As the States continues to experience the most fraught racial unrest since the civil rights movement, corporate America is also experiencing a reckoning. Current and former black, indigenous, and persons of color (BIPOC) employees have come forward with unsettling stories about overt and covert racism in some of America’s most well-beloved media institutions, resulting in resignations from the likes of Bon Appetit and Refinery29 editors, apologies from Anna Wintour, and countless more calls for accountability.
So after the dust has settled and new leadership has been put in place, how can companies recover from the fallout? It is becoming increasingly clear with prolonged protests that keeping the status quo is no longer an option. So where do businesses start?
Understand that optics aren’t enough.
Black women like Solha El-Waylly, Shelby Ivey Christie, and others are pouring out their experiences about deep-seated racism in response to displays of solidarity. While statements of solidarity may be well-meaning and sincere, today optics can do more harm than good if not backed up with meaningful, internal changes. In fact, optics may be the proverbial slap in the face to employees who could have benefited from action long before the post was made.
These sorts of internal controversies serve as a reminder that the employee, not the consumer, is a company’s first customer. With that perspective, what parts of the BIPOC employee experience need more attention?
Listen to BIPOC employee experiences.
Meaningful change begins with addressing who is in the room. Make time to listen and review your BIPOC employees’ experiences. What are their pain points and what have been the major inhibitors in communicating or solving them? Consider the emotional labor it takes for a person of color to address an authority figure, and make several channels of communications available for feedback--office hours, email, surveys, etc.
On the other hand, there is already a history of complaints filed in HR. Perform due diligence and review employee complaint logs if possible to look for patterns. The root of the problem may be a pervasive culture problem or a singular toxic employee. Either way, how were those problematic employees enabled, and how were they not screened out of the hiring process to begin with?
Consider what is keeping more BIPOC from your company
Consider D&I’s missing letter: equity. Often what gets left out of discussions on diversity and inclusion are conversations around equity. Diversity is a great starting point, but if employees can’t even make the hurdle that is talent acquisition, it may not matter at all. There may be socioeconomic barriers that are preventing POC talent from reaching you. If so, what kinds of opportunities can you offer to level the playing field?
Once again, consider asking current employees what they need--or what would have made their recruitment process easier--and work towards making that directly available. Is it subsidized child care? Mental health insurance coverage? Mentorship or professional development opportunities? Is there a particular company policy that puts them under undue stress? Simply because a few employees of color have “made it” into your company doesn’t mean that they aren’t still operating at a disadvantage.
Create a transparent, actionable agenda
It goes without saying that an effective, actionable agenda starts with a review of culture, policy, and the employee lifecycle. This process can be easily achieved by a D&I manager, an unbiased third party, or an internal committee. However, doing so with a spirit of transparency may be the action that inspires the most trust. According to Inc.com, 86% of middle market companies believe that transparency breeds trust and contributes to long term success. A spirit of transparency is also an invitation to let employees keep the company accountable. Consider creating a realistic timeline with goals and update employees accordingly.
Equip white employees for success.
The first step in implementing an actionable agenda is ensuring that employees are equipped with the right tools to carry out the agenda. Unfortunately, many white employees are deeply uncomfortable talking openly about race--even if they share anti-racist sentiments. This may present a problem, as mentioned in the Harvard Business Review this month, for managers who may have trouble breaking down their leadership’s initiatives into practical items. Start by sharing resources like book lists and past sensitivity training webinars. Consider bringing in a specialist, or create allyship circles where white employees can unpack complicated feelings and views without demanding emotional labor of employees of color.
Meaningful change comes from slow, strategic planning and execution, and that’s a truth companies often don’t see in the panic to make sweeping apologies. Moments like these can lead companies to think that BIPOC employees expect the world overnight--and the truth is that BIPOC folks know that’s not how change works. True progress is collaborative, thoughtful, and deliberate. When the dust settles, companies dedicated to the long-run may see the more rewarding results.