Most employees think their companies are guilty of performative allyship

July 2, 2022, 12:30 PM UTC
A Black worker with white colleagues
An estimated 8 million Black Americans left their jobs in 2021.
Klaus Vedfelt—Getty Images

Most of us know the drill. There’s a national tragedy that directly impacts Black people. Or immigrants. Women. People who identify as LGBTQ+. Asian-Americans. Fill-in-the-blank ethnic or minority group. The event is covered by media outlets across the country, and social media timelines fill up with hot takes and strong opinions. Then one by one, the companies where we spend our money and that employ us release carefully crafted statements reassuring employees and consumers that they’re thinking of us and on our side.

What follows is often a vague commitment to do better and the introduction of new policies or benefits that fall in line with trends across the corporate landscape—listening sessions, diversity days, hiring DEI professionals, and adopting slogans like #BlackLivesMatter or rainbow-treated logos.

In and of themselves, these actions that companies take aren’t bad. But when executives don’t go any further—they don’t analyze the internal structures that breed inequality, don’t consider how they are complicit, don’t turn the magnifying glass on their own employees and invest real resources to support newly launched diversity programs—they are guilty of performative allyship.

In a recent Catalyst survey of roughly 7,000 people across 14 countries, 75% of employees reported that they didn’t believe their organization’s racial equity policies were genuine.

In 2020, U.S. companies promised to spend a combined $60 billion on racial equity initiatives following the murder of George Floyd, according to a report on the survey findings by authors Tara Van Bommel, Kathrina Robotham, and Danielle M. Jackson. By 2021 companies had shelled out just $250 million.

“It’s not enough to announce policies or issue statements. Your organization must follow through and take meaningful action,” the authors wrote in the report. “Our data show that employees are savvy and recognize when company policies are merely performative—and when that is the conclusion they reach, there are consequences for organizations.”

There are no quick fixes

Amid the global reckoning on race in 2020, many major companies were quick to denounce racism, release statements declaring support for their employees, and add diversity, equity, and inclusion executives to the payroll. But next steps were often not clear, if they existed at all.

This isn’t a matter of the issues at hand being too big to solve, says Ericka Brownlee-Keller, a DEI professional based in Washington, D.C. “The problem is no one knows what to do.”

A lot of these issues require constant and truly open conversations and self-reflection, says Brownlee-Keller. And that makes people uncomfortable. “It’s uncomfortable to say, ‘I am not knowledgable in this.’ When you do have these conversations, they get offended.”

Corporations can be promoters of real change, Brownlee-Keller argues. For decades, how we thought about work was largely centered around the office. Then white-collar employees got a taste of remote work during the pandemic, and now many companies are disrupting workflow to establish new standards for the future of how we do our jobs.

It’s important for leaders of companies to know that no statements, DEI hires, or days off are a true solution. It takes community partnerships, looking beyond who you think has the answers, making sure executive teams are diverse. It takes real investment and strategy, Brownlee-Keller says. And it takes time.

The risks of performative allyship

The Great Resignation is taking a toll on Black workers. An estimated 8 million Black Americans left their jobs in 2021. They’re heading for the exits for a number of reasons—microaggressions, unequal pay, lack of diversity, and a scarcity of career-advancement opportunities.

The authors of the Catalyst report called the employee response to companies’ DEI policies a wake-up call for CEOs. The report showed that workers want leaders who can speak authentically to the issues facing them and not only create genuine policies, but stand up for equity and inclusion, and take action to progress DEI goals in measurable and impactful ways.

“With the Great Resignation, employees have demonstrated that they will take their talent elsewhere if an organization’s values don’t match up with their own; in many cases, employees consider flexibility, inclusion, and ethical leadership as non-negotiable,” Van Bommel, Robotham, and Jackson wrote in the Catalyst report.

“Research shows that job candidates prefer to work for organizations they perceive as having high moral character. Organizations that are seen as moral can more effectively gain support for policies and programs and enhance their brand and reputation,” they continued. “When employees think their organizations are inauthentic, trust in leaders and the organization, team performance, and employee productivity all suffer. Also, policies are less effective when employees perceive that they are motivated by self-interest or to protect top management.”

The practice of DEI goals and initiatives in corporate America is still relatively new. DEI professionals are still learning on the job what works and how to advise executives to evolve their corporate structures, says Brownlee-Keller. It’s going to take some trial and error—and a lot of time and money.

“You can’t fix a foundational problem with a transactional solution,” Brownlee-Keller says. “You can’t just say, ‘Go get me all the Black candidates, but we’re not going to make sure they feel like they belong, we’re not going to make sure there’s support and resources, we’re not going to make sure there’s pay equity.'”

Without a true investment, says Brownlee-Keller, there can’t be meaningful change. “That’s why your DEI efforts are failing.”

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