Racial Inequality in the Workplace: How to Break Down Barriers

With far too many shootings of African Americans at the hands of police this spring and summer, a harsh spotlight is being cast on racial inequality issues. And employers cannot afford to sidestep the discussion.

For starters, this is no time to cut back on diversity and inclusion initiatives or unconscious bias training. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on countless organizations across the US, and African Americans have been disproportionately affected. But they are also suffering from the pandemic of racism and inequality on other fronts.

An XpertHR podcast recently explored key questions your company should be asking during this time with corporate culture consultant Joy Stephens, including:

  • Are you having serious conversations to ensure inclusion among all of your employees?
  • What can you do to break down barriers that may exist between employees of different races and cultures?

People can and should deplore the violence they are seeing, but it would be a mistake to focus solely on the police without examining broader inequality issues.

“If Black people make up 10% or 11% of the country, why don’t they make up 10% or 11% of the leadership team?” asked Stephens. “If you have an all-white executive board, ask yourself why?”

Stephens has been leading conversations with employees at numerous organizations, including XpertHR, about race and the workplace. She noted that a friend who was interviewing with a company this summer for a position texted her and asked, “How do you tactfully ask someone why they don’t have any Black people on their leadership team?”

The friend’s concern about what the company would do to achieve equity was real and may have prevented her from accepting an offer. But Stephens sees this current period as a golden opportunity to make lasting change both in our culture and in the workplace.

“It’s more than paint the street with Black Lives Matter or change your profile picture on Instagram,” she said. “Those are nice, but systemic change, that’s the stuff that will be there in perpetuity. So that’s what I’m hoping for, especially since this is an election cycle year, to see elected officials at the local level take these changes and implement them and make some serious steps forward.”

The first steps are for organizations to examine their own biases and ask:

  • As people inevitably retire or cycle out, how are you going to replace them?
  • How can you increase representation?
  • Are you relying too much on word-of-mouth and employees’ recommendations?

Diversity is no longer an expendable line item anymore, Stephens added. Employers that don’t prioritize it will be left behind.

She also noted that prejudice is universal and not limited to a particular ethnic group. For instance, Stephens explained that some Black people see darker skin tones as less advantageous and lighter skin tones as privileged.

“You cannot label one group as a monolith,” she observed. “I remember when Barack Obama first started his campaign in 2007, there was a question, ‘Does he really understand the Black experience because he was born in Hawaii?’”

Stephens concluded by pointing out that she would love to see workplace conversations about inequality expand beyond race to include all marginalized groups at some point, including:

  • LGBTQ employees;
  • Employees that are non-binary;
  • Individuals with disabilities; and
  • Considerations for people with different social cues (e.g., on the autism spectrum)

“All of them have a sense of not belonging to the majority in a workspace. All of them suffer from micro-aggressions,” Stephens said. “And the way we are treating the Black Lives Matter movement at the moment with special consideration and really putting a magnifying glass on it, all of them need that same attention.”

For more insights on these issues, listen to XpertHR’s diversity and inclusion podcasts, “Courageous Workplace Conversations About Racial Inequality” and “How Employers Should Respond to George Floyd Aftermath.”


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