Let’s talk, corporate America. It has been a week.
Send out a Black Lives Matter tweet and statement to social media? Check.
Send your staff an appropriate Black Lives Matter-based email? Check.
Analyze your demographic data to assess your diversity? Check.
Hire an acceptable consultant for a quick, one day, one-off unconscious bias training? Double Check.
That’s a start. You did not know what you did not know and you did the best that you could with the knowledge that you had. But we also have to create space to wrestle with a deeper question. What do we do when “the work” requires so much more? How do we actualize and operationalize the intentions of anti-racism, so that they don’t ring hollow when it comes to our actual actions in the workplace?
The reality is that the work of increasing and embedding a culture of diversity, inclusion, and equitable practice in the workplace is so much more than a checklist. To treat diversity, equity, and inclusion work (DEI) as a to-do list with a finite start and finish will only result in the stunted growth of the very culture you are hoping to manifest. It is not sustainable, and there are better ways to address equity so that it not only sounds but is authentic.
Corporate leaders who are ready to pursue the true work of DEI need to be able to answer five key questions for their employees:
- How will this impact leadership decisions?
- How are we expected to implement this into our daily work functions?
- How will it impact our mission and vision?
- How will my manager uphold these values in our day-to-day interactions?
- How will we codify all of this work that we say is so important to us?
If you are looking at this list and feeling overwhelmed, take a breath.
The glue to the change that you are seeking begins with a simple word: capacity. A sense of urgency to change your organization, particularly through checklists or other quick fixes, can potentially do more harm than good. An organization primed to change the world in the absence of the capacity that it needs to see that change through will fall short. People with urgency and no skills or tools to be urgent cannot shift your organizational culture or support you to reach important equity goals such as an increased staff of color, more diverse representation on boards and in leadership, and greater retention and feelings of belonging within your current staff.
In our work, we know that the best way for organizations to reach their goals and to sustain these outcomes requires a multilayered cultural approach. There are three very specific practices to embrace.
First, the work must begin with the C-suite and board and cascade down to the rest of your organization. Organizational change begins at the top. DEI not only requires knowledge from leaders about what DEI is through the lens of your organization. DEI also asks our most formal executive leaders to communicate through loss (people do not fear change, they fear loss), and to communicate a vision even in the face of uncertainty.
DEI-based work will push leaders to ask critical questions about your culture, your data, and what accountability will mean. These conversations must happen before engaging the rest of the organization. Your staff looks to you to provide clarity in uncertainty, even, and perhaps especially when the way out is uncertain. Staff and other leaders need their superiors to clearly communicate what is on the other side of this DEI goal. If you do not know, you must be able to say you do not know. Therein lies the root of why C-suite leaders must be coached and trained on DEI practices through the lens of their organization before the staff.
Second, the human resource function and managers are the heart of codifying the change that you want. Without this, the culture of DEI cannot live or be embedded within your organization. Managers and directors are key partners, along with HR, in building and sustaining your culture. They need to be brought along from day one. This work requires more than a lone warrior.
Managers serve a crucial role in supporting accountability. It is not enough that executive leaders can walk the walk; it is equally important that managers are able to provide similar clarity and progress toward a vision and to ensure that their teams can contextualize DEI work within their respective work functions. Managers should receive training and coaching that will support them in understanding how they can manifest the company vision, and new HR policies and practices.
Lastly, the staff should only be trained after company leadership has established the why and the how of your DEI work, after significant thought has been put into the ways in which this culture will live within your organization, and how your leadership team will clearly and transparently communicate it as an authentic call to action.
The “why” begins with the C-suite and cascades down, when leaders of organizations ask themselves some fundamental questions: “Why is this work of dismantling inequity so important to me?” and subsequently, “Why is this work so important to my organization?” The “why” validates the authenticity of the work, and employees need to hear a “why” to authenticate why their leaders are invested, outside of public relations.
This call to action can be communicated in many ways. There are grand gestures that instill an initial belief in the movement, such as all staff town halls and company-wide communications. But just as important are the many small gestures that are the most sustaining ones: consistent internal communications that percolate throughout the company, validated by managers, and state in no uncertain terms to employees that every corner of the company is committed and accountable to the work.
Business leaders who are willing to go deeper at this moment have the opportunity to be part of a paradigm shift in corporate America’s approach to systemic racism at a time of dire need.
Darnisa Amante-Jackson, Ed.L.D., is a diversity, equity, and inclusion advisor to businesses and school systems across the country.