How to failure-proof your diversity initiative

February 20, 2020, 4:52 PM UTC

This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

In today’s raceAhead: Michael Bloomberg gets pummeled in his first debate appearance, a right-wing terrorist attack leaves at least nine dead in Germany, and the Royal Bank of Canada takes us to ally school.

But first, a guest opinion piece by Porter Braswell, co-founder and CEO of a diversity hiring startup.


While diversity is now seen by many companies as a business imperative, equity and inclusion in the workplace are too often treated as afterthoughts—only coming into focus when internal or external feedback forces leadership to wake up.

And the response usually unfolds in both predictable and alarming ways.

When a company begins to diversify, it faces (often for the first time) feedback, internal chatter, and built-up frustrations from employees on the real impact of microaggressions, unconscious bias, and the spotlight effect, a term used by diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) experts to describe how employees of color experience outsized attention to their every word and action from majority-group peers and employers.

The feedback employers receive will likely also come from external sources, with some companies facing criticism from the press, former employees, social media, or online reviewers about the lack of inclusion within their teams. It can be sparked by blowback from brands launching unrepresentative campaigns, former team members talking to the press about their experiences, diversity reports showing disappointing results, employees filing lawsuits, and negative Glassdoor reviews calling out personal experiences, to name only a few examples. 

This is when companies often make a crucial mistake: to double down on diversity hiring as the solution.

This hiring impulse happens for many reasons. Some employers struggle to prioritize DEI solutions over other business objectives and some misguidedly believe the internal problems bubbling up can be solved by hiring more professionals of colors rather than addressing internal culture. Other companies are simply not prepared to tackle equity and inclusion without support from an outside resource.

But DEI should not only be looked at through the lens of hiring. In order to retain high-performing talent and build a company culture that invites everyone to bring their true selves to work, DEI must be treated holistically. 

Here are three ways companies can start:

  • Listen. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for creating a culture of belonging. Leaders should start with a listening tour to understand what employees are experiencing and feeling at their companies. Use open door meetings or, if established, look to employee resource groups as forums for listening and learning. Companies should also consider leaning on outside DEI consultants to kick off or guide this process. Leaders shouldn’t expect to have solutions to their equity and inclusion challenges right away, but should start from a place of empathetic listening. In that way, companies can start to identify key DEI focal areas (such as unconscious bias training, employee feedback surveys, new internal communications policies, mentorship opportunities, compensation reviews, to mention some) and make changes that need to be made to create a more inclusive and equitable environment.
  • Revamp your hiring process. The hiring process is the first look candidates have into the company culture—if the interviewers are not representative and the process is not inclusive, how can talent trust that the culture will be? Companies must evaluate their hiring process for barriers to entry. Hiring managers should work to understand if candidates of color are disproportionately dropping out in certain areas while compared to others during the process. Are these candidates making it to the interview round? How representative are the employees doing the interviewing? Do job descriptions overemphasize specific experience that may exclude talent with transferable skills?
  • Empower diversity champions. Most companies already have internal diversity champions, people who are the driving forces behind culture change—empower those individuals by giving them a voice and trusted space to speak out. Equal parts educator, facilitator, and active listener, the diversity champion assesses needs, leads conversations, and organizes events focused on creating a more inclusive working environment. A diversity champion does not need to be from an underrepresented group or a high-ranking employee, but rather a passionate, hard-working individual who is able to evoke change with buy-in from executives and managers at a higher level. Diversity champions understand how to embrace uncomfortable conversations and allow people to bring their whole, authentic selves to work. Companies need to foster these individuals by acknowledging the important role they play in the company’s culture. Leaders shouldn’t shy away from outspoken voices in support of inclusion—make them a part of the solution by listening to their feedback, including them proactively in relevant internal conversations, providing budgets for events, and offering opportunities to meet with any external DEI consultants to learn and grow in their role.

Companies need to also regard equity and inclusion, like diversity, as business imperatives. This means that leaders must ensure accountability across the company, either by tying results to employee performance assessments or by having explicit conversations around what is expected of employees, or, at a minimum, hiring (and other) managers. According to the 2018 Deloitte Millennial survey, 83% of millennials and 80% of Gen Zers feel that companies should focus beyond “financial performance,” including fostering a diverse and inclusive culture. Companies that are focused equally on all three—diversity, equity and inclusion—will see higher performance, retention, and engagement, to name just a few of the benefits. 

Porter Braswell is co-founder and CEO of Jopwell.


Ellen McGirt curated and wrote the blurbs in this edition of raceAhead.

On Point

The gloves came off during last night’s Democratic debate And that’s putting it mildly. It was a brutal slugfest all around, but former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the most direct hits, being called out sharply on his record on redlining, stop and frisk, and in a brutal exchange with an emboldened Senator Elizabeth Warren, on allegations of misogyny in his workplace and his use of non-disclosure agreements to silence women. “We are not going to beat Donald Trump with a man who has, who knows how many, nondisclosure agreements and the drip, drip, drip of stories of women saying they have been harassed and discriminated against,” she said. Recap below, fact-check of the debate here.
New York Times

At least nine dead in a suspected far-right extremist attack in Germany The suspected gunman, who has been identified as a 43-year-old German citizen, opened fire in two separate incidents, both in shisha bars, which are popular among people of Middle Eastern origin. At least five of the dead were Turkish citizens. German investigators are calling it terrorism; the suspect appears to have posted a video espousing right-wing theories and left a confessional note. After a tense manhunt, he was found dead at his home, next to the body of his mother. "There are many indications at the moment that the perpetrator acted on right-wing extremist, racist motives, out of hatred towards people of other origins, religion or appearance," said Chancellor Angela Merkel in a public statement.

A new ad from RBC encourages employees to “speak up” on bias It’s an excellent effort from the Royal Bank of Canada and Canadian ad firm Grip Limited, who have managed to elegantly demonstrate how bystanders to bias in the workplace can and should intervene. “That Little Voice,” is part of the bank’s “Speak Up For Inclusion” campaign, and introduces a variety of scenarios people struggle with when they observe problematic behavior in peers—sexism, racism, parenting bias, immigrant bias, and Islamophobia among them—then encourages bystanders to respectfully talk it out with their colleagues. “Having diversity is just one part of the story; how well that diversity works together is key,” Gopal Bansal, senior director of diversity and inclusion at RBC told Adweek. (Thanks to Katrina Jones for flagging.)

George Zimmerman sues Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg The suit, filed earlier this week, alleges that the two Democratic candidates defamed him on Twitter when they acknowledged what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 25th birthday. In the court filing, Zimmerman seeks a damages award of $265 million, and asserts the two candidates used their platforms “for political gain in misguided and malicious attempts to bolster their standings amongst African-American voters, all at Zimmerman’s expense.” Zimmerman was acquitted in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Martin in 2012. Outrage around the decision was a key catalyst in galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement. It will be 8 years since Martin’s death on Feb. 26.
USA Today

On Background

California set to apologize for detention of Japanese Americans On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt authorized the mass incarceration of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, removing them from their homes and businesses. It is a dark day of remembrance, largely unacknowledged until now. Today, the California Assembly is expected to approve a formal apology to all Americans of Japanese descent for the state’s role in the internment program. HR 77, introduced by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), is unsparing in its documentation of the pervasive racism of the era. It is just one such effort in a long line of reckonings California has undertaken to atone for actions taken against Indigenous, Mexican, and Chinese Americans.
Los Angeles Times

Diversity in tech shouldn’t just mean "hire more white women" Yet it often does, says inclusion expert Aubrey Blanche, then the Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion for Atlassian. Through the course of her career she’s been “tasked with designing diversity programs for leading tech companies that go beyond ‘just (white) women.’” It means mastering the nuances of intersectionality, she says. “[A] company dominated by men hiring women from similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds is not diversity in a meaningful sense, it’s one small step away from homogeneity.” Her work has included developing “high touch” scholarship programs for Black, Latina, and Indigenous women, addressing age bias, and customized training relevant for teams in different parts of the world. “Diversity programs are often built from a local viewpoint, but what diversity means may vary drastically based on where you are in the nation or world,” she says.

Have you ever wondered what happened to the racist white people in those Jim Crow era photos? Do those pictures of Uncle Jimmy smiling in the foreground of a lynching, or Cousin Thelma spitting at an integrating student, ever make it into a family album somewhere? Photographer and writer Johnny Silvercloud answered his own question by positing that after the passage of civil rights legislation, those old racists simply went silent. Their ghosts keep popping back into the mainstream, he says, like when a millionaire peacefully takes a knee in protest, or at the sight of a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. “I highly doubt that the white faces in the first Civil Rights Era just automatically let go of their racist ideologies,” he writes. “White supremacy—racism in America—had to adapt, and it did.” (Disturbing photos ahead if you click through.)

Tamara El-Waylly produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.


"We saw all these people behind the fence, looking out, hanging onto the wire, and looking out because they were anxious to know who was coming in. But I will never forget the shocking feeling that human beings were behind this fence like animals [crying]. And we were going to also lose our freedom and walk inside of that gate and find ourselves…cooped up there…when the gates were shut, we knew that we had lost something that was very precious; that we were no longer free."

Mary Tsukamoto, on her experience in a World War II-era detention camp

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