To Improve Workplace Diversity, Undo Workplace Racism
I’ve participated in many panels on diversity and inclusion. I will participate in many more, and gladly. But D&I — as we tend to call it — brings with it some risks: it mutes the tragic reality that the reason we can’t improve D&I is the same reason the country is in upheaval right now. Recruiting, Hiring, Promotions and Development all suffer from the same national virus — the other virus — and that’s racism.
I’m calling us out on this, because that’s the way to fix it. We need to fix it, and that means being more direct. The truth is, you’re not going to see a major HR conference with a presentation on “Fixing Racist Hiring Practices.” You’re not going to see too many posts by thought leaders on exactly why bias is so hard to undo. We tend to filter everything through an aspirational lens. We don’t want to admit the ugly — things are stressful enough, and it’s possible that we’re afraid the delicate balance of mission and culture and business would be completely thrown for a loop if we started pulling back the veil.
So it’s time to lean into your work culture and your company values right now, not just your business. Commit to the hard work now. If there’s a business case to be made for diversity and inclusion — and there is, then there’s also a business case for confronting racism within your doors right now. If you don’t, you won’t be able to successfully conquer bias or diversify your workforce. Socially, culturally and likely business-wise, you’ll be left behind.
Investigate and Acknowledge
The first step to solving a problem is to admit you have a problem. This isn’t easy. One way is simply to close your eyes and imagine a workplace, with employees doing what employees do: gathering, working, talking, collaborating, asking questions, having conversations. Now ask yourself: What’s the prevailing skin tone? What does a generic employee look like to you? Don’t gloss over the answer.
You can extend this exercise out to managers and then into the workplace by creating the means for people to anonymously record their answers. Use the power of data here to report the findings, without pointing any fingers. Get involved in a VR-powered program in which employees can step into each other’s experience and raise their awareness of what it means to be a person of color in the workplace. Uncover all the microaggressions that may take place, the moments of assumption and intolerance. Inventory the behaviors in the workplace as if you’re inventorying any tangible holdings in your organization. Then, commit to doing more, and hold the entire workplace accountable.
The fact that we’re seeing a host of leaders stepping down or shifting gears is a good thing. It’s happening fast, particularly online and in the media. But they’re not always resigning in honor. Of those are: Reddit’s cofounder Alexis Ohanian resigned from the board of directors and called on the company to replace him with a black candidate. Refinery29’s Co-founder and Christene Barberich is resigning from her role as Global editor-in-Chief, ““to help diversify our leadership in editorial and ensure this brand and the people it touches can spark a new defining chapter.”
Of those who aren’t: The NYTimes’ opinion editor James Bennett resigned after he ran an inflammatory Op-Ed by Senator Tom Cotton that wasn’t vetted thoroughly. Publisher A.G. Sulzberger aptly blamed a “significant breakdown” in the Times’ usual editing process, showing how a leader should react. Canadian Pay2Day CEO Wesley Barker resigned after sending a tone-deaf letter instructing employees not to support Black Lives Matter. Damage control came in the form of the president and co-founder, who said, essentially, Barker’s letter isn’t what the firm stands for. Public pressure is consumer pressure; consumer pressure is business pressure. We’re in a recession, officially. No organization has the luxury to throw consumers away.
Take a Stand
There are plenty of leaders that are taking a stand, and it’s a start. Kudos to Tim Cook, Jamie Dimon, and Larry Fink — all CEOS of major public companies that are predominantly white and male, but all saying they know they have to do more. So has Nike’s CEO John Donahoe — and then pledged $40 million to help black communities over the next four years. The change that actually happens will say a lot about the strength (and integrity) of leadership; the change that doesn’t will reveal the weakness. But all of these execs have pointed at their own organizations and admitted there’s a problem, and are all working to create a committed response.
But we still need more POC on boards and in leadership roles. We need more POC making the key decisions that undo a long history wrought by those in power. There are all of four black male CEOs and zero black women CEOs in Fortune 500s. Of the men, their responses to the murder of George Floyd have been revelatory. Merck’s CEO Ken Frazier said that as an African American man, he could have been Floyd: “This African American man, who could be me or any other African American man, is being treated as less than human.” That is not the way CEOs tend to talk. And maybe that’s a problem as well.
Improve Psychological Safety
My firm puts out a weekly newsletter, and we often include a survey on a current issue facing the world of work. Last week we asked two simple questions: Have you ever experienced racism in your workplace? Have you ever reported racism in your workplace? Subscribers jumped on it, and the answers were stunning. 39.7 percent reported experiencing racism first hand, and 23.8 percent said they had witnessed racism directed at a coworker. But here’s the heartbreaker: only 4.8 percent reported an instance of racism in their workplace.
How can you make it safer for employees to report a perceived injustice without fear of reprisal? How can you take down the barriers for reporting? Check your policies on handling racial harassment; then check your records. What’s the outcome most of the time? And what happens to the person who reported it? Are we more concerned with the prospect of a repeat claimant than concerned with what they’re reporting? We talk about listening a lot in HR these days. Great opportunity, right here.
Stop Blaming the Equipment
Systemic racism in the workplace — whether it’s harassment, lack of representation or the inability to promote employees of color isn’t the fault of technology. Yes, artificial intelligence can help in recruiting and hiring as it can screen out bias if programmed to do so. But we are using AI in recruiting and hiring, and it is not overcoming the problem.
Google’s 2018–2019 diversity report revealed that despite efforts, black hires saw a tiny increase — from 4.8 to 5.5 percent. Yet one of Google’s most highly touted innovations is an AI tool for hiring. And in 2018, 67 percent of hiring managers and recruiters in LinkedIn’s Global Recruiting Trends survey said AI was saving them time in the hiring process. At the root of this disconnect is the assumption that AI will magically override bias. But if the bias is built into the AI, it won’t. It starts with the human decisions that set AI on its course, not the technology.
An NPR report looked at labor department statistics and found the unemployment rate for blacks has skyrocketed — from its lowest point, 5.8 percent, in February, to three times as much, 16.8 percent, in May. We are still in the grips of a pandemic, which has hit people of color disproportionately harder than it’s hit whites. And as I write this, the funeral for George Floyd is wrapping up, with calls from his family to continue to rally and push for justice. People are still marching, and there are no plans to stop.
The imbalances of the country are reflected, and exacerbated, in the imbalances in the workforce. Calling out racism is a necessary step in the national conversation just as it is in the business conversation. And if we can commit to righting the wrongs in our own organizations, if we can acknowledge there’s a deeper problem than filling a quota or making a gesture, then we will truly be setting a course for a better future of work.