Making a Corporate Commitment to Dismantling Institutional Racism

Creating lasting change and getting it right

Person reaching through a broken hole in a wall to help another person walk through. Illustration.

Posted by Delvin Edmond on Nov 16, 2020

This article is a part of The Human-Centered Work Project, a hub of research-based insights and resources on redesigning work. The following insights come from research illuminating ways that white supremacy culture may be expressed in the remote workplace to provide tools and guidelines to help allies move forward with impactful cultural workplace change.

This spring, people across the United States and the world collectively mourned George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black lives lost at the hands of violence. Demonstrations and protests erupted across the country in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

And as a result, corporations began speaking out to signal their support as well. Sometimes, they included how they planned to address systemic racism internally. Companies are being called upon, called out, and sometimes canceled for their stance (or lack thereof) on racism. Their employees are witnessing these changes, statements, and initiatives in real-time. We began research with BIPOC employees at Fortune 1000 companies across the U.S. to understand what the experience was like for them as companies reckoned with racism and inequities internally. 

Companies can make an impact by taking a stand, turning inward to examine their own institutionalized inequities, and prioritizing making changes. Some might think hanging back and staying on the sidelines is a safer option; however, our research shows that not saying or doing anything at all is worse than making a mistake. Companies must prioritize changes and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives to break down the building blocks of institutional racism internally.

“’What if I make a mistake?’ you may be thinking. ‘Racism is a volatile issue, and I don’t want to say or do the wrong thing.’ … If we wait for perfection, we will never break the silence. The cycle of racism will continue uninterrupted.”
-  Beverly Tatum’s, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria

Here we share our research findings on a series of topics related to corporate commitment and action around racism and DEI initiatives. 

How we approached the research
Institutionalize change as a response to Black Lives Matter
Is your diversity program missing the point?
End the Black Tax and Invest in DEI
Encourage space for self-care during unprecedented times

How we approached the research

This summer, we found ourselves asking, “What are the experiences of BIPOC employees in Fortune 1000 companies across the U.S. right now?” We wanted to understand their lived experiences in order to:

  • Uncover the daily experience of how race plays a role in corporate work environments
  • Give tangible steps white allies can take to support their BIPOC colleagues and hold their employers accountable for institutional change

We conducted research directly with BIPOC employees at Fortune 1000 companies through a series of in-depth interviews and diary entries. We started with 21 one-on-one interviews, and subsequently, some of these interviewees along with some new faces joined us for a diary phase. These 13 participants shared their feedback, experiences, and anecdotes over the course of two weeks through daily diary entries. Bringing together the right team to lead this research and supporting them throughout was an important aspect of this process. Read more about how we laid the foundation for this research. 

The diary method allowed participants to frankly recount their experiences, at their own pace, as they saw fit. It provided space for them to think about work and life events as they happened in real-time. As a result, these responses elicited very candid and sometimes emotionally-laden responses.

The diary also occurred during a global pandemic, unprecedented nationwide human and civil rights protests, fierce wildfires across the west coast, the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Hispanic Heritage Month. All these events, though separate, concurrently influenced how these participants chose to show up professionally, the conversations they had with colleagues, and how they perceived their company’s response and commitment to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and to the mental wellbeing of its employees.

Institutionalize change as a response to Black Lives Matter.

Make it a lasting change.

As many of us witnessed, leading corporate organizations responded to the Black Lives Matter protests and greater movement with varying degrees of acknowledgment and action. Some took a vocal public stance in solidarity with their Black employees and the movement, rebuking the racist, inhumane, and unlawful acts of law enforcement and the power structure that cements them in place. Other companies acknowledged the movement publicly but did little or nothing to address internal inequalities or harmful policies in response.

Some of our Black participants shared common concerns. They felt, in some cases, that their companies had to take a position; not because they were empathetic, but because of global public relations (PR) pressure. This made their statements feel superficial and lackluster. Some wondered if the response was all for show or if their companies, as a result, would actually lean into tangible organizational changes that would address their blind spots. Many of the Black people, from all levels of experience and leadership within their companies, spoke with cynicism about whether their companies would actually change.

One participant, Barry*, shared how COVID-19 created a captive audience for millions of Americans to witness, just how cruel, brutal, and unjust law enforcement is (and has been) towards black men, women, and communities. He talked about the bittersweet emotions of being torn between inspiration and cynicism.  

“How can people be so oblivious and blind for so long that this was taking place. This is not a new thing. [...] As Black people, it's either something we knew was there or dealt with on a daily basis. I've never, in my 8 years with the company, seen anything around BLM or a Black-equity movement. So when I saw it, it made part of me happy and the other part was like, ‘it's now becoming this very convenient and cool cause’. It makes me question if it's really genuine and makes me wonder what have you done individually to support, understand and educate your children, and what do you really know” - Barry

During our interview with Barry, he shared his cynicism for the meaning and intention behind his company’s public statement. His company wasn’t the first to speak out, and he felt they had to speak up or continue to be ridiculed in the press.

"It didn't go into, ‘Here's what we're going to do’, ‘Let me show you how we're the example across all of the Fortune 500,’ and ‘This is how we handle it’. So you say, ‘yeah, it's bad’, which to me, understanding that there has been no focus on it before internally, doesn't impress me.” - Barry

Barry feels that his company needs to do more given their public acknowledgment and awareness of the social injustice issues. He wants his company to turn inward to address internal issues related to inequities in the organization. And, he believes those changes and plans should be included in public responses. Because of their failure to take steps internally, he’s cynical of their motives.

Imani* didn't expect her company to respond to the BLM movement, but she was glad when it was acknowledged. However, like Barry, she still feels her company has failed to take real action. As a national company, she didn’t get the impression that they took a company-wide stance, but shared that there were breakout discussions and information sharing locally at her particular office. She was disappointed she hadn’t heard a response on a higher level.

“The response has been better than what I was expecting, which was not much. They've done a good job of acknowledging Black Lives Matters, and the protest and the importance of them and all of that. I just always wonder, they're saying these words but is there any action put behind them to help the situation?” - Imani

Both Barry and Imani expressed how glad they were to see their companies acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement but were cynical if any internal changes would happen as a result. By acknowledging the systemic issue of institutional racism and blatant discrimination but doing nothing to address the problem internally, they’re showing a lack of effort to make an impact.

Compass Blue-02

Take action: 

  • Take a stance! Don’t be silent or stay on the sidelines. Speak up.
  • Don’t just acknowledge external issues. Turn inward to examine your own internal injustices. Show your employees you’re making an effort to make change internally. 
  • Listen to feedback if you’ve made a mistake and adjust your approach as a result.
  • Non-white employees don't have the luxury of choosing when to pay attention. As an ally, stay the course and keep fighting for internal change, even when news cycles move on.

Is your diversity program missing the point?

Ensure you don’t take a one-dimensional approach.

Some of our participants expressed that their companies missed the boat on diversity, prioritizing gender diversity while failing on racial diversity. Barry, shared that his company celebrates gender diversity, but when it comes to racial diversity, they don't get it. He elaborated in our interview:

“I honestly think that they think the processes are balanced, just because there are so many ethnic nationalities. We of course have a lot of people of Indian descent. We have a lot of people of Asian descent. I think that no one has pushed it and said ‘okay so let's talk about how many specific Latinos [we] have, how many African Americans [we] have’. I honestly think that sometimes the brown people get confused together. They'll see me and they'll see an Indian together and they're like, ‘okay, great, there's two of you’. And it's like, no. It's really not.  We are two totally different ethnic groups and you can't just lump us all in [as one]. So even when looking across the organization with minorities at very senior level levels of leadership, it’s few and far between. Even though we have people of Indian descent in higher roles, I think no one [...] said, ‘okay, so how many African Americans do we have that are specifically in senior leadership positions?” - Barry

The issue that Barry points out about his company’s diversity practices is racism, though he does not call it by its name. He talks about racism through the lens of ethnic blindness and ignorance. At his company, racial diversity is viewed on a color spectrum without regard to ethnic diversity, and this is why there is a lack of Black and Latinx leaders in senior positions at his company. Diversity of skin complexion is not the same as ethnic diversity.

In his diary entry, Barry shares his frustration at work when he is reminded of how his company just does not get it when it comes to racial diversity.

“It was considered a win for diversity because we hired a woman leader. Throughout our network, there are a multitude of female leaders but we fail to address the issue of RACIAL diversity[...]. It makes me anxious because I have another black colleague who reached out to me and said, ‘they are doing it again’! It's a thing that the organization continues to struggle with, even with the latest news headlines and focus around racial diversity and racial inequities. From an organizational perspective, they still don't get it. - Barry 

"Diversity programs or diversity in general, it's more than just gender."  

"I did reach out to my boss to have a conversation about it, that ‘we need to focus more on racial diversity', but it went over his head and there was not a good response to it.” - Barry  

Diversity, inclusive practices, and equity are integral building blocks for companies constructing a just future. When diversity is unevenly balanced, employees in underrepresented groups notice. In Barry’s case, his company valuing gender diversity over racial diversity causes frustration on the topic. Diversity among employees and staff is something all companies should proactively strive for. It can be argued that the more ethnically diverse a company, the better products and services they’ll produce because they may be more suited to quickly identify and address gaps. More homogenous companies might overlook those.

When it comes to managing the expectations of her non-black colleagues, participant Safiya shared concerns that white colleagues are beginning to return to business as usual and it’s having an impact on how she interacts with them.

“I’m exhausted by what feels like pandering without real effort. Everyone is for racial justice these days. But, I already see non-Black people retreating. I get it. It’s hard. Tipping the scales of justice so that they’re actually equal is a long, drawn-out process. I can see why people would give up early if they aren’t being negatively impacted.” - Safiya

End the Black Tax and Invest in DEI

The cost of being black in a mostly white organization

The Black Lives Matter movement has become a pivotal moment in America, shining a light on the inequities of Black and brown people in this country and globally. As companies take a stance to support the movement, many are leaning on their Black employees to be subject matter experts on race.

While some Black employees we spoke to embraced getting involved and having a positive impact on diversity and inclusion initiatives at their company, others simply want to do their jobs and go home as their white peers do. One participant, Al*, shared that he has regular conversations with his manager about the “Black Tax.” While he’s passionate on the topic of increasing Black diversity at his company, not all black employees share his passion.

“The Black Tax is essentially when you have Black people who are hired to do a job that has nothing to do with diversity and inclusion, but then you have leadership or management [...] [approach that] Black employee like, ‘Hey, can you help us start this program or can you help mentor these people, [or] can you do whatever?’ And not only does this Black employee need to worry about their core day-to-day job [...] but they have this extra job that they're not getting paid more money to do. And if anything, is probably emotionally traumatic or emotionally taxing to think about all the time to be this diversity expert.”

“I have a lot of Black friends who just want to go to work and go home, like their White peers. You know, like they just want to be a designer. They just want to be a PM and that's it. ... that should be enough.” - Al

In addition to the role he was hired for, Al helps with recruiting efforts, working with graduate and undergraduate institutions to improve the diversity pipeline and recruitment funnel. He also helps with mentorship opportunities as well as engagement with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI’s). Al feels he has a responsibility to be a leader and create inroads for people who look like him and share a similar experience.

While Al is highly engaged, he recognizes the unequal responsibilities that his company may place on other Black employees who don’t share his passion. Companies need to recognize this too. Treat your employees accordingly and don’t place unnecessary and unpaid burdens on your Black employees. Create dedicated DEI roles who can be your subject matter experts and lead these internal initiatives.

Recognizing that the Black Tax exists was something we heard from several Black people of color during our research. How they confronted or chose to deal with it varied.

Other BIPOC employees felt their company should take a more active role in educating themselves on the issues that impact inclusion at their companies. In her diary, Safiya reflected on how in her company's haste to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, they took shortcuts and relied on Black staff to be subject matter experts. She feels strongly that people of color should not be expected to be the ‘experts on inclusion.’ The company should take the initiative to do external research, investigation, and self-education to address these issues on their own. This effort sends a signal to employees that the company cares and is dedicated to solving these inequities.

“[People of color] should not be the ones who have to create programming, draw up demands for plans and vet language that senior leadership uses. But this is what I see is happening everywhere. When a company wants to market a new product, they don’t get a few random people who fit the demographic they’re looking for internally and run it by them and call it day. They create an ad campaign, crunch numbers etc. all with a focus on getting it right because the bottom line is at stake. But that doesn’t seem to the case for issues involving communities of color.” - Safiya

Al and Safiya recognize the burden their employers place on Black employees to double as subject matter experts when the topic du jour focuses on Black issues. Although Al is more proactive about being involved when these opportunities present themselves, he recognizes that many Black employees share Safiya’s sentiment. When examining a topic like the Black Tax through the lens of equity, it's more easily understood why many Black employees feel it’s an additional weight or why these requests are viewed as tone deaf and unfair. If employees don’t have the agency to push back on the request, it can sometimes place them in a space of resentment.

Compass Green-01

Take action: 

  • Hire dedicated staff whose focus is to be the subject matter experts on DEI topics.
  • Be proactive and seek out opportunities to engage with people of color and identify individuals who would be interested in participating in DEI activities beyond their current role.
  • Leverage the momentum of Employee Resource Groups and identify individuals who would collectively participate or be willing to share their opinion on DEI related topics and activities. This could operate as a panel of employees who choose to participate when compelled.
  • Foster an environment where employees have agency in participating in or declining these requests without feeling they are not being a team player or that they would face retaliation. 

Encourage space for self-care during unprecedented times

Over the 2-week diary study, several participants experienced life events that caused them to reflect on how it impacted their professional life, most commonly the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. In his daily diary entry, Victor* shared that although he was given time off work to tend to family matters, he still felt pressure to focus on work due to anxiety around losing his job. 

“COVID has been affecting a lot of our work and there are a lot of unknowns. My mom is under a lot of emotional stress and I am trying to take care of her. I asked for time off (and they said yes) but they are still following up with email and questions. My mom's brother passed suddenly from COVID and he was given a medication that had been touted to fight it but it didn't work. My mom had an episode at work. I feel the pressure to perform and succeed and my job seems unstable. That's a lot and I don't know if it relates to my racial identity. There's a lot in the news about racial equality.  I am afraid that I am not going to find work if I don’t succeed.” - Victor 

While Victor wants to be present and support his mother during this difficult time, he doesn’t feel secure in his job, especially as his coworkers continue to send emails and questions while he's out of the office. He doesn’t feel his employer ultimately supports his request to take time off from work for difficult personal circumstances. With all this going on in the background, how can Victor show up to work 100%?

Flexibility for self-care came up as an imperative for other participants too.

"I think mental health has come to the forefront of our society as we deal with this pandemic, as it affects everyone very differently. This is especially important for BIPOC as we already have a ton of life stressors prior to a pandemic adding to that. We must make any steps we can to look after our mental and emotional well-being” - Al 

Employees need greater agency and flexibility for self-care and wellbeing during these times, particularly BIPOC employees who currently feel they must work twice as hard to get half as far. Be understanding and flexible with your teams and your colleagues to help create a more inclusive workplace. 

Learn more about the origins of The Human-Centered Work Project and sign up to be the first to receive the latest findings and resources.

Written by

Delvin Edmond

Delvin Edmond, a member of our AnswerLab Alumni, worked with us as a Diversity & Inclusion Researcher during his time at AnswerLab. His passion is for conducting research that focuses on marginalized and underrepresented communities. Delvin was instrumental in conducting research with Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) employees in remote corporate culture for the Human Centered Work project. He also conducted internal research on recruiting processes and helped establish AnswerLab's Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). Delvin holds a master’s in Cognitive Psychology from New Mexico State University. Delvin may not work with us any longer, but we'll always consider him an AnswerLabber at heart!

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