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Restructure Your Organization to Actually Advance Racial Justice

The United States is at a turning point, and the entire world is watching. The murder of George Floyd — preceded by the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and many, many others — has sparked an outpouring of grief and activism that has catalyzed protests in all 50 states and around the world. For Black people, the injustice we feel around the murder of another unarmed Black person is not new — but the scale of recognition of systemic racism and the partnership we are feeling with others is.

For diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioners like me, the influx of interest we’re seeing from organizations that want to both support their Black employees and advance the skills of their workforce with regards to racism, bias, and inclusivity is unprecedented. Plus, all of this is happening in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which is also having an outsized impact on Black people in domains ranging from health to employment. Just a few weeks ago the constraints of the pandemic were even threatening corporate DEI efforts.

Many organizations have made their donations. Sent their tweets. Hosted their town halls. DEI budgets that had disappeared are now back. What should come next? Companies can do a few virtual trainings and default back to the status quo — or they can recognize that the racial bias driving the injustices they and the majority of Americans now care about also plays out within their own companies. Organizations that choose the latter then must answer an important question: How will they restructure their workplaces to truly advance equity and inclusion for their Black employees?

Organizations that are truly committed to racial equity — not only in the world around them but also within their own workforces — should do three things:

INVEST IN (THE RIGHT) EMPLOYEE EDUCATION

The United States has a complicated history regarding the way we talk about slavery and how it contributes to disparate outcomes for Black people (including wealth accumulation, access to quality health care and education and equity in policing) and the persistent homogeneity at the highest levels of corporate organizations. One consequence of avoiding this painful, yet foundational, aspect of American history is drastically different perceptions — particularly between white and Black Americans — about how much progress we have made toward racial equality. And yet, study after study shows that educating white Americans about history and about Black Americans’ current experiences increases awareness of bias and support for anti-racist policies.

But far too often, the responsibility of doing this education falls to Black employees. White employees and others can take individual responsibility for their own education by tapping into the wealth of resources others have compiled. Organizations must also take seriously their role in educating employees about the realities and inequities of our society, increasing awareness and offering strategies for the individual accountability and structural changes needed to support inclusive workplaces.

Here are some areas of focus companies can consider. First, training in “allyship” can motivate employees to be more effective at calling attention to bias, which can lead to a more inclusive environment for their Black colleagues. Next, leaders ask me every day how they can authentically discuss these issues with their teams and how they can meaningfully show their support for Black Lives Matter internally and externally: For those executives, it’s important to discuss how to advance justice as a leader. Finally, while the protests have drawn attention to the systemic racism and injustices Black people face, we still have a lot of work to do to shed light on the insidious biases that undermine the everyday experiences of Black Americans in the workplace. Unconscious bias training is another tool to have in the organizational toolbox.

BUILD CONNECTION AND COMMUNITY

People do their best work when they feel a sense of belonging at work, and 39% of employees feel the greatest sense of belonging when their colleagues check in on them. But conversations about race-related topics are notoriously anxiety-provoking: Non-Black employees may navigate these feelings by avoiding conversations about the protests and then miss out on ways they could show support to their Black colleagues.

For Black employees who may have already felt like the “others” in organizations where those in power are primarily white and male, this failure to address and discuss the current moment and its implications may cause irreparable harm. To counteract this, organizations should prioritize authentic connection across all levels: Leaders need to directly address the company and explicitly support racial justice.

GOING BEYOND RECRUITING AND HIRING

Education and creating community are immediate actions companies can take to create more inclusive environments, but for actual equity, those companies also need to evaluate and change their organizational processes to close gaps Black employees face relative to their counterparts.

Recruiting and hiring are often the first places organizations start when thinking about racial equity. While figuring out how to get Black employees in the door of your organization is important, focusing on how to keep them there and move them into leadership roles is even more important. Organizations should be measuring the outcomes of all of their people practices — from recruiting and hiring to promotions, compensation and attrition — to evaluate where racial disparities exist.

Two examples are particularly salient right now: assigning work and performance management.
Even under normal circumstances, assigning work is fraught with racial bias: Employees of color are expected to repeatedly prove their capabilities while white employees are more likely to be evaluated based on their expected potential. Now, as many organizations look to give Black employees new flexibility and space to process trauma and take care of themselves, they need to be careful not to let those biases reemerge around who gets what assignment. Managers should not make unilateral decisions about which projects their Black employees should and should not do during this time
Critically, organizations need to be sure not to penalize those choices when the time comes for performance reviews. The uncertainty caused by the shift to remote work had already caused a lot of unstructured changes to performance management processes, and it remains to be seen what further changes this social movement might bring.

While some of these changes may seem incremental, educating employees on concepts like allyship and justice, embracing authentic communication and connection and redesigning systems and processes to reduce racial disparities are still radical changes for most organizations. And this is just the beginning of re-envisioning how to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace that truly supports Black employees.

Evelyn R. Carter is a social psychologist who has conducted research on how to detect and discuss racial bias, and a director at Paradigm

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