Here is how not to combat the problem of discrimination in the workplace: hire one or two people of color and assume you’ve done your job in achieving parity. Such an approach may satisfy a visual impression of diversity—but if white leaders need to learn anything at this moment in history, it’s that systemic racism requires a top-to-bottom examination of people practices in every industry and every organization.
Free-market advocates tend to argue that a practice will change as soon as it becomes unprofitable. This does not bear out when it comes to racial discrimination. We have known for years, for example, that diverse workplaces have a financial advantage. A 2018 Boston Consulting Group study found that “companies with above-average diversity on their leadership teams report a greater payoff from innovation and higher EBIT [earnings before interest and taxes] margins.”
This is particularly the case at the management level. Among the 1,700 companies in eight different countries studied, those “that reported above-average diversity on their management teams also reported innovation revenue that was 19 percentage points higher than that of companies with below-average leadership diversity—45% of total revenue versus just 26%.”
There is no mystery to this success. A diverse workforce creates innovative responses to change. People from different backgrounds have had to strategize in radically different ways in order to succeed, so their working together yields greater resources when it comes to overcoming industry challenges. No industry can maximize results with a monolithic talent pool. Limiting yourself in that way will limit the vision of your organization as it faces a constantly changing business landscape.
The advantages of diversity at all levels should be obvious to any organization, but the free market has not resulted in equity. As of 2018, Black people held only 3.3% of senior leadership roles in 2018, despite comprising more than 13% of the American population. Since 2000, the pay gap between Black men and their white counterparts has actually grown. While white women have seen some progress in closing the gender-based pay gap in that same period of time, Black women have not shared in this gain.
It is time for predominately white business leaders to recognize the damage and cruelty of unconscious bias and work to eradicate it from their business practices, but what does anti-racist hiring and leadership involve? Admittedly, one organization can only do so much when it comes to modifying an entire national or global culture. The overwhelming nature of the problem should not discourage more focused action, however.
First of all, openly admit the problem has pervaded all facets of life in America—including your own workplace. This may seem like an obvious first step, but systemic racism is not readily apparent to white people by virtue of the fact that we benefit from this system without being consciously aware that our racial identity confers privilege. In other words, things that run smoothly are not conspicuous.
White leaders need to admit to the racial privileges they’ve benefited from since birth—no matter how many other individual challenges they may have overcome—without feeling defensive. In my coaching, I always foreground self-awareness as a means toward greater professional strength. Among all the other blind spots that impede growth, I view this admission of white privilege as a critical building block of productive self-awareness. It is not meant to denigrate or trivialize individual achievement; rather, it places that achievement in context, allowing for greater personal and professional growth through a clearer perception of the business environment and one’s role in it.
Secondly, organizations need to ask what unconscious factors have permitted systemic racism in hiring and promotion practices. What additional training is required to overcome unconscious biases among managers and leaders, and how can you ensure more Black workers (and other underrepresented groups) rise to management and leadership roles? How can the organization become more diverse by fully operating based on core values and what’s best for the business, rather than as a token effort merely to assuage potential critics? Examine these opportunities honestly, and take steps to implement changes at a foundational level.
Once you have a truly diverse and inclusive workforce, value and respectfully leverage the vast wealth of experience in your organization. Consult with reports and colleagues who have been historically underrepresented and listen to their suggestions. You will find that their input will complement, productively challenge, and ultimately distill and clarify your direction, resulting in actions that enhance the mission of your organization and increase the morale in your workforce. Listen to, respond to, and engage with those employees who have traditionally gone overlooked. Reward innovative, fearless appraisals from those valuable voices, including with promotions to leadership positions.
When we develop a bad personal habit, simply trying to stop rarely works. Instead, we have to take steps to self-examine, admit to weaknesses honestly and clearly, and address the conditions that have enabled that damaging habit. The same must be done on a systemic level within the hierarchies of our organizations if we are ever to root out the racism deeply embedded in our society.