More than a year has passed since many business leaders made bold commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion. Like many other executives, I have invested a considerable amount of time listening to professionals within my organization and outside to understand their experiences at work and in the world, and what I can do to improve it.
One conversation in particular sticks to my skin. I received a note from a colleague at Deloitte who wrote: “As a mother of 26 and 24 year old black men and an 18 year old girl, I am never without fear that they will encounter something. that looks like the parodies we regularly see in communities of color. The experience of blacks in this country is truly unprecedented.
As a mother of a white son and daughter the same age, I can’t imagine what it would be like to fear for the lives of my children every time they go for a jog, walk into a grocery store, or hang out in a park. I also wouldn’t be able to understand the reality that if my children were black they would be more likely to Covid-19 contract, more likely to be underemployed, more likely to suffer a job loss, and more likely to experience discrimination in the workplace.
Over the past year, I have continued to listen and learn more about the systemic biases and racism that plague the black community. This process has crystallized my belief that as business leaders we have a unique opportunity to engage in collective action to advance racial equity.
Why equity? Simply put, this is because fairness is not just a matter of effort, it’s a matter of results – measurable and significant results in the life of our people, our communities, our country and our world.
Why focus on the black community? In our society, we also see discrimination and violence against women, Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, LGBTQ + people, and Latin Americans. Make no mistake: fairness is essential for all races and all identity groups. But I believe it is essential to understand and take meaningful action now towards greater racial equity for black people, who have suffered the consequences of systemic racism in the United States for over 400 years. And, as I will discuss later, the evidence suggests that when we tackle systems that harm black people, others benefit as well.
Recently my Deloitte organization released a report that I commissioned, The equity imperative, identifying how businesses, both within and outside of our organizations, individually and together, can tackle systemic racism and achieve more equitable results.
Each organization has its orthodoxies. In Detonate: why and how companies must explode best practices, Geoff Tuff and Steve Goldbach define them as “[beliefs] or [ways] to think that [are] accepted as true or correct “and” that [go] undeclared and undisputed. While many business leaders have written about the orthodoxies we need to challenge in order to drive innovation and business growth, there is little public discussion around the orthodoxies we need to dismantle in order to foster business. racial equity.
It is time for that to change.
At Deloitte, we started having this conversation ourselves, which allowed us to identify a set of myths that we need to break to become a more equitable company. This conversation also helped inform a larger set of orthodoxies that other organizations likely share. I’m going to share five of these orthodoxies here and ask questions that can help us dismantle them. Because only when we question our assumptions can we better understand ourselves and our organizations – and truly embark on a path of fairness.
“We are an impartial meritocracy.”
In US-based companies with at least 100 employees, only 3% of executives or top executives are black. After Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier retires at the end of June, we will have only four CEOs of Black Fortune 500. The disparity is shaped and exacerbated by the underlying assumption that our processes are fair and equal.
But equality assumes that everyone who applies for a job has the same opportunities, whether that is the means to attend a private university or accept an unpaid internship, or the time and resources to prepare for an interview. It also assumes that once hired, two people who enter with the same diploma have the same chances of success.
Neither of these assumptions is true. Overall, white children have better access to educational opportunities, starting as young as preschool. White and male employees often have larger professional networks within their organizations and are therefore more likely to grow.
As leaders, we must recognize and correct these inequalities in the education, hiring and development and promotion of professionals into leadership roles. And as a society, we should re-evaluate what we mean when we say our systems are “fair”, “balanced” or “merit-based”. Because as long as “equal” systems have unequal inputs, these systems will not produce equitable results.
Questions to ask
- Do our networks and our approaches to finding talent limit the pool of candidates?
- How can we change our application processes to accommodate more and more diverse applicants?
- How can we rethink the way we assess candidates to minimize bias?
- How can we adjust our professional development systems to take into account the diversity of experiences and training of all employees, and support the variety of development needs?
“We don’t have a problem with racism here.”
Most executives would like to believe that their workplace is a safe space. That because they are well-intentioned and knowledgeable, and because they have implemented policies, processes and procedures that address Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DCI), their organizations are fairer – fairer than before and fairer than the world around us.
But the idea that organizations are unaffected by the society in which they operate is just not realistic. Businesses reflect communities – and racism exists, individually and systematically, within communities. Employees don’t leave the company at the door when they show up for work, and neither do their leaders. “Society” is in the office, right next to them.
Bias can arise in informal conversations with colleagues or in well-established policies affecting everyone; in how opportunities are allocated, or how performance is assessed; in the elevator, by e-mail or in the conference room.
Questions to ask
- How do we deal with prejudice – as individuals, as teams and as an organization?
- What specific practices can we adopt to challenge bias and promote fairness – again, as individuals, as teams and as an organization?
“Advancing black professionals will mean fewer opportunities for others. “
Equity is not a zero sum game. Yet many people still believe that opportunities are limited, so the gains for one identity group must come at the expense of another. Or, even more pernicious, that those who currently have the most access to opportunities do so because of a natural right over them, rather than because of a historically unjust system.
Organizations need to remind themselves and their employees that advancing black professionals does not mean fewer opportunities for non-black people. It just means that the talent pool is bigger and that it has more people available, capable and qualified. Moreover, such efforts often result in what Angela Glover Blackwell coined “the curb-cut effect”: That is, measures taken to meet the needs of black professionals also benefit others.
Questions to ask
- How to access and maintain a larger, richer and more competitive talent pool?
- How to find and develop black talents, at all levels of their academic and professional career?
“Taking bold action around DCI is too controversial / risky for our business. “
For too long, many businesses have operated on the premise that it is “riskier” to take a stand against inequality than to remain silent. When they do this, what organizations are really doing is masking racism as “risk avoidance”. They communicate to their colleagues, consumers and communities that fostering systemic racism is less harmful than the controversy that can arise from its dismantling.
It must end now. At Deloitte, we believe in defending equal human rights and promoting social issues aligned with our values. We believe that promoting fairness will help us attract the best talent, retain our customers and lead in competitive markets.
Questions to ask
- When have we ever used risk as an excuse to avoid taking a stand? Who was hurt by these decisions?
- What will be the cost of this inaction?
- How can we identify and mitigate risks in a way that promotes equitable outcomes instead of perpetuating inequitable outcomes?
“We can’t find black suppliers. “
Too often, companies assume that they can maintain the status quo and that black suppliers will come to them. But if they are to attract “hard to find” suppliers, they must pursue them outside their existing networks and deliver a differentiated and compelling value proposition – one that is specific, compelling and systematically evaluated for its effectiveness. For example, companies might consider offering capacity development to established suppliers, or creating in-house tools and training to develop new relationships with suppliers.
Questions to ask
- What new creative approaches can we take to find suppliers?
- What is our value proposition? Does this appeal to black suppliers? If not, what should we adjust?
- Once we have hired new vendors, how can we mitigate any systemic challenges they might encounter when working with our organization?
Cultivate a mindset obsessed with fairness
It is not easy to question these orthodoxies. It requires empathy and vulnerability, difficult conversations, and constant soul-searching. It takes sustained commitment from leaders and team members, no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular – or maybe mostly when it’s uncomfortable or unpopular.
Most importantly, this is just the start. Advancing equity requires cultivating a mindset obsessed with equity, in which questioning orthodoxies is only a starting point rather than an end goal. Each of us – in every organization, in every sector, in every sphere of influence – has a moral responsibility and opportunity not only to dismantle inequalities in the short term, but to cultivate fairness in the long term.