How can organizations respond to racial injustice in humility and action in a sustainable way?
By Olivia Peterson
During the height of the national pain following George Floyd’s death in May 2020, I came across an article written by Shenequa Golding titled “Maintaining Professionalism in the Age of Black Death Is … A Lot.” While the article is an opinion piece, it articulated what I struggled to put into words as a Black-biracial woman. It is a constant battle to separate world events from work obligations, particularly when these “world events” have a direct impact on my life and the lives of the people I know and love.
I shared the article with coworkers in hopes of shedding light on how these tragic news stories are part of everyday life for some. I also wanted there to be recognition that I’m not the only one in pain, and that other Black coworkers are struggling with similar battles and need deep and immediate support. To this day I am grateful for the positive reception from my colleagues along with the actions of Medecision, the parent company to Aveus. My coworkers responded in empathy and support, and my organization in concern and action. It was inspiring. And yet it made me wonder: How could organizations do this—respond to racial injustice in humility and action—sustainably?
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DE&I) is not a new term within the professional world. However, how we see diversity efforts applied and executed within organizations is new. And, of course, with any new implementation comes growing pains. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are important components to consider when establishing or improving DE&I efforts.
5 Steps to Improving DE&I Efforts
1. Start with employees. While this may be considered an obvious step, we see many organizations that lack a true understanding of their employees’ needs. Understanding employees goes beyond a survey. It is vital to create a safe space for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) to share their opinions, concerns and needs when it comes to individual and team success within an organization. It should be noted that this is not a one-and-done conversation. As employees learn to trust that their words are being heard and considered, they will continue to reveal ways in which the organization can support them.
Consider: Organize a focus group for BIPOC employees with the goal of understanding how current events impact them. How is their mental health? What would help them feel supported in the current environment both personally and professionally? (It is important to note that these conversations are ideally managed by URM (underrepresented minority) leaders. If this is lacking in your organization, there is an immediate opportunity here to 1) start hiring and promoting BIPOC and 2) consider working with an external DE&I partner to manage the conversation.)
2. Develop an action plan. Once you receive feedback from your employees, do something with it. Develop a strategic plan to address DE&I issues and opportunities. These plans can be executed in partnership with external experts who can provide educated feedback or with internal BOLD leaders who are dedicated to improving URM diversity efforts within your organization.
Consider: Use employee feedback as a starting base. Explore launching a team to evaluate hiring efforts, incentive/reward programs, training opportunities, and employee advancement programs. If, after hearing from employees and/or conducting an audit, an organization concludes that no additional work is needed, something has been missed. The journey to equity is never done and requires consistent work and reinforcement.
3. Communicate the plan. It is vital to not only be transparent with a strategic plan, but to also make sure that leaders understand the importance of the actions and are just as committed to seeing it through. In the words of Jim Collins, it is at this point leaders at all levels should determine who is on or off the bus (Good to Great). While this may seem harsh, racism still exists and it takes a significant amount of effort to not only recognize it, but also break it down to build greater, equitable opportunities for non-white employees.
Consider: Companies, regardless of their knowledge, play an integral role in either propping up or breaking down systemic racism. As organizations strategize their DE&I efforts, there is opportunity to not only send an internal message from the top down across employees, but also to start communicating the commitment externally to stakeholders. For example, Ben & Jerry’s not only created a new ice cream flavor called “Justice ReMix’d” with part of the proceeds going toward supporting criminal justice reform, but they also regularly post blogs on their corporate website addressing racial injustice, prison reform and dismantling systemic racism. This is an example of BOLD leaders making their values known and prioritizing people over profits. Organizations need to understand the role they play and make their efforts to confront and overcome implicit bias known internally and externally.
4. Execute the plan. Easier said than done. As often happens to any new initiative, DE&I efforts can begin to slow and/or drop off the radar completely. Hold organizations/teams accountable by ensuring that metrics are in place to measure and monitor progress. Additionally, there is no harm in piloting programs to determine if they will work before scaling to a broader employee base. Many firms get trapped in the all-or-nothing thought process. Projects can always be scaled to fit company resources.
Consider: Establishing metrics can not only help organizations measure internal employee impact, but also product offering impact. As companies improve their diversity efforts, teams begin to find solutions that account for differing market needs. In an article published by Medecision titled “Is Healthcare Really a ‘Black and White’ Issue?” it highlights various areas where racial disparities exist within the health care industry. Who better to address those issues than the people hurting from them? How are teams layering in the voice of the customer with products? The key takeaway here is that it involves people of all different persuasions and dimensions to disrupt your internal practices and external offerings.
5. Regularly touch base. Your BIPOC employees are hurting. This is not to say that they haven’t struggled in the past, but 2020, and now 2021 with the recent Capitol siege led by white nationalists & Neo-Nazis, has been especially difficult. Your employees of color need a safe space to regularly touch base with fellow workers or may need a day or two for mental health support. Giving them the opportunity to access colleagues and/or focus on mental health promotes engagement and loyalty.
Consider: The true call to action here is one of empathy. While allowing a safe place for employees of color to engage may make leaders feel uncomfortable (I’ve even heard the words “segregating” thrown around), consider the fact that many Black leaders feel inauthentic at work and feel they have very few people to connect with. A result of conforming to predominantly white work environments (see this article on code switching), Black workers feel less supported and engaged at their jobs than other non-Black peers [HBR, Toward a Racially Just Workplace. 2018]. Providing spaces and/or opportunities for BIPOC to engage or find needed mental refuge allows workers to feel supported and cared for by their organization.
DE&I efforts need to be a priority for organizations. I’ve heard leaders express that they are nervous a shift in focus will be perceived as a response to the “current environment” and that their actions will appear disingenuous. My response to that is—it doesn’t matter (of course, this assumes there is a sustainable and continued focus that is genuine in nature). Regardless of the reason for implementing or improving DE&I efforts, there should be a higher value placed on employee needs, not business perception. Doing something is better than doing nothing.
Your BIPOC employees are struggling and need their employers to understand that while the organization cannot control the world, they can control the role they play in building a world that works toward acceptance, safety, and equity. Organizations have the power to redefine what it means to be an “equal opportunity employer.” Disrupt the process of waiting for change to happen. Be the BOLD leader of change and recognize that this is a journey with no end date. DE&I efforts should be ingrained into the fabric of an organization not because it makes a good business case, but because there is a case for humanity in our business.