6 Impactful Steps Companies Can Take to Fight Racial Injustice and Foster Inclusion at Work

August 18, 2020

Black woman sitting at a table

As protests against racial inequality continue across the U.S. and beyond, many companies are recognizing that they need to do more to build truly equitable hiring practices and inclusive workplaces.

In a recent episode of LinkedIn’s Talk to the Brand webinar series, Ronnie Dickerson Stewart, chief diversity officer at Publicis Groupe, John Graham Jr., senior manager of global employer brand and recruitment marketing at Amgen, and Tanya Odom, a global consultant on diversity and human rights, shared some of the most impactful steps they believe companies can take. 

“Lasting and sustainable change is going to be dependent on a structured approach and a committed approach to longevity,” John says. “The hope right now in the Black community is that this is going to last past the moment of headlines — that we can put in accountability measures, put in transparency measures, and also really get to the root of toxicity in corporate cultures that have not enabled these moments to be able to come to fruition [before].”

Here are six short- and long-term steps these experts recommend taking to help eliminate racial injustice in the workplace, support Black employees and candidates, and foster true inclusion and belonging.

1. Be responsive to what’s happening, but not reactionary 

For John, one of the most important things companies must do right now is resist the urge to look for quick fixes, since these may ultimately do more harm than good.

“The rush to action results in tokenism,” he says, “and results in improperly positioned statements that don’t fully address the undercurrent — addressing the symptom, but not the root cause.”

“It’s not just a ‘moment,’” Ronnie adds. Thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement as such implies it will be fleeting, which is antithetical to creating lasting change. 

Taking small steps like building more diverse candidate slates can be helpful, but they should be part of a much bigger strategy — otherwise, they won’t really move the needle. As Tanya points out, boardrooms have remained largely homogeneous even as companies have pushed for greater diversity in the workplace in recent years.

“We have to encourage organizations to do the deep-dive this time,” she says. “They have to look at all levels of the organization.”

That’s not to say that companies should remain silent until they have a fully formed strategy in place. But there’s a difference between being reactionary and being responsive. Acknowledging what’s happening and that your organization is committed to doing better can be reassuring to employees, so long as these statements are followed up by tangible actions down the line. 

“Start with, ‘I’m listening,’” John says. “Start with, ‘We hear you.’ Start with, ‘We see you.’”

2. Give Black employees time and space to unplug and decompress 

While many of the conversations that are happening at companies and in the wider world right now are incredibly important, they can also be draining for Black employees and leaders. As a result, John recalls that one employee told him recently that he’d never been more aware of his own Blackness. 

“There’s a lot that comes with that,” John says. “Not only the stress and pressure that are already baked in, but then you add in the heightened sensitivity, awareness, and concern that’s coming from the white community.” 

On top of this, many Black parents are faced with difficult questions from their young children, like why they’re seeing protestors on the street and what happened to George Floyd. And with many still working from home as a result of the coronavirus, which has disproportionately impacted Black communities, achieving a healthy work-life balance is more challenging than ever.

“Our workspaces have walked into our most intimate spaces,” Ronnie says, “and so the ability to have that barrier is more challenging right now.”

Giving Black employees time and space to decompress is critical. That might mean providing more flexibility around a person’s schedule or offering time off for self-care if people need it. Checking in regularly is also important, so long as it doesn’t become overwhelming. 

3. For non-Black employees, it’s important to take time to educate yourself, rather than leaning on Black coworkers to teach you

Coming from the world of biotech, John firmly believes that companies should approach tackling racial injustice the same way scientists approach developing life-saving medicines and cures — by ensuring they truly understand the problem before looking for a solution.

“What I’ve been instilling and encouraging is education before activation,” he says. “There’s a gap in knowledge, awareness, and understanding among particular subsets of our corporate communities that requires intense study, self-inspection, reflection, and awareness. It’s akin to coming out of the Matrix and seeing the world around you differently before trying to act.”

While education is essential, Tanya worries that leaders and employees alike may over-rely on their Black coworkers, Black employee resource groups (ERGs), and chief diversity offers to fill in the gaps in their knowledge — like asking them to explain the significance of Juneteenth. Even if these questions come from a place of genuine curiosity and openness to learning, it can quickly become overwhelming for people to constantly field these requests in addition to their normal work.

Instead, Tanya says leaders and managers should take the time to explore the wealth of resources online and encourage employees to similarly educate themselves before turning to someone else.

“The onus of responsibility can’t only be on the Black employees,” she says. “It really has to be an organization-wide effort.”

4. Listen to the experiences of Black employees and create opportunities to amplify and truly hear their voices

While over-relying on Black employees to educate others is not fair, providing a platform for them to share their own stories if they want to can be powerful for everyone involved. 

“This is an unprecedented time, especially to be Black in corporate America,” John says. “I’m reminded of the term ‘bringing your whole self to work.’ I think it’s only been a month and a half for Black people in corporate America to finally be able to do that.” 

Over the past month, John has been part of countless conversations in which Black employees have openly shared their personal and professional experiences of racial injustice. These are stories that people may have always wanted to tell, but it’s only recently that they’ve felt able to do so.

“The difference now,” John says, “is the concern, compassion, and commitment coming from the white community that’s enabling us to have the actual discussion that we’ve avoided in most cases by unwritten rule or policy — that this is something you don’t discuss.”

Encouraging this kind of open, honest discussion can not only help Black employees feel seen, but can be a real eye-opener for their coworkers. Hearing stories on the news is one thing, but learning that discrimination has personally affected a co-worker brings the problem much closer to home and helps foster commitment to change. 

“Once you hear it, once you see it, you can’t unhear it and unsee it,” Tanya says. “These are real lived experiences that people are elevating… The first part is providing a space where you can both listen, understand, and receive that.” 

After empowering Black employees to share their stories if they choose to, consider opening the floor to everyone. While white voices certainly shouldn’t dominate the conversation, John has found that having a two-way conversation can create opportunities for growth.

“What I’ve found to be most impactful and probably most unique,” he says, “was hearing white counterparts sharing their experiences of either witting or unwitting participation in systemic racism or racist behaviors that, based on geography or time, they didn’t see as such [until now].” 

5. Identify areas of toxicity in your workplace, including microaggressions that might not be covered by official policies

As you start having deeper conversations with Black employees, pay close attention to details about times they’ve felt marginalized at your organization. This can help you identify specific aspects of the company and the culture that are failing them.

“Sometimes,” Tanya says, “if we talk to people internally in our organizations — to Black employees, to other employees who have felt historically marginalized — we would see little things that could be fixed that maybe the outside world wouldn’t even know.”

One aspect of the Black employee experience that Tanya says more companies are realizing they need to address concerns microaggressions. These are everyday interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups. They can be subtle, intentional, and sometimes unentional. For example, Tanya describes microaggressions as constant questioning of a person and their credentials, whether it’s being asked whether they actually work at the company or if they have a college degree. 

“These are the things we experience on a daily basis but don’t have any recourse for,” John elaborates. “There’s no policy in a corporate code of conduct that addresses microaggressions… But those daily dismissive, dehumanizing statements, the lack of inclusion, being the only [Black person] in a meeting… cases of mistaken identity, code-switching, [and] the suppression of ethnicity still remain.”

While Black employees may have raised these issues before, companies might previously have left them unaddressed — either because they didn’t see them or because they simply didn’t know what to do about them. The experts are hopeful that won’t happen this time. 

“I see more of a willingness to listen to those microaggressions and points of pain that we’ve heard for so long, and to really evaluate where might some of those breakdowns be in structures that don’t treat everyone the same,” Tanya says. “It’s not if they’re there — it’s where are they, and how do we address them in the best way we can?”

John also recommends digging into staff relations complaints and issues that have been brought up by Black talent during the hiring process. 

“That will give you the greatest data points as to where to start, where to shine a light, where to direct training,” he says.

6. Take steps to effectively track the impact of your actions and create an accountability framework

There’s an old saying that you can’t improve what you don’t measure. Ronnie cautions companies not to take any actions before first figuring out how they’re going to measure their impact and track their progress toward their goals. 

“If you can’t measure it or it’s not something you want to measure,” she says, “really dive into why that is to understand if what you’re doing is really helpful.”

Consistently measuring impact and sharing updates on what you’re doing can instill a sense of trust in employees, giving them confidence that you’re committed to walking the walk. This will help keep your leadership team accountable to its goals. But it’s also vital to create accountability systems at all levels of the organization to ensure that real cultural transformation takes place and unacceptable behavior is stamped out.

“Behavior change only happens with consequence or incentive,” John says. “The reality is, if it impacts your bonus, you’re going to think twice about it. If it impacts your employment, you’ll definitely think twice about it.”

For example, four years ago Salesforce introduced a monthly scorecard that is sent to leaders who have more than 500 reports or have a “large ability” to hire.“With the scorecards,” says Molly Ford, the senior director of equality programs, “we’re using data to speak to executives in a language they understand.”

Final thoughts

The natural response to injustice is to want to make it stop as fast as possible. But in order to be successful, companies must first accept there are no fast solutions to a problem so systemically and deeply ingrained in our society.

“This is not a 450-year-old problem that we’re going to solve by the end of Q3,” John says. “So it’s going to require intense commitment, it’s going to require the expectation of change and holding people to that standard, and it’s going to mean being prepared for backlash. These kinds of systems don’t willingly go away just because we have a coalescence of good feelings.”

In the short-term, focus on empathy and education. This will allow you to approach change from a foundation of understanding, making it more likely to stick.

“This is an inflection point,” Ronnie says. “We each have information, which means we then have an informed choice for how we navigate it. That’s what this next period of time will show.”

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