‘Just expense it’ is corporate speak for ‘our policies assume you’re rich’

July 20, 2021, 6:56 PM UTC

Housekeeping: Hi, I’m stacy-marie ishmael. I’ll be your raceAhead writer and host for the next four weeks, while Ellen McGirt is working on other stories and an exciting new project. You might notice some slightly different touches on this newsletter during that time, not least because unlike Ellen I have no talent for haiku. If you see anything you like, and especially anything you don’t, drop me a line.

Now, on with the show.

Let’s talk about money. Specifically, let’s talk about how corporate expense policies are an example of the ways in which our instinct to not talk about money affects people who don’t have much of it.

When I shared a recent reflection about the early career stress of putting business expenses on personal cards (or on corporate cards for which I was personally liable), I did not expect to spark hundreds of responses ranging from “no way, who does that?” to “let me tell you about the time I barely ate while on a work trip because I had to provide my personal debit card to cover hotel incidentals and didn’t have any money left over after.”

While we might not think of expense policies as tools of structural discrimination, the reality is that these are often written (and enforced!) by people whose relationship with credit is based on maximizing their points and getting that good lounge access. Just as unpaid internships reward people who can afford to work for free, requiring employees to carry balances and wait for reimbursement places an undue burden on people who can’t afford to extend a personal loan to their employer. 

And who, disproportionately, might those folks be? According to the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances from the Federal Reserve, a typical white family in the US is eight times wealthier than a typical Black family, and has five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family. This is a gap that’s barely budged over the years. We’re talking assets of $188,200 for a typical white family, compared with $24,100 for Black families. For people under 35, the difference is yet more stark: $600 in wealth for the median Black family, and $11,200 for young Hispanic families compared with $25,400 for young white families. No, that $600 isn’t missing a zero.

Black undergraduates enter the workforce carrying more debt, too: $36,919 worth of student loans, vs the $30,731 typically borrowed by white undergraduates. And Black employees are significantly more likely to be entering the workforce without access to a credit card: lenders reject 44% of credit applications from Black Americans, compared with 19% of white applicants, according to data from LendingTree. The picture is just as bleak for mortgages.

The next time you find yourself wondering how your organization can “do better,” maybe take a look at your expense policies.  

On Point

Tegna, one of the largest operators of local television stations in the U.S., is facing scrutiny of its track record on race and inclusion Sonia Gutierrez, a DREAMer whose parents brought her to the US from Mexico as a baby, was told by her managers at KUSA 9News that she couldn’t report on immigration unless she prefaced every story with a line about her own background and status. Reading this, I was reminded of a note on a 2019 Washington Post story that made sure to disclose that the reporter “has a parent who was formerly incarcerated.” Before that, I’d never seen a disclosure that a reporter covering the criminal justice system had parents who’d never been incarcerated. Nor have I heard of any white reporters who cover immigration being asked to consider how their access to U.S. passports and relative ease of movement globally might predispose them to bias in their reporting. Isn’t that curious?



There are more Black and Hispanic leaders at Facebook these days, and more work to do When Facebook released its most recent Diversity Report, I immediately checked to see whether they’d made progress on increasing the number of US-based leaders who are people of color. As Protocol’s Megan Rose Dickey noted, Facebook has faced allegations of systemic racial bias in hiring and promotions. A year ago, 3.4% of that leadership cohort was Black; now, it’s 4.7%. For Hispanic leaders, the proportion this year is 5.1% vs 4.3% in 2020. Facebook attributed these increases to “strong recruiting and increased focus on retaining top talent across the company.” I asked Maxine Williams, Facebook’s Chief Diversity Officer, what those retention efforts looked like. “Community matters,” she told me. “If you feel alone, that’s going to impact performance.” Williams runs a Black Leadership Circle, one of several internal initiatives designed to encourage structured peer-based support. A sponsorship program explicitly pairs employees from underrepresented groups with more senior colleagues who work in similar functions. Facebook also redesigned their performance evaluations to reduce opportunities for bias. Research has shown that performance reviews encode biases, and Black women are especially subject to negative feedback based on stereotyping.



There is such a thing as too many check-ins with your team In this excellent WSJ story about meeting fatigue, there’s a riff by executive coach Caroline Kim Oh that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: "Sometimes caring more means saving a worker from one more Zoom." As managers and leaders attempt to navigate the twin forces of The Great Hybridization and The Great Resignation, there’s a temptation to schedule ever more meetings-about-meetings-about-work. A more useful question might be: how can we get out of the way?


On Background

Not sold on the office talent show, though One of the books I finished reading just before the beginning of the pandemic last year was Priya Parker’s “The Art of Gathering." (How little we knew then about what was to come.) In a recent interview with Charter about preparing to return to the office, Parker suggested that we should be thinking about what we might be able to leave behind to make space for different ways of working and yes, of gathering.



Whose needs get to be accommodated? Disability rights and justice have not typically been on the agenda for corporate America. That has begun, very slowly, to change. The pandemic revealed that accommodations that had long been dismissed as “unnecessary," “too expensive,” and “too complicated” when requested by people with disabilities turned out to be “essential” and “actually not that hard” to provide when abled workers needed them. “Getting back to normal” does not have to mean “at the expense of people who need different things to be successful." Nor should modifications that we made during the pandemic persist if those fail to serve people who’ve been historically excluded by the choices we make about our spaces. As Peneliope Richards put it in Eater, “if restaurants can build a sidewalk shed, they can accommodate disabled diners."


From mood board to the big move

One of the changes you might notice while I’m guest-editing is what we’re calling “The Big Move." These will feature people who’ve shown a real commitment to demonstrating inclusion (and to leading inclusively) in their work.


Maxine Williams is Facebook’s global chief diversity officer. Despite the progress Facebook had made in improving representation across the company and in leadership roles, Williams says “she is not resting on her laurels."

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