3 Things I Hope Will Change for People of Color in the Workplace

What needs to be done and how it can be done for those who genuinely want racial equality in the workplace

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Image: www.nappy.co
Image: www.nappy.co

We can all be part of bringing the racial equality we wish to see in the world. 

In July 2020, the city council of Minneapolis, Minnesota officially declared racism a public health emergency, stating, “for Minneapolis to be a place where everyone can live and thrive, we must recognize this crisis for what it is and approach policy making with the urgency it deserves.” 

If we replace the word “Minneapolis” with your company name, are policies with action to address racial inequality being put in place with any sense of urgency?  

George Floyd’s death ignited people in a powerful way; addressing the systematic racism and inequality that has plagued society for decades. With the pandemic giving us all time to reflect and reset, we have an unprecedented opportunity to make lasting changes and correct the racial inequality in places of employment. I recently moderated the Sustainable Brands ‘Unpacking Racial Justice and Equity in Business’ virtual conference and the participating companies gave wonderful insight into the great work they are doing to bring long-term change. 

Racial discrimination is exercised in many ways.

The physical knee placed on George Floyd’s neck ultimately took his life. Similarly, an age-old method of subjugation is the economic and opportunity “knee” placed on the necks of Black people and other communities of color. This discrimination brings financial hardship, challenges, and affects both mental health and physical well being. Daniel H. Gillison, Jr., CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), released a statement stating, “The effect of racism and racial trauma on mental health is real and cannot be ignored.”

The symbolic gestures of corporate donations and statements proclaiming solidarity for change is encouraging but it’s not enough and many companies need to do more. I’ve had a number of conversations illustrating that, despite all the positive gestures aimed at addressing workplace and professional inequality, the change is tokenistic and some companies are giving a false impression. Could it be that just as “greenwashing” (companies pretending to be eco friendly) became a trend, are we facing an emergence of racial equality washing? Even before the demonstrations, I had co-workers of color called to sit in on meetings that were out of their expertise and were only invited to attend purely for optics, so that their company could “appear” to be diverse when convenient. 

Before we can jump to solutions to address racial issues within places of employment, we must take a closer look at the problems and the wider effects.There are many ways Black people and other communities of color experience the economic and opportunity knee during the course of their employment. The “Knee On The Neck” and Employment

3 Things that Need to Change with Urgency

1. The Practice of “Give Them Less”
In 2019, advocacy organization The Female Quotient issued the ‘Modern Guide to Equality’ that found, “for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men, Black women earned 63 cents, Native American women earned 57 cents, and Latina women earned 54 cents.”
Payscale.com found Black men have the “largest uncontrolled pay gap relative to White men,” earning 87 cents for every dollar a white man earns. However, another study by the Center for American Progress found Black men earned 70.2 cents for every dollar earned by white men.

When it came to employer-provided benefits, in 2018 the Center for American Progress found that 55.4% of African Americans had private health insurance, compared to 74.8% of white Americans. Concerning  retirement, Black men are 14% less likely to have a retirement plan via their employer than white workers.

These reports and statistics give useful insight. However, Black employees also experience being terminated within months, weeks or even days of being eligible for their retirement package or annual bonus. Unfortunately, finding specific reports to give data and statistics on these is challenging.

2.        The Extra Workload
“You have to work twice as hard for half as much.” I first heard this from a Black HR professional. 

Burnout is a reality, and an analysis by the Center for Talent Innovation found approximately 65% of Black people studied “said they have to work harder to advance, compared with only 16% of white employees.” The Atlantic reported in 2017 that despite African Americans working more every year, earnings gaps were not improving.  

Providing specific statistics or data on the heavier workload can be difficult to prove, as it can be disguised in a multitude of ways. For example, designating work from another team or co-worker, withholding resources to meet the volume of work and removing support staff or budgets that were once allocated. 

Marilyn Booker, former Diversity officer at Morgan Stanley, is suing the financial firm, alleging racial bias. She also claims that over time the company cut her budget by 71%, and when she was fired, they offered to send out a note saying she’d “decided to leave the firm and pursue other opportunities.” Ms Booker was let go by Morgan Stanley after 16 years of service.

At another company (unnamed), a Black mid-ranking banker went public, saying he worked 100 hour weeks and as a junior, he had to work harder than others just to achieve recognition.

A study backs up the extra workload Black people face, finding “ethnic minority candidates have to work harder to get ahead. And even when they prove themselves more competent than white counterparts, they’re still held back.” It could be claimed more training is required. However, those experiencing this know when they have a higher workload than others.

3.  Unfair Treatment in the Workplace
Unfair treatment in the workplace manifests itself in many ways, such as keeping the Black employee in the same role or pay grade for years with no progression, to having them report into someone with less experience, less education or no industry knowledge. I’ve certainly experienced this more than once.

In December 2019,  The Center for Talent Innovation found Black professionals are more likely to encounter prejudice and microaggressions than any other racial or ethnic group in the workplace, and are less likely than white employees to have access to senior leaders. We also face a lack of support from managers, and experience a cycle of exclusion that keeps us from the C-suite.

CBS News highlighted from the study that “Black people account for about 12% of the U.S. population, but occupy only 3.2% of the senior leadership roles at large companies and just 0.8% of all Fortune 500 CEO positions.”

Experiencing this, hearing about it or being exposed to it in any way can affect a person’s mental wellbeing. And when you factor in the economic impact which affects the ability to build generational wealth, make investments, or invest in education. The mental weight of this is compounded knowing the challenges, plus knowing one has to help him/herself and their family to get ahead.

      4 Ways to End Workplace Racial Discrimination and Fix Inequality.

To reiterate what I’ve said earlier, corporate donations and statements supporting racial solidarity for change are significant, yet  it pales into insignificance when compared to what’s happening on a daily basis to some Black employees. What I’ve outlined here is only the tip of the iceberg. 

We’ve already had decades of equality, diversity and inclusion programs, workshops, talks, training courses, privilege walks, panels, and consultants. Collectively, companies have spent millions on diversity initiatives, yet in 2020 we still have these problems. 

Racial and economic equality for employees and better mental health and wellbeing is attainable. In the business and corporate world, the change is actually low-hanging fruit. However, we must ask the question – can those who didn’t see a problem prior to George Floyd and all the other racial stories that have emerged. Be the same people to bring solutions to issues they didn’t see or take adequate actions on before?

The saying “one bad apple spoils the bunch” is one lens to view this through and address. A study by the University of Washington stated that one bad apple is like a “negative virus” that destroys teams, and “Companies need to move quickly to deal with such problems because the negativity of just one individual is pervasive and destructive and can spread quickly.” 

It’s unfortunate to have to ponder, but what if the bad apple is in the C-suite as CEO, CFO, COO, head of HR, a manager or another leader in a position of influential power? Could that person really bring about change?

Whether it’s discrepancies regarding pay, bonuses, employee benefits or promotions, the inequality is being perpetuated, agreed to and signed off within the organization and not challenged by people in positions of power. Subsequently, bad apples are not always wearing a uniform and carrying a badge. 

The Way Forward 

1. Take Action with Urgency Regarding Pay

Investing in employees is one of the best investments a company can make. Correct pay, bonuses, benefits discrepancies and other inequalities. Put a timeline to it and hold those accountable for making the corrections. Treat the situation like any other profit and loss-making business unit. There is never a wrong time to do the right thing and course correct. 

2. Hold Yourself Accountable and Address the Elephant.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it”. Peter Drucker

Do a formal assessment and measure the visual diversity in every department across the whole company, from facilities to the C-suite. Optics go a long way (as I referenced earlier) and numbers don’t lie. Companies can even call a meeting via Zoom with each department and assess if it’s a visually diverse department or team. The Shine Inclusion Report by Dow is a good example of the power in measuring.  

I’ve been on executive calls where I’ve heard statements like “We don’t have the numbers on our diversity because people are not self-disclosing so we can’t track or monitor.” Every company can gauge visually whether their workforce reflects the multi-racial society we live-in. There’s a common saying “If you can’t see it you can’t be it.” Clearly there’s power in what we see. On a side note, if staff are choosing not to self-disclose perhaps that’s borne out of  a fear of being discriminated against or being made a target at the company. See such non-disclosures as a red flag for staff possibly not feeling safe to self-disclose.

3. Measure and be Transparent 

Be bold. Conduct an equality audit to assess diversity, equality, equity and inclusion. Put a timeline of 3 to 6 months and publish the findings across the company. 

If there are few or no people of color in decision-making positions, the C-suite or across departments, ask why, what or who is preventing this? 

It’s pretty much an expectation that all people in leadership are responsible for ensuring equality and inclusion exists at any company. Doing the equality audit will provide data and enable benchmarks to measure progress.

Make a timeline to keep progress in check, and be transparent with the numbers; addressing these quarterly like other critical business units. Assess what are the racial numbers across all teams in Q1, 2,3 and 4. If it is not measured regularly and people are not held accountable, then the equality mission will not be a success and the economic, society will continue to be negatively impacted and mental well being of multicultural staff will continue to be at stake.

If further help is needed to make the equality audit valuable, useful questions to include are:

1) How many people of color are in key decision making roles and positions?
2) How many people of color are in the c-suite?
3) How many are on track with a clear, measurable road map to be part of the senior leadership?
4) How many leaders in the C-suite are mentoring people of color at the company?
5) Does the racial ratio across the company align with the national, state, city, statistics and demographics?  

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things”. Peter Drucker

4. Take “The Guilty Until Proven Innocent” Approach. 

This is rarely a popular approach in the corporate world, but a necessary one for the positive change needed.

If there are very few, or no people of color across all departments at your company and especially in the C-Suite, there’s a problem. Either people of color are not being hired, trained and supported, or they do not feel welcome there. If there’s a staff member of color who speaks out and shares they feel a sense of inequality or discrimination, assume the company guilty until proven innocent. At the very least, the staff member will feel assured that their concerns pertaining to racial discrimination or racial inequality is a matter being taken seriously. 

Taking the guilty until proven innocent approach ensures thorough checks, balances and evidence is collected to prove racial discrimination is not at play. And if it is, there’s a measurable way to make the relevant changes necessary.

When it comes to lack of color in the workplace a classic line is “We just can’t find the talent.” My response to that is – look harder. There are many organizations in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion space that can help with a search if necessary. Better yet, contact me. My network is wide and deep.

To ensure there is solid change, perhaps companies should be required to publicly disclose their diversity records along with other mandatory annual filings, just like how the Securities and Exchange Commission encourages public companies to disclose when a director or board nominee self-identifies with any specific diversity characteristics.

We are all one race, the human race, and we are more alike than different. To borrow  the words of Mellody Hobson, “We can’t be afraid to talk about race, especially in the workplace.”I would add, we can’t be afraid to take quarterly measurable actions regarding race in the workplace. This way there’s no way for change not to happen.

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