By Rita Sever & Aaron Belkin

August 17, 2021

This article originally appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

An excerpt from Leading for Justice on going beyond compliance and compensation in HR.

Human Resources is the organizational arm that can best operationalize values—that is, make values a concrete part of day-to-day work practices. It can be a guardian of culture and the voice of internal justice. Granted, historically and in many organizations to this day, HR has not done this. In fact, it has often served as a very effective gatekeeper for maintaining oppression.

Instead of being seen as the long arm of management, HR must prioritize the protection of employees and be ready and able to respond to concerns. HR can develop concrete policies and facilitate benefits that make the organization user-friendly for staff. HR must be reimagined and realigned to be of value and service. HR can be the partner of justice when the role is staffed by people who are committed to equity and who understand the power and the sacredness of the role. It is essential that whoever wears the HR hat, and in whatever manner, understands the importance of fairness, objectivity, and serving the entire organization (i.e. the mission). This is why I say that the role of HR is sacred—not because it is religious or spiritual, but because it deals with living, breathing, dreaming, daring, hopeful staff. Because the currency of HR is trust.

HR must be so much more than compliance and compensation driven. I know many HR professionals who chose this work to support employees. HR can and should be the department or the person who paves the way forward for individuals and for the entire organization. HR can and should be a constructive liaison between management and staff, not a puppet to make things work for management. AND, ultimately, it is happy, engaged, and respected employees who are going to not only get the work done but protect the agency. —Rita Sever

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Human resources management runs through every vein of an organization, either directly or indirectly. If an action touches or impacts the people in the organization, then HR is involved, from strategy to workforce planning to organizational culture to people development. Unfortunately, the dominant model, which too many mainstream HR professionals rely upon, focuses solely on the administration of recruiting, hiring, and onboarding staff. This approach is a lost opportunity for HR to play a productive role in creating equitable organizations.

Several studies—Daring to Lead (2011), The State of Diversity in Nonprofit and Foundation Leadership (2017), and Race to Lead: Confronting the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap (2019)—show the nonprofit sector is still predominantly white-led (more than 90 percent, in some studies), and that the root cause is systemic racial barriers. In addition, while about 73 percent of nonprofit employees are women, only 45 percent of nonprofit CEO roles are held by women. When it comes to pay, women leaders in nonprofits earn just 66 percent of male salaries. HR management, if not done through an explicit lens of racial and gender justice, perpetuates these structural biases. That said, HR professionals are in an optimal position, through formal and informal roles and practices, to begin to dismantle systemic racial and gender barriers.


The practice of HR, like the history of the United States, is rooted in an oppressive mainstream culture. HR is often, perhaps inadvertently, the method by which systemic racism and sexism are replicated and authorized in the workplace. HR has too often upheld a practice of meritocracy defined by white and dominant-culture measures. We cannot ignore that harassment, gender bias, and sexism exist and often thrive in nonprofits as well.

While HR is charged with compliance and protection, that cannot be viewed as a limited scope of work. Without a comprehensive and intentional commitment to employee engagement and satisfaction, an organization is more vulnerable to lawsuits and disruption. That commitment must acknowledge the veins of racism and sexism that snake through our organizations and actively work to repair those veins and build a system of racial and gender justice.

In order for HR to truly be a facilitative partner, its role and function must be redefined and reimagined. We can no longer be perceived as working for and protecting management. We must return to the original intention of HR, as a protector and supporter of employees. We must be recognized as a true partner to every employee. Consider what it would mean to reclaim the broader understanding and practice of HR, which is designed to support the success and accountability of an organization’s number-one asset: the people.

Human Resources as a Driver of Racial and Gender Justice

By bringing a focus of racial and gender justice to HR, we broaden that concept and the practice of HR to focus on the full recognition, participation, and valuing of every employee. HR can work to systematically eliminate the barriers that restrict employment opportunities and satisfaction, as well as to eliminate the present effects of past discrimination and practices. HR can demonstrate that EEO (equal employment opportunity) is more than a policy statement—it is an active practice that requires affirmative steps to ensure the full representation, at all levels, of qualified people of all backgrounds and identities.

HR can work in partnership with all employees to build organizations in which people work effectively and joyfully. When employees are connected and engaged and happy, they will be more likely to seek direct means of reconciliation and restoration when problems arise. And, most important, they are more likely to work collaboratively in service of the mission.

With every voice contributing and heard, with full participation and engagement, our organizations can be welcoming and more effective in serving their missions and in transforming our society.


Justice: Repairing practices that harm BIPOC or hinder their full participation in our organizations. Considering the impact of policies, practices, and decisions on women and people of color. Allowing every voice to be heard when decisions affecting staff are made. Paying careful attention to transparency of process and outcomes during any determination or adjustment of any compensation, benefits, perks, practices, flexibility, etc. Working actively to hire, promote, and retain BIPOC, women, gender-nonconforming people, trans and queer people, and people with disabilities.

Connection: Without a personal connection, change is fragile and tentative. We must bring our minds, our hearts, and our spirits to this work. Relationships are the strength and the vehicle for our work as social change organizations. Therefore, we must see, value, hear, and respond to every person in our organization and coordinate strategies for all components of staff, management, and boards to connect with each other. True connection requires self-awareness, self-management, empathy, and strong communication skills. Particularly for white leaders, men, and white staff, an intentional practice of reflection and consideration of the impacts of our action is critical to stop harming and start supporting women and our colleagues of color.

Clarity: Ensuring that expectations, feedback, and every other organizational dimension are understood and fully vetted in a manner that prioritizes mission and collaboration. Values do not thrive in an organization until understanding, clarity, and implementation exist throughout all levels of the organization.

Consistency: Analyzing policies, practices, procedures, and impacts to ensure that all staff are treated in a consistent and equitable manner across all levels and identities. This does not mean that all staff are necessarily treated exactly the same in every situation; it means that standards about and an understanding of when and how flexibility is appropriate and good are in place.

Learning: Lasting transformation happens when behavioral change is rooted in people’s hearts, minds, and core values and when people are resourced with structural supports (e.g., training and development, organizational policies, changes in resource allocation). A clear commitment and accountability must be present. A commitment of resources to support individual and group learning not only supports the value of racial and gender justice but invests in staff to be stronger, more engaged, and more effective in their work with each other and in the world.

Sample Practices

The following are some key practices that can show good faith in starting to address past and current structural oppressions. This list is not exhaustive but demonstrates the breadth of the role that HR can play in building organizations’ capacity to center racial and gender justice in their work.

Organizational Structures
  1. The organization develops, displays, and enlivens its own statement of racial and gender justice, which is then touted from leadership to line staff and implemented throughout organizational practices and culture.
  2. The organization analyzes and updates all policies and practices to remove those that have a disparate/adverse impact on marginalized communities, paying particular attention to race, gender, and disability.
  3. The organization develops thoughtful, legal, fair, and creative benefits, such as help repaying student loans, support for current education, on-the-job training and coaching, training on hidden rules of advancement, paid parental leave, sabbaticals, and workable infant- and child-friendly policies.
  4. The organization allocates resources to support its transition to an organization that centers on the value of racial and gender justice. This includes time, money, coaching, training, patience, and process.
  5. The organization develops standards of supervision and leadership that distribute power and privilege across the organization and that don’t replicate oppressive practices.
  6. The organization creates and facilitates intentional space to help people talk about and process racism, sexism, ableism, classism, heterosexism, transphobia, gender conformity, etc., in its activities.
  7. The organization gives attention to the components of a truly inclusive culture that build a sense of belonging.
  8. The organization tells stories about its founding, history, and culture, including stories of inclusion and stories of failures—and the lessons it has learned from these events. Storytelling connects people and continues the learning and the conversations that need to happen.
People Development
  1. All recruiters and interviewers are trained in and account for implicit bias. Racial and gender justice values are highlighted in recruitment and integrated into the interview process. Educational requirements should always include “or equivalent” (unless licensing or funding prohibits doing so) to open the door to those who have not had the opportunity for higher education.
  2. All managers are trained in effective supervision, which includes attention to power, privilege, and oppression. All supervisors are trained in giving and receiving feedback, in providing ongoing strength-based evaluations, and in having courageous conversations.
  3. Self-awareness, self-management, and empathy are recognized as essential leadership skills and practices.
  4. All staff are trained in implicit bias and recognition of unconscious practices, in conflict resolution (to help each voice be heard), and in having difficult conversations.
  5. A coaching culture is established to support development and advancement of all staff.
Make It Your Own
  • How is the following statement true or not true, based on your experience with HR? “HR is often, perhaps inadvertently, the method by which systemic racism and sexism are replicated and authorized.”
  • How are the five stated principles alive in your organization, or not?
  • What impact would HR have in the larger world if it worked to disrupt mainstream replication of so-called meritocracy and standardized best practices, as this section suggests?


This section was written by Rita Sever, a network member of RoadMap, a national collaboration of social justice consultants, with input from network members Mala Nagarajan, Terrill Thompson, Scott Lowther, and Emily Goldfarb. This statement is focused on a particular issue of concern in HR and is not intended to address or negate other forms of equal employment opportunity practices and inclusion.