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We need to talk about racial justice issues at work. Here’s how

Evelyn Carter PhD, managing director at Paradigm, believes this past year should continue to be a powerful catalyst to put us on a different, better path for the future if we have frank conversations.

We need to talk about racial justice issues at work. Here’s how
[Illustration: Aleksandra Matafonova/iStock]
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Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten a version of the same question from clients and journalists: What have companies learned about racial injustice over the last year? If I’m being honest, I’ve asked myself this as well. More importantly, what actions have they taken, and what are we to make of those actions?

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In 2014, Mike Brown’s murder sparked an uprising that rippled from Ferguson throughout the U.S. In 2020, George Floyd’s murder (but not that of Breonna Taylor) similarly catalyzed a powerful shift in the conversion about racial injustice and the ongoing impact of systemic racism. How do we put into context the year of commitments—and some corporate backlash—and what can we glean about how to move forward for the next years to come? 

One thing is patently clear: The increased exposure to the realities of racial injustice has undoubtedly shaped people’s opinions. Paradigm’s survey of 2,000+ American adults conducted in mid-May found that 69% of people think racial injustice is a problem in the U.S., and 60% think it’s a bigger problem now than they thought it was before the events of the past year.

These data aren’t shocking. They build on my own research and that of others on how influential it can be to learn about discrimination (whether in individual stories or through group protests). But it’s encouraging to see a consensus among people of different ages, races/ethnicities, and genders. 

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However, as we dug a bit deeper into the data, there were some interesting differences that emerged, and those nuances can inform how organizations evolve their diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and handle workplace conversations about racial injustice.

Younger people have high expectations of their workplaces

While the majority of people in every age group think racial injustice is a problem, 18-44-year-olds are more likely than those over 45 to think racial injustice is a bigger problem than they thought it was before the past year (66% vs. 55%).

Young GenX-ers, Millennials, and GenZ-ers also expect more from their employers. While the majority of people in every age group said they think we should be able to discuss racial injustice at work and that companies should take action on racial justice issues, 63% of 18-44-year-olds said they would consider leaving their employer if it didn’t speak out against racial injustice, compared to 40% of people over 45 years old.

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Questions I sometimes get from leaders are:

  • Why can’t we leave what’s going on in the world outside of work?
  • I believe racial injustice is wrong, but why is it my company’s responsibility to get involved in this conversation?

I typically share three reasons why that’s a poor strategy: 

  • It’s a nearly impossible ask, especially for employees who are people of color, to just pretend that the world around us does not exist. What happens in the world impacts our communities and our individual sense of safety and well-being. Employers should demonstrate that they’re aware of this impact and provide their support. 
  • These conversations are going to take place at work regardless. By creating dedicated spaces for them, they’ll be more productive and less likely to cause harm. 
  • If we want to make meaningful change around racial injustice, we need to be re-educating ourselves and learning new behaviors in every single space we occupy. This re-education process is continuous and cannot merely be accomplished by reading one book or having a single dialogue; it must be ongoing. We spend a lot of time at work, and we interact with people of all different backgrounds. It’s an ideal place to upskill ourselves.

Now, with this new data, the case is even clearer. If you want to attract and retain employees—particularly younger generations—you need to take a stand and continue to build your organizational skills around addressing racial injustice. 

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Awareness of racial injustice is increasing most among people of color

This past year has spotlighted the systemic, often tragic impact of racial injustice, and when asked whether they now see racial injustice as a bigger problem compared to a year ago, 68% of people of color agreed, versus 55% of white people. (For statistical significance, we grouped the responses of Black, LatinX, Asian, and Indigenous people.) 

This gap is not particularly surprising. My previous research highlights that people of color tend to see racism as more prevalent than white people. But, these data beg the question: In what ways did people of color become more aware of racial injustice this year? With an increase in hate crimes targeting Asians (undoubtedly linked to President Trump’s “China virus” rhetoric), the murders of Black people, or a pandemic that disproportionately impacted people of color— particularly those from the Latinx community—the past 12 months have demonstrated how systemic racism undermines equity across many groups. Although people of color may have been aware of the impact of racism on their own community, I believe the events of the past year sparked moments of recognition and solidarity among marginalized groups.

In the past year, many companies have begun looking closer at their data to understand the experiences of their employees of color, and I fully encourage this. Understanding the unique experiences of folks from different backgrounds is the first step to understanding the data-driven interventions that will drive improved hiring, retention, promotion, and inclusion for those groups.

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While it’s important to understand the nuances of each group’s experience within your workplace, DEI efforts do not always need to be siloed by demographics. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that people want to work together.

  • Consider amplifying the coalition-building happening between Black and Asian communities by sponsoring co-led events by the ERGs in your organization.
  • Draw connections between the experiences of marginalized groups, and point toward the real culprit: policies and practices that prioritize whiteness.

These are just a couple of ways you can support intra-minority coalition-building to help raise everyone’s awareness of racial injustice.

Witnessing or experiencing racial discrimination at work is still common

Because people of color are more aware of racial injustice in the world, they are also attuned to—not to mention more likely to be the target of—these experiences at work. We found that people of color were more likely to see racial injustice happening in their own workplaces. Sixty-four percent of people of color witnessed or experienced racial bias or discrimination at work during the past 12 months, compared to 38% of white people. 

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One story from these data could be how prevalent racial discrimination still is in modern workplaces. That’s an important story to tell. What I often consider is how I expect these numbers to change over time. With increased conversations about racial injustice, with increased training to help people identify biases in their own actions and company policies, we should expect people to catch more of these incidents.

The next question is how do we equip people to deal with what they have noticed? Some research suggests that 81% of people believe they would speak up if they witness bias, but other research suggests that when people are actually in the moment the number of those who say something is far lower (in some cases, 33%). This suggests that, if we want to equip people with the skills to detect bias more frequently, we also need to equip them with the skills to address it. 

  • First, you need to understand and address how racial injustice may be showing up in your organization. Many leaders are tempted to believe that it’s a thing that’s only happening in the outside world. It’s not. Don’t believe me? Look more closely at your engagement survey data and review the comments shared alongside the quantitative data, and hold listening sessions with your employees of color. These will give you insights into the experiences they have—the microaggressions and flat-out racism that undermines their belonging, performance, and well-being. You’ll uncover hard and important truths about the current state of your organization and ways you can improve, in those endeavors.
  • Once you understand the scope of the problem, hold everyone accountable for improvement. Accountability can mean teaching folks how to offer a genuine apology (this is a nontrivial suggestion – 67% of people who experience microaggressions most want an apology). It can also mean refusing to promote a leader who does otherwise “great work” but refuses to take your company’s anti-racism efforts seriously. And put thoughtful consideration into how to support employees on the receiving end of discrimination, whether it’s offering a “warm line” like Intel or dedicated counseling or coaching so people have a place to share their experiences.
  • Finally, get everyone upskilled in how to speak up when they witness racial discrimination. The biggest reason for the gap between how people believe they would speak up and how they actually do comes down to self-doubt. People often wonder whether it’s their place to say something, or if they will have an impact. Creating norms and providing clear guidance on how to call out bias in the spirit of growth and learning, will help instill a culture where it’s everyone’s responsibility to address bias when they see it. 

The last year has undoubtedly pushed the boundaries of traditional diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies. Even the most seasoned DEI practitioners (many of whom were also dealing with trauma from these events) were in uncharted waters. Addressing the ugly manifestations of hundreds of years of systemic racism cannot happen entirely inside one year. However, this past year should continue to be a powerful catalyst to put us on a different, better path for the future. 

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Evelyn Carter PhD is managing director at Paradigm whose research has been funded by the National Science Foundation.