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Ideas Made to Matter

Diversity

3 ways leaders can make Black lives matter in the workplace

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This summer, during a historic period of activism to affirm that Black lives matter, organizations of all sizes examined their diversity and inclusion strategies, with most pledging to improve — or in some cases establish — policies on anti-Black racism. But with centuries of structural and social prejudices as a foundation, that’s easier said than done.

“Racism is what we see in the workplace, where only a certain number of Black people make it to the top and there are systems at work to prevent them from doing that,” said Tina Opie, a 2019-2021 MIT MLK visiting scholar, and associate professor who teaches organizational behavior at Babson College. She is also the founder of Opie Consulting Group, which helps organizations with their diversity, inclusion, and equitable workplace strategies. Clients have included Hulu, American Express, and the NFL.

“Many white people think they’re going to have to give up something, and they don’t want to do that,” Opie said. “That’s why they treat diversity like an add-on, not as an essential element of their organization, because if they really believed in it … we could change the culture of an organization in six months if we put money, effort, and time behind it.”

In her 2017 paper “Do Black lives really matter in the workplace? Restorative justice as a means to reclaim humanity,” co-written with Laura Morgan Roberts of the University of Virginia, Opie recommends three first steps organizations should take to change that culture and help make Black lives matter in the workplace.

Take a new perspective

Standing in a Black person’s shoes helps someone who isn’t Black to acknowledge racial discrimination and reduce prejudice or support for racist stereotypes, Opie and her co-author write.

Within an organization this perspective taking could be something like reading first-person stories from Black people that detail situations where they’ve been discriminated against and their emotions and thoughts around that situation. Another way could be watching depictions of anti-Black discrimination and examining how employees feel and perceive those prejudices.

The more these types of interventions take place, the more opportunities for perspective taking. However, these interactions can create anxiety among participants and may increase prejudices, the co-authors write. Opie recommends having a trained researcher or group facilitator to help with designing the perspective taking among coworkers.

“During perspective taking, it is imperative that neither the facilitator nor any participant or group dominate the conversation or overpower other participants during the discussion,” the paper states. “A facilitator can help groups create discussion norms that facilitate this type of expression while simultaneously discourage participants from brashly offending one another.”

The researchers also advise that employees should not be forced to participate in the perspective-taking interventions, but an organization’s leadership might have to encourage full participation to get the most benefit from the intergroup work.

And consider a pilot version before launching something firm-wide, the paper states. This can help set best practices and avoid problem areas revealed in a smaller setting.

Opie and her co-author write that they were not aware of any large-scale efforts by organizations taking this approach, but there is research to back up the concept of empathy as a way to reduce anti-Black racism. A 2011 study from researchers at the University of Cologne and Northwestern University found that people who were instructed to take the perspective of a Black person were more aware of racial inequalities and received more positive ratings from a Black interaction partner during a face-to-face conversation than test subjects who were told to be objective.

Establish strong, thoughtful leadership

Setting a tone at the top is “vital” to making Black lives matter at work. The paper references Tim Ryan, CEO of PricewaterhouseCoopers, and his 2016 response to fatal police shootings of two Black men — Philando Castile and Alton Sterling — during the summer he stepped into the leadership role:

  • Ryan and his team had discussions about strategy before making firm-wide announcements.
  • Employees’ specific concerns were addressed, rather than having a broad conversation about diversity.
  • The firm’s leadership did not claim to be experts, but allowed employees to steer the conversation about workplace racism.

“Interestingly, by encouraging employees to listen to Black employees’ concerns, Ryan engaged in a crucial step of restorative justice, that is, creating an environment for authentic discussion,” the paper states.

Ryan again called for more open dialogue among employees in 2017 after the Charlottesville protests. And in 2018, when Black PwC accountant Botham Jean was murdered in his apartment by a Dallas police officer, Ryan helped cover the cost of the memorial service and established a scholarship fund in Jean’s name.

Strong, thoughtful leadership can also help an organization establish and support a chief diversity and inclusion officer, a position that Opie said is often set up for failure.

Chief diversity officers and similar senior roles are expected to help with internal strategies as well as handle anything controversial that makes a headline — often with a press release, social media post, and planning meetings to educate and coach executive teams and employees.

But you wouldn’t ask one person in your company to come up with a start to finish strategy for all of your salespeople, Opie said. There would be project plans, multiple people responsible for different parts of that plan, a budget and timeline, and a chain of reporting leading up to the CEO or board.

“That kind of urgency does not exist around DEI initiatives often, and they're often not public,” Opie said.

Diversity, equity and inclusion needs to be embedded throughout the hiring stages and employment levels of organizations, as well as throughout stakeholder groups, Opie said.

Make structural and symbolic changes

In their research and observations, Opie and Roberts found that organizations that “affirm the dignity and fulfillment of Black lives” meet four indicators:

Structural — The organization makes roles and responsibilities clear and allows for coordination among employees to address racial inequity. There is also a way to monitor diversity and inclusion numbers.

“If an employee experiences workplace racism, a clear reporting process with controls to ensure protection against retaliation may be more likely to lead to positive change than a structure characterized by unclear processes and roles,” the paper states.

Opie also recommends developing relationships with Black organizations — like a church or professional group — that can offer access to a pipeline of Black talent. But be careful not to delegate diverse hiring to an external organization, Opie said. It’s still the hiring company’s responsibility.

Human resources — The organization has hiring and development practices that ensure employees have the right skills and attitudes to accomplish the company’s goals, while also feeling fulfilled.

“When you're talking about Black people you have to consider hiring at multiple levels, and focus on multiple people coming in at the same time, and at higher levels of the organization,” Opie said.

In organizations in which Black lives matter, Black employees are equally represented across leadership roles, and have the freedom and confidence to voice their opinions and challenge diversity and inclusion efforts.

Political — The organizations invests in community centers in local or national Black communities, and trains Black people for future jobs in its particular industry.

“From a political standpoint, it is important for organizations to acknowledge historical and contemporary power dynamics in the workplace when signifying how and why Black lives matter,” the paper states. “Power dynamics yield different access to organizational resources.”

After the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed while in police custody in Minneapolis, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon pledged $100 million over five years for a racial equity center, according to The Hill. Target announced a $5 million commitment to its Minneapolis-area Target Foundation, with a focus of “creating pathways to job placement through technical training and skills building, increasing and preserving housing affordability and availability, and improving financial inclusion and wealth-building opportunities for traditionally marginalized communities.”

But demonstrating real commitment doesn’t have to come with a multimillion-dollar price tag. WHOOP, a company that makes wearable fitness trackers, posted on Instagram its plan to donate $20,000 to the Equal Rights Initiative, earmark $10,000 to hire and recruit more people of color, and send executives to unconscious bias training. The company will also close on Election Day to reduce barriers to employees voting.

On the other hand, Whole Foods — and its parent company Amazon — are involved in a lawsuit regarding employees who claim they were punished for wearing Black Lives Matter facemasks while on the clock.

Symbolic — The organization uses symbolic indicators to explicitly show its commitment to Black lives.

This can be something like displaying office art that highlights Black leaders — not just during Black History Month — updating employees on the efforts to cut out workplace racism in meetings, and recognizing employees who help make Black lives matter.

Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens earlier this summer announced they would no longer keep “multicultural” hair products locked up in stores. Previously, customers weren’t able to access the items without an employee’s assistance. And NASCAR banned Confederate flags at all of its events and properties — though there have been protests around that decision.

This summer also marked an increase in companies recognizing Juneteenth, which celebrates the symbolic end of slavery. (It took the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865 to constitutionally ban slavery.)

Understanding and asserting that Black lives matter

Centuries of slavery, decades of skepticism around affirmative action, and heightened attention around police violence against Black men and women will not be erased with one donation to a Black charity, or by displaying a painting in a corporate lobby.

But Opie and Roberts propose that by “understanding and acknowledging harm, taking steps to repair the harm, and rebuilding trust, organizations and their members will be able to confidently assert that Black lives do, indeed, matter in the workplace.”

Here are some resources to get you started:

DownloadDo Black lives really matter in the workplace? Restorative justice as a means to reclaim humanity.”

Watch Opie and other experts discuss Race, Justice, and Equity in the Workplace and Beyond: A Call to Action.

Read Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience.

Explore Ideas Made to Matter diversity coverage.