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Steps companies can take to make the workplace better for black employees

February 24, 2020, 6:00 PM UTC
two employees talking in the workplace
Black History Month is a great opportunity to begin the process of confronting racism in the workplace.
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

Most business leaders recognize that they need to improve their diversity performance—and that one way to do that is to build a more inclusive environment. Thus, each February, many corporations hold Black History Month celebrations that focus on black achievements and culture. There are black history trivia contests, African American food events, and screenings of movies by black filmmakers.

It is essential that we shine a light on the immense contributions of black Americans in politics, business, art, science, and civic life. But if we just celebrate, we’re ignoring the harder truth that racism continues to hold black professionals back from leadership roles in corporate America.

Workplace racism can end only when employees who are not black see, hear, and accept the truth about what their black colleagues have experienced and continue to experience. Black History Month is a great opportunity to begin this process.

Changing the atmosphere will be a steep climb. According to a new survey conducted by our research group at the Center for Talent Innovation, 58% of black professionals have experienced racial prejudice at work—a higher percentage than any other racial or ethnic group surveyed. Black adults represent 12% of the population and 10% of degree holders. They hold only 8% of professional jobs and 3.2% of executive or senior-level management positions. And less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are black, according to the Executive Leadership Council. 

The most painful aspect of the situation is that white employees don’t see the problem. While 65% of black professionals say that black employees must work harder to advance in their careers, only 16% of white professionals agree with that statement. 

To create an equitable workplace culture, companies can use Black History Month as an ideal moment to begin facilitating discussions about race. These conversations are often considered a third rail—so painful that we’re afraid to touch them. Employees are not necessarily prepared to bring that pain to the surface at work.

But leaders can push through this resistance by creating a safe environment for difficult conversations. Start with the facts. Gather representation data from your company regarding the percentages of jobs at every level held by black professionals. Compare this data to national findings. If you have engagement surveys and retention rates, look at those, too, broken out by race and ethnicity.

Bring the data to a meeting of top company leaders and talent specialists—ideally a diverse group—with a neutral facilitator to walk through the internal and external findings. Discuss why the numbers are where they are and encourage leaders to express their thoughts about racial equity. 

Don’t be surprised if you unearth some surprising stories. In one such meeting, an executive told us about a black female product engineer who walked through the company cafe and was asked by a white employee to take his tray to the trash. When she informed him that she didn’t work at the cafe, the white male looked down with embarrassment but didn’t apologize. 

When these stories arise, avoid the tendency to minimize them. Instead, demonstrate your own curiosity and empathy. For example, ask the group how it would feel to be in each role. (You may hear, for example, that the white male saw it as a rare misunderstanding; while to the female product engineer, it was the latest in a lifetime of similar slights, and as such, cut deep.) Ask why such an encounter would happen. You don’t have to have all the answers. You simply have to have the courage to create an environment that can promote a meaningful conversation, learning, and understanding. 

Don’t let the conversation stop as a one-off experience. Encourage leaders to share their newfound focus on race in discussions with their teams. Share resources on systemic racism—whether they are books, podcasts, films, or the key findings of our own research. Consider holding a screening of a film such as When They See Us, followed by a discussion.

Once more leaders and colleagues are comfortable addressing race, bring a diverse group back to the table (or consider hosting a retreat) to design interventions that will create the environment of trust, respect, and belonging that black professionals are seeking in their careers. The outcomes will vary company to company. For some it might be appropriate to hold leaders accountable for representation goals in their divisions. For others it might be better to hold new leadership training for managers, so that they are more aware of microaggressions and able to support black members of their teams.

Over time, as you and your team build new habits, you will begin to think of the “third rail” not as shocking, but energizing everyone and moving your organization forward. After all, the third rail powers the train. As people become more comfortable understanding each others’ experiences, they’ll be more likely to produce the innovative ideas that help businesses succeed.

Trudy Bourgeois is founder of the Center for Workforce Excellence and served as an adviser on the aforementioned Center for Talent Innovation study, “Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration.”

Julia Taylor Kennedy is executive vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation and co-lead researcher on the aforementioned study.

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