The Equity Imperative: Moving from Words to Action – June 2020

In the wake of the George Floyd killing and on the heels of a reflective Juneteenth, leaders across the country are increasingly asking themselves what they can do to inspire and indeed ensure more diversity, inclusion, and true racial equity within their organizations and their communities.  The imperative is clear: racial inequity sub-optimizes organizational performance and negatively impacts societal outcomes – not only for African Americans and other people of color, but for everyone.

First, a quick definition.  Equity does not mean equality.  Equity is fairness, justice, and impartiality in the way people are treated (as opposed to equality, which is treating everyone exactly the same).  This visual from the Interaction Institute for Social Change captures the difference in notion.

Consider the impact of racial inequities in our organizations:

  • According to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation, 58% of black professionals report facing racial prejudice in the workplace (compared to 15% of whites).
  • Just 3.2% of senior leaders (and fewer than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs) are black, although they make up 10% of college graduates and 13.4% of the US population.
  • According to a national study, those who experienced discrimination at work were twice as likely as those who have not to report illness, injury, or assault.
  • According to Pew Research, a majority of adults (59%) say that being white helps people’s ability to get ahead in the country at least a little.
  • And according to local expert Lisa Tabor of CultureBrokers (more on her in a moment!), racial inequities impact organizations’ ability to attract, hire, and retain all talent; reduce organizational flexibility, adaptability, and innovation; and ultimately damage financial performance.

So diversity, inclusion, and equity are not only the right thing to do, they’re also the smart thing to do if you’re leading an organization (or a team within an organization).

And then consider the impact in our communities.  Racial inequities lead to disparities in:

  • educational attainment – which results in negative outcomes related to employment, income, and wealth (for example, the Lumina Foundation estimates as much as a 50% difference in graduation rates between whites/Asians and other people of color);
  • access to healthcare – which results in negative outcomes in individual and population health (for example, look at COVID-19 just in Minnesota, where people of color are 20% of the population but 68%+ of the cases);
  • access to financing and affordable housing (73% of whites own a home versus 43% of blacks, according to the Washington Post);
  • outcomes in the justice system (Pew Research shows that, while shrinking, the number of blacks/Latinos incarcerated are twice the number of whites, despite their percentage of the population being less), and so forth.

Obviously, disparities greatly impact overall quality of life – not just for African Americans, but for all of us: the Washington Post estimated a few years ago that racial equity would bring more than $2 trillion to the US economy in terms of greater output and productivity (and their research didn’t consider increased public safety, health, and other quality of life outcomes).

This is not a political issue – a red thing or a blue thing.  It’s a societal issue – an economic, humanitarian, and even moral issue.  Decades (centuries) of oppression against African Americans (and other minority groups) have served parts of the US population at the expense of others.  The recent events – as well as the significant and profound response, in terms of protests, emerging legislation, and early corporate action – suggest that now (maybe more than ever) is the time for meaningful, systemic change.  Certainly, part of that change happens with national and local policy, but I believe part of the change can (and should) also happen within our organizations.

As Ben Hecht in his Harvard Business Review article Moving Beyond Diversity Toward Racial Equity claimed last week, “Achieving racial equity in the workplace will be one of the most important issues that companies will tackle in the coming decade.”  Easier said than done, of course.  Some more context from Hecht:

“Racism’s legacy is complex, brutally ugly, deeply personal, and yet to be truly reckoned with, especially in the workplace. Not even 60 years from the end of legal racial segregation, there’s no question that the harmful effects of that history live on in our institutions and in each of us. Further, it’s clear that the suite of diversity and inclusion tools and practices that went mainstream in the ‘90s are grossly insufficient for racial equity work. Instead of driving fundamental changes in organizations, they largely focus on “velcroing” new guidelines, practices, or programs onto the existing structures and culture of the workplace in an attempt to help employees of color better “fit in” and succeed.

“Today’s racial equity and inclusion efforts must flip that premise on its head. Instead of trying to change some people to fit the organization, we must focus on transforming our organizations to fit all people…To move toward racial equity, organizational culture must prioritize humanity. People need the ability to work with the dignity of having their histories acknowledged and their life experience valued. Only then will companies be able to recruit and retain the thriving, diverse workforce that leaders and customers want — and need — in the next decade, and beyond.”

Again, easier said than done.  What can leaders do to get started?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Listen – truly listen to people of color on your team (or in your community or in your marketplace).  Different ethnicities have different perspectives, different histories, different preferences. And you cannot discover or understand (let alone deliver) if you don’t listen to them.  Have the (thoughtfully crafted) open conversations in team meetings; have listening sessions or focus groups with your customers or prospects.  Assume validity in others’ perspectives and seek to understand.
  • Seek diversity on your team – your workforce, your governing board, your volunteer base (if you have one).  There is power in having diverse perspectives at the table: you’ll make better collective decisions, you’ll stimulate more innovation and creativity, and you’ll attract new and different segments of the marketplace.
  • Be thoughtful with your language and symbols – A couple of weeks ago I made a simple comment that something wasn’t a “black and white issue.”  I caught myself mid-sentence, wondering if the commonly used phrase was racially-centered (I looked it up and it’s not: it originally referred to the Ancient Near East’s Pythagorean Table of Opposites, and more recently in western culture as newsprint).  But it got me thinking: how much of our language and symbols are rooted in racial symbolism?  Companies are quickly adjusting already: PepsiCo is retiring their Aunt Jemima brand; Mars Inc. is reviewing its Uncle Ben’s rice brand; the Duluth MN police force is considering using a different label for its highest ranking leader (instead of “Police Chief,” which is disrespectful to Native Americans).  An organization’s culture is rooted in its language, so reevaluate yours to make certain that common statements, symbols, and even product names are not disrespectful to or marginalize different ethnicities.
  • Educate your team – not just on black culture (which is important to do), but on fundamental concepts that create an open, honest, respectful culture.  I’m talking about skills like empathy, respect, and kindness — skills that are really about human decency and civility.  They can – and should – be taught, but they should also be practiced, encouraged, and reinforced (yes, in the workplace, I’m thinking of leadership messaging, reward systems, and the like).
  • Redesign your system – ok, this is the hardest, but the most impactful one.  Most organizational processes are designed to serve those who designed them.  Without making judgment, let me offer this hypothesis: most leaders in the US today are not people of color, so there is a high likelihood that those systems and processes reflect what’s important to people that are not of color.  Maybe not intentionally, but it’s probably de facto true.  So as leaders, consider reevaluating (and redesigning) the policies, procedures, processes you have in place so that they serve all of your employees – your recruiting and hiring processes, your training and education approaches, your employee benefits and services, your reward and recognition, your communication approaches, and I could probably list 30 others.  If you start with the assumption that different employee groups have different perspectives, expectations, and needs, then tailoring your approaches to meet the diversity of needs won’t be a tough leap.  In this effort, be sure to involve all of your employees (see tip #1 above: listen to their needs), make changes, then evaluate and further refine as needed.  Yes, these changes are easier said than done.

If all organizations would consider the five areas above, we’d make considerable progress toward being more equitable in the workplace – which would help improve organizational, but also societal outcomes.

Earlier today as part of our ongoing webinar series, PEN hosted a discussion on what organizations can do to truly make change that improves racial equity (more than 350 attended live, indicating that clearly we are eager for this dialogue!).  Lisa Tabor – who I mentioned earlier – is Principal of Minneapolis-based CultureBrokers and a long-time PEN member and partner, facilitated the session.  She opened by reflecting on just how many emails and notices we’ve all received in the last few weeks, pledging their support of racial equity, diversity, inclusion, and/or Black Lives Matter.  She commented that, while those gestures are a good first step, phrases, slogans, and marketing emails are pretty easy to produce and send – true results, however, are more difficult to achieve.  Actions speak louder than words, of course.

Tabor outlined six main principles organizations should consider.  Organizations should:

  1. Use data and information segmented by race, ethnicity, citizenship, gender, and other meaningful social characteristics – it will help you better understand how needs vary across different groups.
  2. Make data-driven decisions toward parity.
  3. Leverage existing assets and resources.
  4. Use existing authorities.
  5. Make policy changes.
  6. Use racial equity to balance decisions.

Tabor offered some suggestions for organizations to get started – some similar to what I suggested above, and others more unique given her expertise and perspective.  For a link to the recording of Delivering on a Commitment of Race Equity, email me directly.

I guess my point is this: we are somewhat at an inflection point in this nation’s journey toward true liberty and justice for all.  The recent events have opened many people’s eyes (and minds and hearts), and we have a real opportunity to make meaningful change that leads to more equity and better outcomes for us all.  Some of the actions clearly need to come from our elected officials, but many of them can come from where we all live and work: organizational leaders have a significant role in helping to make America a better place – for the benefit of our workers, our customers, and our communities.

I’ll close with a quote from former president Jimmy Carter:

“Humanity is beautifully and almost infinitely – diverse.  The bonds of our common humanity must overcome the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices. We have seen that silence can be as deadly as violence.  People of power, privilege, and moral conscience must stand up and say “no more” to a racially discriminatory…system, immoral economic disparities between whites and blacks.  We are responsible for creating a world of peace and equality for ourselves and future generations.” 

Changes won’t happen overnight – real change takes education, dialogue, reflection, and discernment before action.  But we all have a role in making meaningful, impactful, sustainable change to move toward greater racial equity.  It benefits those in our society who have suffered the most, but it also benefits us all.  It’s time to get started.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding the imperative for racial equity?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network

Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

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