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How company leaders can promote racial justice in the workplace

Embrace four principles to turn today’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives into sustained progress.

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of strategy+business.

The late Georgia congressman John Lewis had a well-earned reputation for being uncannily optimistic, courageous, and values-driven. These characteristics were also core to his identity as a leader. Although Lewis was brutally beaten by police during a 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., he said, “I have an obligation to continue to do what I can to help because I am here to continue to tell the story.” His final public statement challenged us to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble” by pursuing nonviolent protest and taking a stand against injustice and in favor of unity and peace. He reminded us that rocking, and even capsizing, the boat — not returning to business as usual — is needed to bring about a world that is more racially just than the one we inherited.

In recent months, many company leaders have embraced good trouble in their organization. In response to the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, and protests over criminal and economic injustice, countless leaders have spoken out publicly. They have donated millions of dollars toward causes focused on ending the harmful effects of systemic racism or sought avenues to provide their company’s goods and services to underserved communities that would benefit from greater economic development. Many have started auditing the systems and processes that create racial inequity in their organizations, pledging to create more opportunities for people from underrepresented groups. They have sponsored town halls and other forums intended to shine a light on race and racism and have encouraged managers and employees to keep these conversations going.

The momentum today is strong, but to realize the progress being promised, the momentum needs to be sustained in the months and years ahead. And that could prove challenging. In addition to having to resist the tendency for business priorities to naturally shift to activities more focused on the bottom line, we are in the midst of a pandemic. As the devastating health and economic realities of the coronavirus continue to sink in, senior leaders will become mired in business contingency planning. With that comes the risk that the spotlight on racial justice will dim and issues of racial inequity will continue to plague their company.

To combat this risk, senior executives need to act now to clearly define their identity as leaders in the fight against injustice, guided by transparent policies, compassionate conversations, bold strategies, and an unwavering commitment. Such action is critical, because the success of any racial equity and inclusion initiative starts at the top. Without executive-level buy-in and support, the initiative will likely fail to achieve its intended objectives. These four principles can provide the basis for that ongoing support.

1. Be transparent about policies and progress

Regardless of the company’s approach, leaders need to be transparent in explaining the potential value their initiatives can have for employees, the organization, and society at large, while also acknowledging the difficult road ahead and the organization’s openness to feedback. For example, executives can create public or internal company statements that communicate clearly and consistently what they understand but also admit what they do not yet know about racial equity and inclusion. In addition, leaders should assign clear roles and responsibilities and determine what should be transparent to whom, and through which mechanisms.

Leaders can create company statements that communicate what they understand but also admit what they do not yet know about racial equity and inclusion.

Those setting policy need to be open about results as their programs roll out. They should sponsor efforts to conduct qualitative and quantitative research in order to understand what effect, if any, their company’s initiatives are having on the workforce and other stakeholders. The outcomes of this research should be visible to both internal and external audiences in order to promote further accountability and legitimize the work being done. And leaders should consider evolving their approach as new information is gained and new opportunities are sought for creating racial equity and inclusion.

Companies also need to create transparency in employees’ day-to-day experiences. For example, leaders can establish diversity councils, working groups, and resource groups that allow employees and managers at all levels to discuss racial equity and inclusion issues facing employees at the firm. And they can develop a repository of resources for employees related to employment policies and legislation in geographies around the world to help them understand their rights and how those might change in different geographic contexts. In doing so, leaders should consider how the company might adopt policies for which there is no legal mandate but that might help the company better manage its workforce and develop its talent.

2. Bring compassion to conversations

Many people feel uncomfortable talking about race in the workplace. They have been conditioned not to mention someone’s race, which has also made the topic virtually taboo at work. However, not talking about race can prevent people from becoming better versions of themselves and effectively responding to concerns of racism, injustice, and discrimination that are taking a psychological and physiological toll on Black employees in particular. Senior leaders should respond compassionately by developing and supporting facilitated safe spaces in which employees can engage in conversations about these issues and their experiences in the company.

Town halls open to all employees are a great resource for creating a shared understanding of wide-ranging issues, including race in the workplace. They also provide an opportunity for senior leaders to set an example — to establish that it is OK to talk about injustice and discrimination openly and honestly, and that those who do will be supported. But smaller spaces specifically targeted toward the concerns of Black and brown employees and their allies will allow for more intimate conversations and more direct action planning.

At the same time, it is clear that even those who share a racial background may have different experiences at work. For example, Black women tend to face greater bias and disparities at work than both Black men and white employees. Therefore, discussions about multiple identities and intersectionality should be incorporated to acknowledge the complex ways that people want to be known and understood and that shape their experiences at work. This also means that it is vital to keep multiple identities and intersectionality in mind when collecting and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data about workforce and talent management.

In addition, although people’s identities are complex and multifaceted, they have different preferences for how they “show up” at work. This means that many people, including leaders, struggle with authenticity. Companies need to recognize that authenticity means different things to different people. Some people want to be their “true selves” across contexts and situations, including in the workplace. Others are happy presenting only their work selves in professional settings. Leaders should help employees understand their perspective on authenticity at work and make sure that the workplace is not creating situations where the expression (or lack thereof) of some identities and experiences is more valued than the expression of others.

Finally, as senior leaders try to increase racial diversity in their organizations, it will be important to question and potentially remove language about “cultural fit” from talent management and performance evaluation processes. Such language can perpetuate racial bias if there isn’t consensus on what constitutes cultural fit or if the criteria used to gauge it are biased (for example, grooming or clothing). Instead, leaders can reinforce the values that they think are important to equity and effectiveness and assess “values alignment.”

3. Adopt bold strategies to fight injustice

Diversity-related work has been devalued in many companies, which has made it difficult to address diversity objectives. But senior leaders can engage in bold new actions to shift this dynamic. For example, leaders can show that this work is valued by making diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals and work actionable, measurable, and evidence-based, elevating DEI work internally and externally, requiring leaders and managers to participate in behavior-based DEI trainings, identifying leaders and nonmanagerial employees willing to serve as DEI sponsors, and treating DEI work as core, rather than peripheral, work. The last item could mean including it as part of performance evaluations, so that it can be factored into decisions involving compensation and promotion.

When it comes to specific bold actions related to race in the workplace, adopting a growth mindset — believing that abilities can be developed — is critical to advancing racial equity and inclusion. Senior leaders should help one another and their employees see the leadership potential in a diverse talent pool. They should base their selection criteria for leadership positions not solely on a fixed set of characteristics such as education and pedigree, but also on more growth- and strengths-oriented criteria such as potential, capacity, and passion for learning. Companies should also commit to employee retention by creating full-cycle talent management approaches that are linked to diversity and race, specifically. However, solutions should be driven by data and aimed at addressing firm-specific challenges and opportunities regarding race.

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Senior leaders should encourage the use of broad and diverse candidate searches, which will require investing in human resource tools and systems designed to de-bias the talent management process. For example, as senior leaders seek to increase racial diversity in their workforce, they can grant diversity leaders more authority in developing diversity recruitment programs that attract candidates from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or groups and professional associations serving underrepresented racial minorities. To do so, senior leaders will need to encourage greater collaboration among diversity leaders and hiring managers; the latter may not understand the rationale for this recruitment strategy.

In terms of the hiring process itself, correcting for bias in job ads, resume screening, and interviewing procedures may be especially helpful for recruiting from a more diverse candidate pool and selecting/hiring a broader variety of employees. Writing inclusive job descriptions, conducting blind resume reviews, conducting structured interviews, and engaging in data-driven hiring are vital to achieving equitable outcomes.

4. Don’t apologize for making a commitment to equity

The leader who takes the actions above is likely to meet with some resistance. Not everyone will agree with the company’s approach to creating racial equity and inclusion. However, employees and customers are looking to senior leaders to speak with conviction about the company’s zero-tolerance policy for racism and injustice. Leaders should be prepared for criticism and should not apologize for taking a stand. This doesn’t mean acting unilaterally or closing themselves off to others’ perspective, but rather being unwavering on committing to the company’s stated goal even when it becomes challenging to do so, which it often will.

Employees and customers are looking to senior leaders to speak with conviction about the company’s zero-tolerance policy for racism and injustice.

In doubling down on the company’s commitment, senior leaders can grant higher authority, power, and status to the diversity leaders who are charged with spearheading these initiatives. The company will also need to invest in progress. It should devote sufficient resources to creating and sponsoring evidence-based training, courses, and events with external subject matter experts (academics and other thought leaders; consultants) and internal experts (those who specialize in diversity). All leaders — including midlevel managers,PDF who are often charged with implementing company strategy — should also be held accountable for attending, organizing, and supporting these events.

Finally, although the company’s perspective on racial equity and inclusion should evolve and become more complex in the global context to account for the needs of different audiences, senior leaders should be careful not to dilute messages related to equity and fairness in the service of messages related to growth opportunities and inclusion. A “both/and” approach can maximize the extent of support for a message that is much more multifaceted, for example: “We are committed to employee and market development that helps employees and organizations learn from racial differences and become more equitable and effective.”

Tell the story

Embracing these four principles will help leaders sustain this moment, when confronting racism and injustice is a priority for many organizations. As John Lewis wrote in Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, “We must accept one central truth and responsibility as participants in a democracy: Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

For senior executives, the message is clear: Don’t allow the momentum to stop or even slow — continue to tell the story. It may be challenging to consistently embrace an identity as an optimistic, courageous, and values-driven leader, but doing so will be critical for advancing any movement toward racial justice in the workplace.

Author profile:

  • Stephanie J. Creary is assistant professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She conducts research on the topics of identity, diversity and inclusion, and relationships across differences.
  • This article is based on a framework first published in Wharton magazine.
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