From Optional to Urgent: It’s Time for the Majority to Step Up

Never in my work on inclusion and diversity have I seen such a profound opportunity for change, particularly as it relates to the Black community in Corporate America. Nor have I seen more people who “get it” who aren’t Black. It’s the first time that people have been openly discussing systemic racism both in society and in organizations. The bottom line is Corporate America has been working on race for decades with extraordinarily little progress to show for it. This is the time that could radically change that!

As a result of George Floyd’s horrific murder and the national response to addressing systemic racism, companies have a renewed focus and sense of urgency to implement a multi-pronged awareness and learning approach focused on the impact of racism on Black Americans.

Mandates for True Change

The first is deep and profound work with senior executives so they can become aware of the unconscious bias they have before effectively leading the change. Currently, the vast majority of C-suites are still white, and still male. This makes it more difficult to understand the position of Black colleagues within the organization.

White people need to understand that we have privilege by the color of our skin. The best explanation of white privilege I’ve seen is this: “We have all had problems in our lives. You know you have privilege if those problems aren’t caused by your race or ethnicity.” This isn’t easy or comfortable. But this work needs to be done with great urgency. This becomes particularly important in recognizing the needs of an organization when the majority of the decision makers are white! We need to get over the notion that racism doesn’t really exist or that it isn’t as bad as Black people say it is.

The parallel step in taking action of a substantive nature is determining what you’re going to do to support Black talent development throughout these employees’ careers. Yes, this will include more broadly people of color and women. The point is that this type of action is the expected change that the Black community is demanding now. From my view, it’s the first time they have been heard. In order to have an impact here, we must review and, more importantly, build or change processes for how people are hired and advanced within the organization. This is going to take a huge amount of effort—but it’s an effort that will pay big dividends. Note: the above steps are both necessary simultaneously.

Accountability needs to be established for senior leaders to be both inclusive leaders working to eliminate bias and end racism as well as advocates for new ways to hire and develop talent. These accountabilities should be part of the performance management process. The bold action required for this to be sustainable will need to include the items above.

Recent tragedies attributed at least in part to systemic racism have highlighted the dire need for sincere introspection within the United States about our troubled history with race and inclusiveness. Businesses are certainly not immune from the marches, protests, speeches, and social media movements at the cultural level. Even after the initial intensity of enflamed passions subside, they can leave a lasting impression on consumer tastes and brand perceptions.

At the same time, steady demographic shifts make it harder and harder for businesses to ignore minority cultures and viewpoints. Non-white populations make up an increasingly significant proportion of America’s population as well as its spending power.

Have we made progress? We have only to look to The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science, which awards the Oscars, and the NFL. And, we would add, the boardrooms of companies across America and the members of their C-suites. We recognized this “stuck state” last year with the publication of our white paper “New Decade, Same Challenge: Overcoming the ‘Stuck State’.”

We’ve long advocated and worked for inclusion as a critical business imperative. It still is. But in the current demographic and cultural landscape within the United States, embracing inclusion is less about getting ahead of the competition and more about simply keeping up.

In other words, it’s no longer optional; it’s urgent.

We’ve Reached the Boiling Point

Whether we’re talking about changes in the demographic makeup of the American population or changes in the spending power of marginalized groups, we’re talking about relatively slowly developing trends; trends that have been taking place for decades. The benefit of slowly developing trends is that they give companies a long time to adjust. The downside is that business leaders often neglect to account for such changes and constantly see them as something to worry about tomorrow.

That’s exactly what’s been happening in the boardrooms and business meetings being held across America for decades. Lip service and limited action.

Recent events, however, demonstrate that race relations in the United States are at a boiling point. Minority groups and their allies are fed up with the decades of disparate treatment that have followed the Civil Rights Movement. The intensity of the frustration and demands for rapid change being played out around the country in a variety of ways cannot be ignored. We now face an urgent need to do what we still have not been able to do despite decades of supposed equality.

While far from the only example, the Black Lives Matter movement is perhaps the most visible sign of increased frustration over race relations in the United States and around the world. While largely political and cultural in nature, the business world has also been significantly impacted by the renewed focus on race relations.

Many companies—perhaps owing to a lack of both diversity and, by default, also inclusion—have fallen short in their responses.

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by Minneapolis police officers on May 26, 2020, many companies scrambled to take what they saw as the right stance on topics like racism, diversity, and inclusion. This included organizations ranging from small businesses identifying themselves as people-of-color owned in the hopes of avoiding vandalism and looting in the wake of riots that accompanied otherwise peaceful protests or large, multinational corporations making statements of solidarity with underrepresented communities or calls for change.

A Bolder Approach is Needed

Despite the immediate response to the George Floyd tragedy, many observers saw these overtures as half-hearted and insincere. Consider this commentary in an article for Tech Crunch by Megan Rose Dickey:

“Amid this tragedy, many tech companies and leaders have spoken out against racism, saying things like, ‘We stand with our colleagues and the Black community’ (LinkedIn), ‘We stand with the Black community against racism, violence, and hate’ (Salesforce) or ‘we all have the responsibility to create change’ (Facebook) — while simultaneously fostering an environment where employees defend racism, contracting with U.S. Custom Borders and Protection, which has been deployed to police protests, or enabling President Donald Trump’s post inciting violence to remain on its platform. These are just a few examples of many, but they all evoke one thing: complicity.”

In the retail world, big chains like Walmart, CVS and Walgreens announced an end to their practices of locking up hair care products targeted for communities of color. That gesture didn’t get far with some members of the African American community, as illustrated by Cat Davis and Dorian Warren’s scathing opinion piece for NBC News, in which the authors – one a 12-year associate for Walmart – noted that “the largest corporate employer of America's Black workforce” should be focusing more on paying its workers more and protecting them from exposure to COVID-19 than symbolic gestures of support for minority communities.

A Call to Action: Members of the Majority, and Majority Leaders, Need to Advocate for Minorities

One of the traditional arguments in favor of diversity is that by creating a diverse pool of individuals, you will necessarily end up with diverse leaders and policies. It’s essentially the pipeline argument in reverse: if the reason we don’t have more diversity among business leadership is a lack of diversity at lower levels of the organization, then increasing diversity at the bottom should eventually boost diversity at the top.

But experience has shown us that this is not the case.

Glass ceilings, a lack of mentors and a variety of other factors have meant that women and people of color are still underrepresented at executive level positions across the board, with particularly glaring gaps in certain industries like tech and finance.

In this era of rapid change and demand for immediate action, companies can’t sit back and cross their fingers that their long-term diversity and inclusion efforts will result in a strong voice for their diverse communities five or ten years down the road. They need to be able to act now, and that means members of the majority and company leadership acting as vocal advocates in support of their communities of color.

There may have been times when it felt taboo to even bring up race as a topic, or for a white person to discuss race issues. However, across the country and around the world, the light is being shone on the issue of race in particular. The business community, nation and the entire world need leaders who go beyond avoiding racism and actively promote anti-racism and what it means to be an ally and an anti-racist.

It's no longer optional; it’s urgent.

For decades, diversity and inclusion efforts were seen as a nice-to-have addition to an overall company strategy—the type of initiative that can be supported as long as revenue is strong and more “essential” business priorities are being met.

In other words, diversity and inclusion were seen as optional goals.

We would argue that diversity, and especially, inclusion have long been essential elements of any business strategy, whether or not that view held mainstream acceptance. But companies across the country and around the world are starting to realize that despite years of steady demographic and economic gains, diverse communities still feel marginalized and unheard. Recent deaths of people of color at the hands of police and viral videos of racially profiling among every day citizens have served as a spark triggering sudden and widespread outrage and action.

Companies that considered diversity and inclusion efforts as optional for years are now being forced to take action—meaningful action. Many are making statements in support of Black Americans. Statements are nice, but they don’t—they haven’t—led to sustainable change.

Just ask Black members of the NFL.

Just ask Black members of the Academy.

Just ask Black members of your workforce.

For them, and other marginalized minority groups, taking action is no longer optional.

It’s urgent.

The big question is: what are you doing about it? For information on how to make sustainable change, contact us.

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