According to a recent Glassdoor survey, 42 percent of U.S. workers have witnessed or experienced racism at work. Whether you are aware of it or not, racial, ethnic and cultural barriers likely exist at your organization and within your teams. These obstacles are often deeply seated, unconscious and buried under the surface of the organizational culture.
It’s hard, often uncomfortable work bringing these issues into the light and dismantling unconscious biases, but it’s work that is well worth the effort. In addition to simply being the right thing to do, achieving greater racial equity has significant business implications—diverse companies score higher when it comes to innovation, objectivity and earnings.
Companies often attempt to address these issues through policies and procedures that are compliant with legal requirements. “These efforts, though well intended, only scratch the surface in creating a workforce that truly embraces equality and cultural competency,” Dr. Peter James, president of HCG Consulting Services said. “Racism is often the underlying or systematic issue that results from a lack of diversity and inclusion. Managing the core racial issues are the heart of the solution.”
A Deep Problem Requires Deep Introspection
For leaders who wish to deeply tackle racism in the workplace, James suggests starting by considering the following questions:
1. What is it costing your company to avoid anti-racism initiatives and increased cultural competency?
Again, the benefits of racial equality and diversity in the workplace are significant. Organizational outcomes, financial performance, employee retention, creativity and decision-making are all improved with more diverse work groups.
Recent events also demonstrate the need to address the public relations, HR and legal risks associated with not appropriately addressing racial equality. Social media is forcing organizations to perform damage control efforts when their employees behave inappropriately in public, even outside of work.
All that said, organizations are at a critical juncture where they must begin to make the shift, not because there is a strong business case behind it, but because they have an ethical and moral obligation to create an equitable and fair culture.
“It must start with each of us exploring how our own behavior contributes to the racial cultures.” Amy Shin, former CEO of the Health Plan of San Joaquin, said. “Diversity is the wrong word and it’s even more than inclusivity. It is about finding ways to both accept and celebrate our differences, our unique stories. We achieve a higher level of cultural and linguistic competency when we search our own experience and then seek to value that of others.”
2. Does your leadership diversity reflect your employees and/or customers?
Diversity allows for more representation of various races/ethnicities in your organization and inclusion ensures an organization provides equal access and opportunities and behaves in a way that elevates all individuals. Throughout your organization, your employee base, leadership, board of directors and community participation should all reflect the overall demographics of your customers and workforce.
Many companies fall short here. In 2019 and 2020, less than 1 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs were Black, and only 2 percent were Latino. In 2018, minority leaders made up only 16 percent of Board of Director seats of Fortune 500 companies. While these numbers are improving, the population at large is still underrepresented—the corporate world as a whole has a long way to go.
Janet Nix, Chief Human Resources Officer for Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP), offered some tips. IEHP regularly reviews their organizational data to ensure alignment and inclusion at various levels throughout the organization. “We must be intentional about people,” Nix said. “While much of what we do is organic within our culture, we are also very purposeful about creating space for safe conversations about racial equality and ensuring growth opportunities for everyone who works with us.”
3. What are your employees of color experiencing that you are unaware of? Might your leaders be unconsciously contributing to a culture of bias?
Leaders need to be able to understand what employees are experiencing in the workplace and the nuances of those experiences. It’s also up to leaders to create a safe space for conversations and to actively engage the workforce in them. Without an invitation for discussion, many employees will remain silent about what they are seeing and feeling.
“Leaders do not need to have all the answers, but they do need to promote real conversations around race and ethnicity,” James said. Seek out opportunities to develop skills in communicating and interacting across cultures. Empathize with team members, ask about the issues that are important to them and how the company and culture can provide better support.
Jorge Amaya, former Director of Family Services at Flatiron Habitat for Humanity and longtime Colorado activist, shared, "The important element of any anti-racism effort is to create an environment where individuals have the courage to speak up and lead the change. Everyone needs to be able to chime in when they see racist behaviors and speak up as advocates."
In order to keep a pulse on what employees in the organization are experiencing, at IEHP, Nix shared that they host weekly phone calls where employees can participate and share challenges or concerns. This provides a venue for equity and racial issues to surface in a confidential way.
4. What does your data tell you about diversity or lack thereof in your organization?
Employee and customer data can reveal a lot about where an organization can improve its racial equity.
When reviewing employee data, look at whether there’s a noticeable gender and/or race compensation gap in your company. What is the demographic make-up of employees and leaders? Are there messages in employee engagement surveys that have gone unheard?
Employees in customer-facing positions often experience micro- or macro-aggressions—they might feel they have to tolerate racial slurs from customers, for instance. How companies respond to these issues speaks volumes about their commitment to racial equity. Do they take action and refuse these customers? Although these issues often go unreported to leaders, they may show up in employee complaints or survey data.
The demographic make-up of customer data can also be informative, as can customer reviews. What do they say about their experience that informs workplace discussions around race?
Ultimately, look at your data through a lens that allows you to see racial diversity. Unconscious bias surfaces in many of an organization’s processes and culture. Reviewing data also means critically evaluating these processes, including recruitment, interviewing and performance management. Ensure you are asking the right questions of your key stakeholder groups to inform your strategies to become a culturally competent and racially equitable organization.
5. What are you already doing to promote cultural and racial inclusion and diversity? What more could be done?
Most companies are already engaged in diversity and inclusion efforts at some level. Critically assessing where you are excelling can help determine what is working and what needs to be elevated. Rarely is there an organization that could not do more to support racial equality. Keep stepping up your efforts. Envision for yourself and your team what your workplace culture could be if you were willing to step outside your comfort zone and do things differently.
Change does not happen without a desire for something different. It is driven from leadership and requires continuous assessment, commitment and improvement. Being aware of your own beliefs and perspectives is the first step.