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Fixing Inequities and Fighting Racism at Work Will Require Real Action

As global protests against anti-black racism continue, employers face a new challenge: taking meaningful action in the workplace to stamp out inequities and overt racism that have plagued institutions for decades.

The protests may be about police violence, but the movement underscores bigger problems of racism that pervades our institutions—including corporate America and the workplace. 

In the last few weeks, several companies have come forward in support of the Black Lives Matters movement. Goldman Sachs created a $10 million fund to support racial injustice. Softbank started a $100 million VC fund targeting minority founders. Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos publicly blasted a customer who sent an angry email over the company’s support of BLM. And Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey declared June 19 (Juneteenth) a corporate holiday to commemorate the end of slavery. The list of other corporations that made public statements of support is long, including Netflix, Google, Citigroup, HBO, Ben & Jerry’s and Nordstrom. Even JPMorgan Chase’s CEO Jamie Dimon took a knee a’la former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is still blacklisted from the NFL.

But taking a knee, donations and expressing support isn’t enough to fix the systemic inequalities and prejudice that still exists in the corporate world. Even though Black people make up 13% of the U.S. population, they make up a fraction of senior leadership positions at large tech companies—2.7% at Microsoft, 3.1% at Facebook and 5.3% at Twitter, according to the Washington Post. Among all U.S. companies with more than 100 employees, little has changed over 30 years: the proportion of Black men in management increased just slightly—from 3% to 3.3%—from 1985 to 2014, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

New research also shows that when hiring, companies tend to favor personal connections and candidates from certain schools, geographic areas or backgrounds—and when the majority of managers are white, that ultimately leads to lost job opportunities and promotions for Black individuals, especially Black men, according to studies by Princeton University and the University of Massachusetts. A 2016 Harvard Business Review piece explained other practices in hiring that wind up marginalizing the Black community, such as managers giving hiring tests to Black people, but not to white people, and stories of managers paying little attention when white men failed the tests, but paying close attention when women and Black men did.

Minorities also tend to be the first to get cut from jobs, according to research by the University of Tel Aviv’s Alexandra Kalev. When companies cut positions instead of individuals, the researchers found, companies end up with an immediate 9%–22% drop in the proportion of white and Hispanic women, and Black, Hispanic, and Asian men on their management teams. 

The wage gap is also still problematic. For instance, a 2018 study by and McKinsey & Co. found that Black women receive 39% less pay than white men and 21% less than white women—even when they had the same work duties and the same education. They’re also less likely to be promoted. For every 100 men promoted at the management level, only 60 black women are promoted according to the research. The same sort of inequity continues to play out in startup VC culture: Black founders receive just 1% of the $130 billion venture capital investments injected in startups each year, with Black female founders landing just 0.2% of all VC funding.

Add to all that, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hurt Black people more economically and physically than white people, so much so that the American Psychological Association recently declared, “we are living in a racism pandemic.”

“It’s one of the biggest issues of our time,” says Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of diversity consulting firm ReadySet. “It’s an economic empowerment issue. It’s an economic equity issue. It’s a political issue, and it’s a safety issue.”

Yet race is a difficult and touchy thing to talk about in the workplace. Employers don’t want to be ignorant and don’t want to be perceived as racists, says Tina Opie, an associate professor of management at Babson College in Boston who studies discrimination and race relations in the workplace. Company leaders want to ensure that their organizations don’t continue patterns of racism and discrimination that have kept Black people from achieving the same opportunities and equity of white people.

But to pave the way for real change, leaders should get more comfortable with uncomfortable conversations, Opie says. “Rather than just put out a letter with politically correct speech, organizations need to take real action,” Opie says. “Racio-ethnicity is one of the most taboo things to talk about.” That needs to change.

So where do you start? 

Recognize this as a unique opportunity. 

This issue is not just about subtle racism, says Hutchinson. This is about overt systemic racism that is prevalent throughout our institutions and organizations. 

“We’ve kicked racism around for decades, and we need a new approach,” says Opie. She created something called a Shared Sisterhood in which she gathered 60 people from various backgrounds and racial-socio backgrounds to talk about difficult topics, allowing for open expressions of anger and hurt with hopes of finding connection. She says organizations can do the same by starting with deep introspection on the individual level to open conversations about race and finding empathy for each person’s individual experiences and how they have made a person see the world as he or she does.  

“Take a deep look at yourself,” says Opie. That includes considering your own views on race and searching for ways to generate empathy and understanding.

Make space for your Black employees.

Hutchinson, who is also cofounder of Black Tech for Black Lives, says companies should give their Black employees space, time and flexibility in response to what is happening around the world. 

“It’s important to acknowledge that there is something big socially going on in the world,” says Hutchinson. “Encourage managers to tell them to take a break, take time for themselves and heal from the trauma.”  

Your Black colleagues may look like they’re fine, but there is a good chance that they’re not. A social media message that’s gone viral rings true to many: “There are black men and women in Zoom meetings maintaining ‘professionalism,’ biting their tongues, holding back tears and swallowing rage, while we endure attacks from a pandemic and police. Understand and be mindful.”

Don’t tokenize your Black employees.

Refrain from asking your Black employees to educate you, to speak on behalf of all African Americans or to lead seminars on diversity, Hutchinson says. 

This also means avoiding the temptation to overgeneralize and assume that just because people may be the same – race, gender or identity, they must all feel similarly, according to a recent Harvard Business Review pieceWhen in doubt, ask employees about their individual experiences to honor their uniqueness,” write the HBR authors, Prof. Laura Morgan Roberts at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and Ella F. Washington, a Georgetown University organizational psychologist. Find ways to let your employees discuss what’s happening without putting them on the spot.

Commit to ridding overt racism and microaggression in the workplace.

Don’t rely merely on “unconscious bias training,” says Hutchinson. She says overt systemic racism is the problem, not unconscious bias. The instinct of HR officials has been to protect the company when there are complaints of racism, rather than to hold people accountable when they create hostile work environments. “It’s going to take a systematic revamp of hiring,” says Hutchinson.

Ensure, too, that your organization doesn’t punish people who speak up. Companies may say that there is a “safe space” to express their feelings about racial discrimination in the office, but then employees find out that it’s not necessarily true. If you have a policy to listen to people and create a safe space, then live up to that message and do it.

Set up a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) leader and take real action.

Bring experts on board and assign a DEI leader who can research and advise the company on diversity and inclusion issues and create programs and training around those values. This person should have the budget and resources to support a department and fund initiatives, says Hutchinson. “They should also have enough power to make decisions to ensure there is accountability across the organization,” she says. 

Look inside your organization for inequities and fix them, and communicate to employees that this is important and announce steps for action. The message doesn’t have to be public, but rather outlines goals that demonstrate to employees what you’re going to do to change. The nonprofit group Project Include offers 87 recommendations for making tech companies more inclusive, which includes guides to hiring, resolving conflicts and more. It’s important to revamp your hiring to ensure you’re hiring equally, you’re promoting and truly building diverse leadership. “A lot of Black employees are asking for change,” says Hutchinson.

Understand that this is a long haul. 

Don’t expect that everything will be fixed with a couple of seminars. This is a long-term effort. Take advantage of the global focus on anti-racism now, before the topic of conversation changes. “The pendulum swings back and forth,” says Opie. “Now is the time to be assertive with your goals within your organization. It does feel like more people are open now and receptive. But that window is going to close.”