders. Dr. Art Shriberg at Xavier University was one of them. He regularly invited senior executives from local companies to speak to his students. And with nine Fortune 500 companies headquartered within a few miles of Xavier’s Cincinnati location, he had plenty of high-profile executives to choose from.

In one of his leadership classes in the early 2000s, the CEO of one of those Fortune 500 companies was Dr. Shriberg’s guest speaker. Near the end of class, one young woman raised her hand to ask a question. “What do you think about the EEOC?” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is the federal agency that enforces workplace discrimination laws.

“I hate it!” he bellowed. “The government’s got no right telling me who I can and can’t hire! It’s un-American!” The young woman’s eyes grew wide, and her classmates sat in shocked silence. Even Art Shriberg nervously waited to see how the CEO would back himself out of this predicament.

But he didn’t. He kept going. He continued, “About four years ago, one of my lawyers told me we were going to be in big trouble with the EEOC if we didn’t start hiring more women and minorities. As much as I didn’t like being told what to do, I didn’t want to get in a fight with the U.S. government. So I called in my HR manager and told him to start hiring them.”

He explained that within a year or two, his company was in compliance. But then during the next administration, the EEOC rules relaxed a bit. “But I didn’t change a thing,” he said. “By that point, we were making more money than ever! The women we’d hired in the past couple of years taught us to market to women better than we ever thought possible. And with the diversity of talent across the company, my product development teams were more creative and innovative than ever.

“I still don’t like being told who I have to hire,” the CEO admitted. “But I can’t argue with success.”

Sometimes the most effective advocates for diversity and inclusion come from the most unlikely places. If the head of an affirmative action coalition or an affinity network in your company speaks out in support of the cause, that’s certainly good, though not unexpected. But one story from a skeptic like the one in Dr. Shriberg’s class is far more compelling. Art brought that CEO in to teach his students a lesson in leadership. What they learned was much more valuable.

[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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