Addressing workplace diversity and racism

Speakers at Knowledge 2021 explain how organizations can take important first steps

Experts view DEI training as only the first step to creating workplace diversity & anti-racism at work.

Many organizations have recently rolled out initiatives to build a more diverse and inclusive environment and reduce racism in the workplace. But it’s not enough. Though good first steps, such policies must lead to sustained action to meaningfully address racism and workplace diversity challenges, said experts at Knowledge 2021, ServiceNow’s digital conference.

Companies must commit to having uncomfortable but continuing conversations, they said.

Often the first step is to define terms and goals. Diversity and anti-racism, for example, are very different, said Courtney Cogburn, an associate professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work, in a conference session on “Racism in the Workplace.”

“Diversity refers to numerical representation,” Cogburn said. “Anti-racism is a practice to eradicate racial inequity. It’s a more deliberate engagement, and centers on race and racism.”

The problem of lumping the issues together under a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative, Cogburn said, is that it doesn’t place race front and center, though racism is arguably the largest and most important problem to solve. “If we don’t get race right,” she said, “we’ll consistently miss the mark on diversity and inclusion overall.”

Companies that want to create meaningful change need to welcome give-and-take with employees.

Cogburn acknowledged that conversations about racism are uncomfortable for everyone, often for different reasons. “For Black people, there’s the risk of being perceived as angry, because they insist on talking about race,” she said. “For white people, the risk is that it will bring up feelings of resentment, and that they’ll be labeled as racists.”

In many organizations, confronting racism requires talking about structural disadvantages.

For example, 90% of venture capital funding goes to white men, said Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner of VC firm Backstage Capital, in another K21 session. Organizations must do more, she said, to support entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC) than pledging to buy their products.

Backstage Capital’s accelerator programs for BIPOC and LGBTQ founders provide support such as child care, for instance, so founders who are also parents to young children don’t need to choose to support either their families or their career dreams. “You should want everyone in the country to make ways for these people to have generational wealth,” Hamilton said.

Creating space for conversations

Companies that want to create meaningful change need to welcome give-and-take with employees, even if that means having awkward moments. Soledad O’Brien, in another K21 session, told a story about moderating a business discussion about participants’ experiences with racism.

“One of the stories from a Black man, who was a high-ranking executive, was breathtaking,” said O’Brien, who is the host of the weekly news TV program “Matter of Fact” and the chairwoman of Starfish Media Group. Late one night, she said, the man heard a noise in his basement and saw that a door was open. Suspecting a burglary, he considered calling the police, but in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, he realized he feared the arrival of police more than an intruder. He chose not to make the call and went back to bed.

“He said, ‘I wasn’t sure I would survive an encounter if I called the police to my house,’” O’Brien said.

He later told colleagues, O’Brien said, “they had to understand the world that he lived in, and that he wasn’t sure if anyone ever saw him in that world.”

She added, “This is why we need to bring colleagues together to tell stories, without any particular goal, and to give validity to other people’s experiences. That’s more useful than an argument about who’s to blame.”

Backing up words with action

Leaders must follow up discussions like these with action, said Penelope Prett, CIO of Accenture.

In her session, “Creating an inclusive workplace,” Prett noted that a recent reorganization of her team was done with a conscious effort to “bring diverse people to the table.” Executives and managers were asked to regularly speak up about diversity and racism.

“When leaders show intent,” Prett said, “people feel freer to act on their own intent.”

Choosing who should talk about diversity and anti-racism is in itself an important decision, and they shouldn’t automatically be the people who have suffered from discrimination, Cogburn said.

[Read also: How to recruit for diversity]

“For many people in these roles, this work is not part of their jobs, and it’s not what they’re being paid to do,” she said. It can also be a burden on people who’ve already struggled deeply with racial justice in the past year, and who deserve the compassion of other coworkers.

“If you’re tired of talking about race, imagine how your Black employees feel when they’ve been talking about these issues their whole lives,” Cogburn said. “It’s a luxury for other people to even think about pulling back from this. Some people don’t get to pull away, and they never get to rest.”