Corporate responses to racism during troubling times

I am occasionally asked by organizational leaders, “What should I do?” in response to societal issues involving bias and racism. Questions like, “What should I say?” or “How can I help?” come from compassionate, well-meaning leaders and colleagues who sincerely want to know what to do.

Times like these, to quote Marvin Gaye, “Make me wanna holler, the way they do my life” and the lives of my black brothers and sisters. “Make me wanna holler. Throw up both my hands.” Times like these make me want to say, “I don’t know. What you should do?” After I have my moment of angst and move through the fatigue from the constant battle for fairness, justice, civility, inclusion, belonging, and respect, I come back to the work I am called to do in helping people think better, do better, and be better at what matters most and … I breathe.

As the events of the recent months and days have unfolded — coronavirus, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and the hateful threat to Christian Cooper, many leaders have made statements and taken action. Some have decided to say nothing and take no action, while others remain uncertain about the appropriate statement to make or action to take.

People are asking questions because they are frustrated, disheartened, challenged, and perhaps even convicted by what they see happening around the nation. They ask because they fear what could happen next. They wonder about their own complicity if they say or do nothing. They question whether or not their voices or actions really matter when it comes to solving what seems impossible to resolve.

I can’t speak for every black person. I can only speak for myself. And my answer is this: Yes, it matters. It matters that you take the time to ask me how I’m doing. It matters that you want to do something — that you want to help. It matters when you speak up. It matters more when you show up. It matters when you take steps to engage and partner in doing whatever you can with your influence, power, privilege, and resources to eradicate the evil of racism as well as eliminate discrimination, racial and ethnic bias, microassaults, insults, and aggressions against black people. It matters when you extend yourself in friendship and allyship to the just causes of civil rights, human rights, equity, and inclusion.

As organizational leaders and as individuals discerning a right response to the injustices wrought from discrimination, racism, cynicism, anger, fear, and division, begin with self-examination. Know that your biases and those of others affect decision-making. Consider the possible consequences, then act. Look for connections versus focusing on difference. Examine ways you can use your privilege and resources to be part of the solution.

After you’ve done the self-work or while you’re doing it, take a look at the organizations you lead and those in which you have influence. Are you committed to having an anti-racist organization — one that is free from racial discrimination and harassment, that responds when issues of discrimination or harassment arise, and takes proactive measures to monitor for and prevent the occurrence of discrimination or harassment? Are you willing to purposefully identify, discuss, and challenge issues of race and color and the impacts they have on your organization, systems, and people? Will you challenge yourselves to understand and correct any inequities you discover within your organization and attempt to gain a better understanding of yourselves? Do you believe that being an anti-racist organization is a journey worth embarking upon and a journey that will benefit the good of all of your employees and society?

Without a willingness to grapple with the impact of racial bias and talk about the effects of systemic racism along with the effects on organizational decision-making, progress is fleeting when it comes to eliminating racism.

A commitment to anti-racism in the workplace means:

  • Being aware of whether your organizational practices, policies, procedures, and programs have an adverse impact or result on systemic discrimination for racialized individuals or groups;
  • Analyzing data regarding race within your organization; and
  • Being aware of human rights matters, regardless of whether or not a complaint has been raised.

It means fostering an environment that is respectful of human rights by exercising anti-racist behaviors, including:

  • Instituting a comprehensive anti-racist vision statement and policy;
  • Being proactive by having ongoing monitoring;
  • Implementing strategies that include training, communication policy, change initiatives, and imbedding anti-racist values into the culture;
  • Evaluating regularly to ensure effectiveness; and
  • Creating inclusive environments where people feel safe to speak up and share their concerns.

It also means a commitment to:

  • Eliminating discrimination in hiring and promotion;
  • Reflecting the contributions and interests of diverse cultural and social groups in your mission, operations, and products or services;
  • Supporting the development of anti-racist white allies and empowered people of various races through your organization’s culture, norms, policies, and procedures; and
  • Taking an anti-racist view of decision-making, budgets, funding sources, accountability, power, pay, and location for your organizational activities.

An anti-racist organization is committed to addressing the racism and oppression by examining the ways that they communicate, the space in which they work, and the activities they share.

Racism is insidious and corrupts operational function. It threatens organizational brand and reputation while also hindering recruitment, engagement, and retention of diverse talent. Racism poses a legal threat to organizations and cultivates fractured work cultures that serve to diminish morale, esprit de corps, productivity, and innovation. And, it’s just plain wrong.

So, what should you do? Assess yourself and your organization and align your practices with anti-racism. Educate yourself and your organization about racism and its impact. Build cross-racial relationships personally and professionally. Examine internal organizational opportunities for impact in decision-making, hiring, engaging, recruiting, promoting, communicating, training, developing, and in practice, policy, procedure, and programs. Develop strategic partnerships in the community and with vendors. Learn from other organizations and follow their lead. Work with those who are willing to work with you.

You may become frustrated in the process. Go ahead. Holler and throw up both your hands. But, don’t give up. Stay the course. Listen. Use your voice, power, privilege, resources, and influence. Act.

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