How to turn corporate antiracism from promise to practice

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Let’s get started.
Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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The typical corporate response to Black Lives Matter protests over the last few weeks has gone something like this: Celebrate Juneteenth. Promise to hire more Black people. Outsource unconscious bias or sensitivity training.

Cultivating an antiracist company culture requires much more than a few gestures. Good intentions and passion aren’t enough. Antiracist diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB) efforts warrant the same strategic focus, rigor, and discipline as key business objectives. Yet, many companies will fall into common traps that have derailed corporate DIB efforts for decades.

As you build or reevaluate your inclusion strategy, here are three considerations that can catalyze sustainable, institutional change in your organization.

1. Approach the work as specific, not singular

As you build the muscle to understand and improve the nuances of the Black employee experience at your organization, you develop the foundational skills for uncovering a diversity of other experiences. You improve proficiency for having uncomfortable but necessary conversations about race, age, and sexuality. You deepen your insights into what employees expect from their workplace experience and where your organization falls short.

You also start to identify where you can draw bridges across lines of difference, because many different oppressions are connected.

At Upwork, the freelancing platform where I work, we’re centering Black employees to cultivate an antiracist culture that, in the end, benefits all employees. Yes, we’ve found that some of the barriers that hold Black talent back are unique to Black employees. There are also many barriers that disproportionately impact Black employees but are shared by other employee populations. So, by centering Black employees, we’re building and scaling strategies and practices that lift up our entire workforce.

2. Resist the urge to recycle popular practices

“Best practice” in diversity most often means a common practice. But popular and impactful are not the same. In fact, they’re often in direct tension. Popular diversity practices (like the Rooney Rule or bias training) often trend because they’re quick, easy, relatively low-cost and feel like progress. But they often fail to benefit—and can even be harmful to—employees or job candidates from marginalized groups.

Resist the temptation to copy and paste other organizations’ programs and policies. Instead, focus your efforts on a broader strategy designed to disrupt the organizational systems and habits that perpetuate your own company’s version of workplace inequity.

Several questions that can inform your tailored strategy include:

  • What are your DIB goals? It’s difficult to rally a workforce around DIB objectives without setting and communicating tangible targets for representation and being transparent about how far you are from them.
  • Where are you falling short? Diversity is arithmetic. Representation equals hires minus fires and voluntary departures over time. Examine longitudinal data to understand if you have more of a hiring issue, or a retention issue. It’s usually one or the other. That’s where you should focus.
  • Why are you falling short? Analyze data through the lens of antiracist process design. You may discover that you need to tighten the inputs to talent decisions. For example, are you clear on what success looks like? Are those criteria predictive or full of proxies? Are they applied consistently? You may also discover that you need more employee accountability for utilizing your processes as designed.
  • What’s all this for? Your response to June’s acute race crisis likely struck a moral tone. Your long-term messaging should reiterate the moral imperative while also articulating what an antiracist culture affords everyone: more accurate and objective talent decisions and the benefit of working in teams that up our game as individual contributors.

Asking foundational questions that force you to examine your data and motivations will help you do what’s impactful, not what’s popular. Upwork’s nearest term goal is for our full-time employee base to reflect the 13% of Americans who are Black—with an emphasis on retaining Black talent. We’ll achieve this goal by increasing the rigor, clarity, and transparency of our performance-management practices, taking tactical steps to increase applicant diversity, and hiring Black talent into tech roles and into management and leadership positions.

Designing and developing robust practices that address your company’s specific shortcomings will help you accelerate the movement of your needle.

3. Balance impact with practicality

Cultivating an antiracist workplace is an exercise in sustainable habit formation. You must actively compel your workforce to adopt behavior changes because there’s no passive way to do this work effectively.

At the same time, diversity fatigue is real. If you bombard employees with too much at once, compete with other large demands for attention, or fail to help employees pace themselves, they can disengage or grow overly defensive.

Relieving the tension between activity and fatigue requires a pragmatic approach to DIB operations. Upwork’s guiding DIB principles demonstrate how we balance impact with practicality:

  • Account for current societal and organizational systems. Efforts that over-index on individual behaviors ignore the counter forces of structures and systems that can’t be overcome by sheer grit alone. Solutions that ignore external context fail to identify the root causes of present-day problems.
  • Tailor to the most specific population and/or talent process possible. Broad efforts (e.g., diversity for all/all underrepresented groups/all people of color) diffuse focus and water down impact by promoting monolithic colorblindness. We leverage data to get as granular and high-impact as possible.
  • Be timely. Our efforts remain agile and responsive to current events within and outside of our workplace.
  • Stay active. There is no passive way to build an inclusive and equitable organization. Our efforts challenge our status quo and comfort.
  • Cohere and accumulate learnings. This is not a one-and-done effort. We prototype, iterate, and connect our efforts as pieces of one grand organizational story.

As a leader, you have the power and responsibility to help write a new story for Black and other marginalized employees. It’s imperative that leaders continue to chart the strategic path forward until our workplaces are safe and fulfilling, and enable all employees to realize their potential. You may not be able to change how the world shows up for your employees, but you can change how your company does.