How to Build an Anti-Racist Company: 4 Expert Perspectives From Quartz at Work's Panel

June 15, 2020 Jess Huckins

6-minute read

Quartz at Work panel

In 2012, the death of Trayvon Martin brought racial tensions to the forefront of public consciousness. As more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) began to raise their voices and share their perspectives – and too many others died by police actions or while in police custody – it became clear racism is not only very much alive, but it also can’t be fixed by white people simply believing it’s wrong, claiming not to be racist themselves, and/or being friends with people from different backgrounds. 

We need to act. Explore and realize our own privilege and biases, even if this work cuts deep. Join with our BIPOC friends and neighbors in protest – physical, written, and spoken. Read, listen, and avoid asking BIPOC to educate us. Put our money where our mouths are through donations and by supporting BIPOC-owned businesses and artists. Vote, vote, vote. 

And still, these actions aren’t enough. They’re too individualistic, too disparate, and too short-lived. The U.S. has structural and systemic racism burned deep into its core – there is no quick fix. It’s on HR and business leaders, as people striving to make the workplace more human, to ensure they’re acting to eradicate racism where they do have control: their organizations.

Last Thursday, Quartz at Work brought together four expert panelists:

  • Steve Pemberton, CHRO, Workhuman®
  • Lyndon Taylor, managing partner, diversity & inclusion practice, Heidrick & Struggles
  • Melissa Theiss, VP of operations, Quorum
  • Nadia Owusu, associate director, Living Cities and author of “Aftershocks” 

In conversation with moderator Heather Landy, executive editor of Quartz and editor of Quartz at Work, they offered actionable advice on diversity, inclusion, and racial justice to help leaders and employees carry the momentum forward into meaningful, transformative action. 

Here are four takeaways:

1. Define what diversity and inclusion mean and look like.

Lyndon explained that organizations and their leaders can outperform competitors in three ways. “They clearly define diversity and inclusion. They then say why that is linked to their business and why is it important for their business. And they measure and share results,” he said. “In business, what gets measured gets done.” 

Steve shared the first rule he learned about advancing equity: “It's not whether you agree it is necessary or even whether you're willing to empathize or not. The first question is: What are you willing to change about the way you do things in order to realize it? That is a much tougher question to answer. You start answering that one and then I think you'll begin to get the answers to a lot of other things about where the organization really is."

2. Examine policies and business language for racism and bias.

The current social climate of protest and racial unrest is, sadly, only the latest in a long, long line. Fixating on policies that respond to this particular moment in time are short-sighted. Instead, leaders should look at all their policies through a lens of identifying who they benefit and harm and whether there’s an opportunity to make them more equitable

This includes examining written documentation for words such as “grandfather” (as in “grandfathered in”), which has its origins in Jim Crow laws, and replacing them with more inclusive options such as “legacy.” Melissa said this extends to examples such as considering LGBTQ+ employees when writing language around adoption and parental leave.  

Melissa also suggested organizations put in place “yellow flag” programs to help stop microaggressions and subtle exclusion. These come into play when an action or comment is not “a fireable offense, an outright act of clear discrimination or aggression, but … uncomfortable and something that we want to eliminate from our workplace,” she said. “Encourage people to use ‘yellow flags,’ whether as reactions on a virtual platform like Slack or you just say the phrase ‘yellow flag’ and agree to circle back in a time and place with a moderator.” 

Other possibilities include starting an organizational book club, reevaluating policies that may impact future workers, diversifying suppliers (e.g., purchasing those book club books from a Black-owned bookstore rather than Amazon), and considering customer inclusivity.

3. Hiring a chief diversity officer won’t fix a broken culture. 

In her work, Nadia has noticed that white employees often avoid or resist discussing privilege and microaggressions, arguing that it creates division or that they feel bullied. This is why it takes “real commitment to seeing diversity and inclusion as an ongoing daily practice, particularly for those at the top,” she explained.

“There's an enormous gap between what the institutions commit to in their mission statements, or those statements that they are putting out in this moment, and how employees actually experience the workplace,” she continued, highlighting the need for organizations to align their mission and values with specific actions. “That gap is really big and really felt by people of color and particularly Black folks in those institutions.” 

Steve chimed in to add that diversity officers need both people and money to help advance change from within an organization. “Hiring a chief diversity officer with no team and no budget is like an ice cream cone with no ice cream in it. When was the last time any company said that something mattered, put one person on it with no budget and no team? You're not going to achieve any real progress.” 

4. Recruiting and development practices need to support BIPOC.

Steve noted that Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the number of Black and Latino people graduating with STEM degrees has generally remained stagnant or been in decline, and that BIPOC are underrepresented in many industries. “Cast a wider net,” he said, by recruiting from historically Black colleges and universities. “These aren't matters of unconscious bias. These are conscious behaviors – people know what they're doing and they defend, justify, explain it away.

“I see some of that same behavior creeping in on the recruiting side. We ‘just can't find any,’” he continued. “I've yet to encounter a company that really put the longer-term effort and resources into diversifying its workforce and have not found success. People want the quick wins.” 

Steve also took care to emphasize the importance of having a development plan for BIPOC hires: “If you have a population that is diverse as a result of recruiting efforts and you don't have a plan for how you're going to progress them forward, ultimately you're going to lose them.”

Watch the entire panel discussion on Quartz at Work. For more from Steve Pemberton, tune in to Keeping Work Human, our video interview series exploring paths through both COVID-19 and racial injustice.

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About the Author

Jess Huckins

Jess Huckins is a content producer at Workhuman. She produces the Keeping Work Human video series and writes white papers, checklists, video scripts, infographics, and other content, focusing primarily on the data fueled by gratitude and recognition. Jess lives in Salem, Mass., where she enjoys adventuring outdoors with her two border collies.

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