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What an anti-racist workplace looks like

Simone Martin-Newberry for Quartz
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There is no such thing as an anti-racist company.

That’s one of the first things I learned when I asked Evelyn Carter whether she knew of any companies that could be held up as ideal models of equity for others to emulate. “For me, there’s no organization that is an anti-racist organization,” said Carter, a social psychologist and a director at Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion consultancy. The label is more of an aspiration. “Any that say that they are, they probably aren’t doing it right.”

Recent headlines from the business world in the wake of a surge in Black Lives Matter protests are a reminder that no industry is untouched by prejudice and inequality. Pinterest hired an outside law firm to investigate its culture after multiple Black women went public with allegations of racial bias on the job. Facebook faces a new federal lawsuit over alleged discrimination against Black employees, who make up just 4% of the company’s workforce. The media and publishing industries are reckoning with their failure to hire or promote Black employees and sufficiently represent Black voices in their content. In the banking sector, Morgan Stanley is being sued for bias by its former chief diversity officer; and organizations ranging from the US Navy to Adidas are also confronting racism within their ranks.

Many of the businesses currently facing criticism for racist practices have long pledged to devote themselves to furthering diversity and inclusion. Clearly, those efforts aren’t working. There are only five Black CEOs at the head of Fortune 500 companies. Just 3% of executive or senior leadership positions at Fortune 500 firms are held by Black people. And 58% of Black professionals say they have experienced racial prejudice at work, according to a 2019 Center for Talent Innovation report (pdf) that surveyed more than 3,700 white-collar workers in the US.

It’s time to try something new. That’s where anti-racism comes in.

Anti-racist efforts encompass traditional diversity, equity, and inclusion (or DEI) concerns, like closing wage gaps and getting more people of color into senior leadership. What distinguishes it  is the scope of its ambitions. DEI efforts, Carter says, “acknowledge that current structures are not set up inherently to create equitable workplaces”—often instead treating straight, cisgender white men as the norm—and are “designed to re-right that balance.” The anti-racist movement, Carter says, also wants “to do away with the structures that exist that produce those disparities.”

“An anti-racist organization says ‘We are going to fundamentally rethink the way we do business,’ as opposed to saying, ‘We are going to work within the existing structures.'”

For example, a typical DEI fix for a firm that notices a pattern of paying Black employees in one department less than their white teammates would be to bring the Black employees up to the salary level of their colleagues. An anti-racist solution, Carter says, might be to have a policy of paying Black employees more than their white counterparts, in an effort to address the racial wealth gap. (In the US, Black women get paid 62 cents for every dollar white men earn; while Black men receive 87 cents for every dollar.)

“An anti-racist organization is one that is saying, ‘We are going to fundamentally rethink the way we do business,’ as opposed to saying, ‘We are going to work within the existing structures,’” Carter says.

For this field guide, Quartz took a look at how various kinds of workplaces—from an international insurance behemoth to a restaurant to a TV writers’ room—are trying to enact systems that lead to greater equality.

All of these organizations have at least one thing in common: They’re trying to create an environment where people can learn from one another about the ways in which racism shapes society, and to put more just systems and structures in place. In other words, these companies are not just workplaces; they’re educational spaces, too.

None of the people we interviewed claimed to have a complete and perfect vision of what an anti-racist organization looks like. All emphasized that there are no one-size-fits-most solutions to racism in the workplace. But their ideas, stories, and insights may inspire business leaders and workers around the world to start imagining new possibilities in the fight for racial justice.

Practically every company these days claims they want to make the world a better place. Anti-racism is their chance to really start thinking big.

Table of contents

Beyond awareness | Reimagining interviews | Diversity incentives | Training on the job | Curbing executive privilege

Beyond awareness

Plenty of companies care about diversity and inclusion, whether because it’s the right thing to do or the profitable thing to do. In executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles’ recent global survey of more than 400 senior business leaders, for example, the subset of respondents who said their organizations clearly defined diversity and inclusion, linked it to their business, and tracked and measured progress had a five-year revenue compound annual growth rate that was 62% higher than their counterparts. And a 2018 study from the Boston Consulting Group found that companies with more diverse leadership teams reported 19% higher revenues from new products and services.

But making fundamental shifts requires that companies do more than simply care about diversity, says Vanessa Tanicien, a facilitator at leadership training company LifeLabs Learning. They need to focus on the structures and practices that they can change to better support marginalized people in the workplace.

The best way to manage diversity is to develop metrics, make them transparent, and hold people accountable, just like for any other outcome of interest.

Tanicien points to the “blind auditions” (pdf) instated by orchestras, which significantly increased the number of female musicians who landed jobs. What proved successful in increasing diversity of the orchestras wasn’t a training program or a lesson on implicit bias, but a new structure—putting anonymous auditioners behind a curtain—that eliminated that bias entirely.

Among the most important structures to put in place are systems that incentivize and track progress in hiring, promoting, and retaining people of color, according to research published by the Center for Employment Equity at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And the best way to manage diversity, authors Elizabeth Hirsch and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey say, is “to develop metrics, make them transparent, and hold people accountable, just like for any other outcome of interest, be it profit, sales, or market penetration.”

Keeping track of metrics lets employers see where they’re falling short—perhaps they’re successfully hiring people of color but have unusually high levels of turnover, which would imply that the problem lies with internal company policies and culture rather than recruitment.

As for how to hold people accountable, a growing number of companies have opted to make their diversity metrics public. (It’s a lot more embarrassing to have a 96% white management team if the rest of the world knows the numbers haven’t budged for 10 years running.) In 2014, tech titans Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter began publishing diversity reports. But for the most part, they’ve made fairly minimal progress in increasing diversity among their ranks, suggesting that public numbers alone are not enough to move the needle.

As a common aphorism in the business world holds, “what’s measured gets treasured.” Still, companies can’t underestimate the qualitative aspects of an inclusive culture—including the importance of creating an environment where people of color feel welcome.

There’s something about removing yourself and unburdening yourself that we’re so rarely afforded, that actually enables a space to heal and grieve.”

Naj Austin, the founder of Ethel’s Club, a social and wellness club specifically for people of color, notes that for Black people and others from marginalized backgrounds, it’s often stressful to navigate majority-white spaces. “There’s something about removing yourself and unburdening yourself that we’re so rarely afforded, that actually enables a space to heal and grieve,” she says.

Over the past few weeks, Austin has been fielding a lot of calls from business leaders who want to know how to replicate that sense of community within their own companies. She’s not sure that’s possible: “Your best bet is to send them to a place that’s been doing the work,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean that companies are off the hook when it comes to creating better cultures, which Carter says involves learning to notice inequities the way that marginalized people do. “Folks of color notice subtle and overt forms of bias,” says Carter. “If you’re gonna be an ally, you have to be tuned in.”

With that in mind, here are a few examples of companies that are trying to correct inequalities at a structural level, and strive for racial justice in the workplace.

Reimagining interviews: Fractured Atlas case study

Fractured Atlas, a New York City-based nonprofit with roughly 30 employees that helps artists access funding, has a number of unique practices in place.

Since 2016, the company has engaged in race-based caucuses—discussion groups meant to address issues tied to oppression and equality. Employees who identify as white go to one caucus; employees who identify as people of color (POC) go to the other. “Frequently, rhetoric around unity overemphasizes our similarities: for marginalized people, this ‘unity’ can be akin to erasure,” the company explains in a blog post. “Caucus spaces allow for a centering of identity that can be freeing simply in its being named.”

The POC caucus is more casual—a space for people to check in with one another. Sometimes, says Lauren Ruffin, one of the company’s four co-CEOs, the group might discuss highly publicized instances of police brutality and how it’s affecting them. “Other times it’s just silly bullshit, like ‘did you watch this episode of this show,’” she says.

The white caucus, meanwhile, is more structured. Sometimes an external facilitator leads the group in topics like interrogating whiteness; sometimes employees discuss readings on things like gentrification or cultural appropriation.

“I was a little skeptical at first, but that hour has made our white colleagues more aware of how they show up in the workplace,” says Ruffin. She offers up the example of how employees talk about what they do during their time off—a sensitive subject that can wind up exposing big gaps in wealth and privilege.

“If you’ve got two associates making $50,000, and one is able to spend two weeks in Europe and the other has never been to Washington DC, the way that white person approaches that conversation about how they spend their time could have been insensitive without acknowledging [something]. That happened four years ago,” Ruffin says. “It doesn’t happen now.”

The caucuses are just one of multiple policies and systems that Fractured Atlas has added since overhauling its approach to race and racism five years ago, after members of the senior leadership team attended a perspective-altering workshop at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a New Orleans-based grassroots organization that trains groups to develop a collective understanding of structural inequalities and how they can be effective in undoing them.

Another change that’s had a big impact on equality at Fractured Atlas, according to Ruffin and co-CEO Tim Cynova, is switching to an entirely remote workforce. Not only has this significantly widened their candidate pool, it has given employees greater flexibility, eliminating the commutes that can often be burdensome for people with caregiving responsibilities. It saves the company money, too, and the flexibility to work wherever means employees can opt to live in places where their wages (based on New York City’s cost of living) will go farther.

Fractured Atlas has made a number of other changes meant to be considerate of the variations in people’s backgrounds and circumstances. They include:

  • Altering the reimbursement policy so that everyone has access to a corporate card, rather than asking people to front expenses when they might not have a credit card that can be used for such things.
  • Nixing education requirements on job postings. “Unless you’re a rocket scientist, you don’t need it,” says Cynova.
  • Listing the same job posting under two different levels of seniority. “We often list positions at different levels knowing we’ll hire at the higher levels,” says Cynova. That’s meant to address research that shows that men apply for jobs they feel only somewhat qualified for, while women often neglect to apply unless they feel they’re 100% qualified. This way, a candidate who would hesitate to submit themselves for a senior director position might decide to go for a “director” position; then the company still gets to meet the candidate. If they decide to hire the person, the candidate gets the title at the higher level.
  • Ditching the practice of starting interviews with questions like, “Tell us about a time when.” Wanting to put less emphasis on specific experience and more focus on underlying skills, Fractured Atlas now asks hypothetical questions instead, to get a sense of what candidates would do, and not just what they have done.

One change that Fractured Atlas has found particularly impactful is asking job candidates questions that reflect its commitment to anti-racist and anti-oppressive work, such as “What’s your definition of diversity, without using the word ‘difference’?” and “How do you promote sensitivity and inclusion in the workplace?” Right now, Cynova says, he’s workshopping a few new questions, one of which is, “What trait of white supremacy culture is most challenging in the workplace?”

The most important thing about these questions, says Ruffin, is that a candidate who flubs the answers won’t get hired. “Internally, we’ve had a lot of hard conversations when hiring because we’d have great candidates who just couldn’t get their mind around how oppression shows up in the workplace,” she says. But in 2020, “having an understanding of the systems of oppression in the US is no longer a ‘nice to have,’ it’s a requirement.”

Diversity incentives: Prudential case study

People tend to be more invested in making change happen when they have some skin in the game. That’s why, almost three years ago, the senior leaders of life-insurance titan Prudential began tying part of their own compensation packages to hitting diversity metrics among their own ranks.

You need senior leaders to be held accountable for creating a diverse organization.

“You need senior leaders to be held accountable for creating a diverse organization,” says Vicki Walia, the chief talent and capability officer at Prudential. “I’m a big believer in you get what you measure and you get what you reinforce.” Research backs her up on this point: According to an extensive 2006 study (pdf) published in the American Sociological Review, allocating responsibility for organizational change tends to be more effective at increasing diversity among managers than diversity training or mentoring programs.

Ronnie Charcalla, vice president of culture, diversity, and engagement at Prudential, also notes the work being done to ensure that Black employees and others from marginalized groups continue to advance once they’re at the company, which has more than 51,000 employees globally. Each year, for example, the company nominates a class of women of color to participate in an eight-month leadership program, in partnership with the organization Blue Circle Leadership.

“Over 75% of the women who graduate from the program have received stretch assignments or promotions, and we’re looking to roll out a similar program for mid-career men of color,” Charcalla says. The company is now in the process of introducing “cultural intelligence” training and expanded unconscious bias training for managers, with the goal of helping supervisors to be more aware of their potential blind spots.

After Charles Lowrey became CEO in December 2018, Prudential also created an Inclusion Council that meets each quarter, made up of C-suite leaders as well as the heads of the company’s eight Business Resource Groups (employee affinity groups for people who are Black, Latinx, Asian/Pacific Islander, LBGTQ, veterans, and more).

Thus far, the efforts seem to be resonating with Prudential’s staff. In the company’s most recent annual employee engagement survey, 83% of employees gave favorable scores to the company’s inclusivity, with similar rates of approval among people of color and women.

Training on the job: Edwins case study

A lot of fine-dining establishments pride themselves on hiring people with a pedigree—perhaps culinary-school training, say, or years of experience searing scallops or reciting the grapes of Bordeaux. Chef Brandon Chrostowski, who has worked at a three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris and at famed US establishments like Le Cirque and Chanterelle, thinks that’s a bunch of hogwash.

“Fine dining, it’s hard work, but it’s so easy,” says Chrostowski, who opened Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute in 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. “If you give someone a plan, clear communication, and the tools to do the job, anyone is able to do a job—in our industry, and in most.”

That philosophy is fundamental to Chrostowski’s nonprofit, which trains formerly incarcerated people, and others who’ve had encounters with the criminal-justice system, in the art of French cuisine. Over the course of a six-month program, participants receive a stipend and “contributions” left by restaurant patrons in lieu of tips, all while rotating through positions in the front and back of the house. The goal is to give them the skills to qualify for any job opening in the fine-dining world.

You’ve got to meet someone where they’re at and help get them to where they want to go.

Edwins, which has expanded since its founding to include a bakery and butcher shop, has produced roughly 400 graduates so far, and boasts a 95% employment rate after the training program. Given that Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people, racial justice is central to its mission.

Chrostowski was inspired to start the institute after he was convicted of resisting arrest as a teenager in Detroit and found mentorship and a second chance in the kitchen. He says that there are plenty of lessons from his restaurant that any organization could put to use. Among them:

Meet people where they’re at, not where you want them to be. Many restaurants, he says, “want you to be a developed culinarian with XYZ skills, and to look and talk a certain way. That’s not the reality of this world if you want to improve it. You’ve got to meet someone where they’re at and help get them to where they want to go.”
Teach to the top, because excellence is always employable. Too often, Chrostowski says, programs designed to help elevate low-income people and others from marginalized backgrounds teach a mediocre skill set, setting participants up to qualify only for lower-earning jobs.
Teach the full perspective of the industry you’re in. Edwins trains all participants in everything from the business basics of profit and loss to how to sauté meat or act as a host.  “It empowers them to know that they can do anything, and it motivates employees to say, ‘I can move up in this system if I choose,’” he says. That way, when Edwins’ graduates go on to work in other restaurants, they know what they’re capable of. If they’re getting stuck at the fry station and denied opportunities to rise through the ranks, they have the confidence to get out and move on.
Get out of the way. “There’s no mind games here, no, ‘I want you to be beholden to me,’” Chrostowski says. He encourages graduates to take jobs elsewhere because he wants them to thrive in their careers and spread the same principles at their own workplaces. (That’s an area where many companies tend to fall short, instead expecting endless gratitude and loyalty from the people of color they hire for early-career positions despite toxic work conditions, as Connie Wang recently wrote in Refinery29.)

Perhaps the most important lesson of Edwins is that companies should do more training and education on the job, rather than overemphasizing experience. “You need to invest,” Chrostowski says.

Sometimes, he’ll talk to employers in manufacturing or construction who complain that they’re not finding qualified employees. “I say, ‘Listen morons, your employees are right in front of you!’ … It’s not like you can grab a human being off a grapevine and plug it into the model and the machine moves.” Many companies have only themselves to blame for so-called worker shortages, he says, because they’re “not choosing to take people who look or sound different.”

Seven years into Edwins, Chrostowski says, he’s starting to see this problem play out at higher levels. Many of his graduates are now hitting glass ceilings in their culinary careers, as a lot of fine-dining restaurants aren’t working to develop a diverse new generation of leaders. So he’s also started a management fellowship. Participants receive $40,000 a year while alternating between managing the restaurant, bakery, and butcher shop. He wants to see his graduates running kitchens all over the world. “Now we’re starting to build people who can get inside of these systems,” he says, “and rebuild them with the perspective we all value.”

Curbing executive privilege: Aquent case study

Pre-coronavirus, when business travel had executives jetting around the world, John Chuang always flew coach.

One thing a company can do to create a correct environment for all people to thrive, no matter who you are, is to eliminate the notion of privilege.

As the CEO of Aquent, a creative staffing agency for marketing and design services with 10,000 employees across the US and in eight different countries, he might have been expected to be kicking back in business class. But Chuang—who co-founded Aquent in 1986—is adamant that creating an egalitarian workplace means bringing business leaders down from the rarified air filled with prime parking spaces and fancy corner offices.

“One thing a company can do to create a correct environment for all people to thrive, no matter who you are, is to eliminate the notion of privilege,” says Chuang, the son of Taiwanese immigrants. He’s not referring to white privilege, which exists whether we want it to or not, but rather to executive privilege—the perks and benefits that he says send a message that “some people are better than others,” setting the stage for racial bias and other forms of discrimination to thrive.

Executive privilege can also mean that members of the C-suite always speak first (and most) at meetings, Chuang says, or that they don’t have to do certain kinds of administrative work that other employees must do for themselves. At Aquent, he says, no one has an administrative assistant, including himself; at the office (in pre-Covid times) no one had assigned seating.

Since Aquent provides temporary staffing, it’s technically part of the gig economy, which is typically run on contract workers. But all Aquent workers are classified as employees, receiving health insurance and paid sick days. Chuang has a lot of criticisms about the ways that racial bias impacts workers in the broader gig economy, starting with the rating systems that companies like Uber or Airbnb often rely upon.

“If you have the unfortunate incident of being rated by someone who has biases, that affects your future work prospects,” he notes. And since, in the US, gig work is the primary source of income for more than 55% of Black gig workers, the fact that they are typically classified as contractors further exacerbates racial inequities by depriving people of basic protections like health insurance, retirement plans, minimum wage, sick leave, and overtime pay. “The US built its social safety net system around the employer-employee relationship, and as soon as you call them 1099 workers, you circumvent that,” Chuang says, referring to the US employment classification for independent contractors.

When it comes to his own company, Chuang has devoted a lot of thought as to how to create a culture that is anti-racist, and has grown Aquent’s proportion of non-white employees from 25% to 35% over the past 10 years.

In order to create more diversity in the candidate pool, Chuang says, Aquent rates its recruiters on whether they’re meeting diversity targets—a system meant to create more accountability. When it comes to putting people of color in senior leadership positions, Chuang thinks the best move is to promote from within.

“If, however, you get a company that suddenly wakes up and finds itself just needing to take action faster, then there needs to be affirmative action taken to solve the issue now,” he says. “That will not be perceived by the company as well as internal hiring. But that’s the penalty you pay for not working on this for so long.”