So your company released a statement aligning itself with the Black community and gave money to a social-justice organization. How do business leaders or other concerned employees now carry the momentum forward into meaningful, transformative action?
In our Quartz at Work (from home) workshop on June 11, on how to build an anti-racist company, Quartz spoke with four experts on diversity, inclusion, and racial justice to get their perspectives and some actionable advice.
Click the image above for the full replay of the workshop, and read on for the big takeaways.
What people can do right now to help create a just society and workplace
Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at Workhuman, says one of the first things to do is to read Frederick Douglass’s famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, which delves into the inconsistencies between the high-minded democratic ideals of the US Constitution and the country’s shameful, horrifying use of slavery.
Pemberton also says it is not enough to sympathize or empathize with the Black Americans protesting against systemic racism and police brutality. Would-be allies must educate themselves and listen closely when Black Americans talk about their experiences. “Don’t seek to justify, defend, and deflect,” he says. “Challenge the assumptions you have.”
Further reading: Pemberton offers more ideas on actions people can take now, in his June 2 blog post “Answering the question, ‘What can I do?'”
Melissa Theiss, vice president of operations and executive sponsor of inclusion and diversity at Quorum, a Washington, DC-based maker of software for the public-affair sector, recommends an exercise done in pairs or small groups called the “Day in the Life notecard,” in which people are asked to take on the perspective of someone from a different demographic, think about what they’ve experienced at the workplace that day, and how the experience might be different if they belonged to a different identity group. “It won’t perfectly replicate what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, but you do come back thinking, ‘Wow, things do need to change,’” she says.
Additional ideas: Quorum offers free resources on diversity and inclusion, geared toward companies with 1 to 500 employees, in exchange for C-level commitments to specific actions for building equitable workplaces. The program, called Path for Progress, also has a public Slack channel for anyone interested in conversations with people at other organizations who are working to further diversity and inclusion efforts.
Why hiring a chief diversity officer is not enough
Nadia Owusu, associate director of the economic-justice group Living Cities and author of the forthcoming memoir Aftershocks, says that in her work leading diversity and inclusion efforts, she’s encountered plenty of resistance. Some white staffers resist talking about white privilege, arguing that it’s divisive or that they feel bullied by such subject matter. Leaders at the organization may respond to such complaints by undermining or ignoring the diversity officer’s efforts and disinviting them from decision-making forums.
“That’s why hiring a chief diversity officer is not sufficient,” says Owusu. “It requires real commitment to seeing diversity and inclusion as an ongoing daily practice, particularly for those at the top.”
Further reading: Owusu’s Exit Interviews column in Catapult focuses on the experiences of women of color in the workplace. In January, she explained why “hiring a chief diversity officer won’t fix your racist company culture.”
Diversity officers need resources, in terms of both people and money, to help shepherd change, Pemberton adds. “Hiring a chief diversity officer with no team and no budget is like an ice cream cone with no ice cream in it … You’re not going to achieve any real progress.”
How to respond to the urgency people feel about taking anti-racist action right now
Lyndon Taylor, the head of Heidrick & Struggles‘ global diversity and inclusion practice and partner-in-charge of the firm’s Chicago office, says leaders can, and should, start communicating their priorities with regards to diversity and inclusion right away. But implementing transformational change at a company takes time.
The organizations that have been most successful with diversity and inclusion take care to define what inclusion looks like at their workplace, he says. They understand why it’s linked to their business imperatives, and they plan how they will measure their progress. “What’s measured gets done,” he says.
Further reading: On April 30, Heidrick released the results of a global survey on diversity and inclusion, based on the perspectives of executives from more than 400 companies in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, Spain, the UK, and US.
On whether there’s really a pipeline problem when it comes to hiring people of color
Workhuman’s Pemberton says data show that the proportion of Black and Latino people in STEM fields are in decline, and there are plenty of other industries where people of color are underrepresented. But that’s no excuse for companies to give up. Instead, they should consider taking steps like recruiting at historically black colleges and universities and figuring out how to cast wider nets.
He also adds: “Recruiting the talent you already have is the most effective strategy.” If companies don’t invest in developing people of color who are already on staff, they’ll lose them. “You have to look at how to improve who’s progressing in the organization,” he says, and understand that if women and people of color aren’t advancing, “it’s not a reflection of talent,” but of where the organization puts its focus.
Further reading: Five questions everyone should be asking about their company’s hiring process (✦ Quartz membership exclusive)
On how to move forward with diversity committees and other initiatives without overburdening people of color
It’s no doubt important that people from a range of different backgrounds be involved in such initiatives—which risks overburdening them, particularly when their ranks within the organization are relatively small to begin with. But drawing on the title of a popular gospel song, Heidrick’s Taylor says that for many Black employees, the answer when it comes to serving on committees will be “I’m not tired yet.”
“These individuals want to be helpful,” he says. “We’ve asked to be heard and have our voices included. Now we have to actively participate in change.”
Further reading: How to have more productive conversations about race in the workplace (Quartz at Work)
Other takeaways, in brief
- There are few quick fixes in the fight against structural racism. Rather than fixate on policies designed to respond to this moment, all company policies should be examined through the lens of who they benefit, who they harm, and how they might be changed to be more equitable.
- Socioeconomic class is intertwined with issues of race and racism. It should be a part of the diversity and inclusion conversations.
- “Yellow flag” programs can help put a stop to microaggressions and subtle acts of exclusion. The offense in question may not be fireable, but flagging unacceptable behaviors as they happen can help eliminate them, Quorum’s Theiss notes.
- Be on the lookout for business language with racist history. The word “grandfathered” is derived from Jim Crow laws; say “legacy” instead.
- Small companies, even those without major growth plans, can be part of the anti-racist movement, too. Start a book club, reevaluate policies as they may impact future workers, diversify suppliers, and consider customer inclusivity.
For more Quartz at Work coverage on diversity and inclusion topics, visit our Power in Progress obsession.