BlogHave Things Truly “Gotten Better” for Black Employees? Leading Below the Surface in Black History Month

February 5, 20220
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This May will mark two years from the police killing of George Floyd, which caught the attention of not just the American people, but corporate leaders struggling to connect with the public in early 2020. After pledging billions of dollars to Black causes and releasing statements of solidarity with Black people, the pressure was on to see if and how these corporations would follow through with actions to clean up racial inequities within their own ranks.

In recognition of Black History Month, and in light of the pledges and promises made two years ago, my question is: have things really improved for Black employees in corporate America?

A few glimmers of success have shown up in the news since the summer of protests and heightened focus on racialized police violence: while we may never know exactly which pledges were kept and which companies backed out, Black Lives Matter received over $90M in donations in 2020 alone. In 2021, for the first time, two Black women were at the helm of Fortune 500 businesses (Roz Brewer of Walgreens Boots Alliance and Thasunda Brown Duckett of TIAA). And after a step backward, with Black men losing 1.5% of Fortune 500 board representation between 2018 and June 2020, some 32% of newly appointed board members in the S&P 500 between July 2020 and May 2021 were Black, as reported by CNBC. Each of these victories is definitely a cause for celebration. Corporate leadership is by and large beginning to take calls for action on DEIB issues more seriously, with some exceptions.

It’s true that representation at the top is a key driver of belonging for any marginalized group. But that still doesn’t answer my question about workplace culture for Black employees. Let’s take a look at the data on a few key elements of successful cultures of belonging: diversity throughout the organization, below the surface connection, and accountability.

Hire Diverse People for Diverse Roles

Hiring Chief Diversity Officers was one strategy that took off quickly, with triple the number in the S&P 500 over sixteen months. However, turnover among diversity officers is high, and delegating company-wide DEIB strategy to one (often underpaid) executive can turn into the illusion that DEIB is solely that person’s responsibility.

Real change means making these considerations an integral part of leadership strategy for everyone in the C-suite. It also means hiring Black people in diverse roles across the company, not only in token and diversity-related positions.

Connect Below the Surface

A report released by McKinsey in May 2020 revealed that “While overall sentiment on diversity was 52 percent positive and 31 percent negative, sentiment on inclusion was markedly worse, at only 29 percent positive and 61 percent negative.” This metric shows the need for cultural change that goes deeper than performative gestures and token roles. Deep cultural transformation happens with a sustained, diligent effort to get below the surface in everyday interactions. For instance, empathetic P2B listening or person-to-belonging listening means observing employees’ interactions to understand the extent to which a person belongs in their environment. With an accurate perception of each team member’s level of belonging, and by listening without judgment, you’ll be on your way to creating a psychologically safe environment. Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as “a climate in which people are comfortable expressing themselves. They are confident that they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored, or blamed.” Leaders can use these tactics to determine if their culture creates an equitable experience for Black employees and how they might begin to change it. I go into detail on what implementing these strategies looks like in my book Leading Below the Surface.

Seek Accountability and Disclose Your Data

Finally, leaders of equitable cultures of belonging create transparency by seeking external accountability and disclosing an accurate picture of their progress. This is one that a lot of Fortune 500 companies are still struggling with: as of June 2021, “262 reported some level of race and ethnicity data in their most recent reports—meaning that 238 did not…Only 18 Fortune 500 companies provided the fullest breakdown of their U.S. workforce (across Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Other minorities, and the proportions of these groups in the workforce, management, and board, plus racial pay gap data).” Diverse hiring practices and a culture of belonging need to be reflected at all levels of the organization, starting at the top and extending all the way through middle management to entry-level employees. And the only way we can know if that’s happening is through disclosure of comprehensive diversity data.

So back to my original question: have things really improved for Black employees in corporate America? It seems to me that the foundations for cultural change are being laid: executives are beginning to take these issues seriously and explore what DEIB really means for their organizations. I’ll be the first to admit that creating a below the surface culture of belonging takes time, and things have to change on the inside before we can see the evidence from the outside. As more Black employees are promoted to management and leadership levels, it’s up to the larger business community to follow their stories and look for evidence that they are being accepted for who they are and treated with equity and respect. I’ll be keeping my eyes on Roz Brewer and Thasunda Brown Duckett at Walgreens Boots Alliance and TIAA.

One more statistic from McKinsey’s February 2021 report: “On the current trajectory, it will take about 95 years for Black employees to reach talent parity (or 12 percent representation) across all levels in the private sector. Addressing the major barriers that hold back the advancement of Black employees could cut that duration to about 25 years.” The Great Reshuffle began just a few months after this data was released, and I’m optimistic that the talent pool can push for faster change by prioritizing a culture of belonging in their job search. For those with more influence, it’s time to heighten your awareness by thinking critically about your own environment and your interactions. Are you being loyal to your Black employees? Are they disproportionately penalized for mistakes? Can they fully be themselves at work and still belong?

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Have you finished reading Leading Below the Surface yet? Download the leading below the surface discussion guide today.

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LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.

LaTonya Wilkins. All rights reserved.