Driving Out Bias Should Start in the C-Suite

By Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. for SHRM-SCP

In the months since the brutal killing of George Floyd and the ensuing racial tension in our streets—and by extension, our workplaces—I have spoken to many CEOs and Fortune 500 executives about their intentions moving forward.

America’s business leaders are frustrated their organizations haven’t cracked the code on diversity and inclusion in the workforce. They lament having budgeted significant time and money hiring consultants, conducting training and hosting events, and still, they feel they are not making progress.

If you asked your own HR team, who has a unique vantage point on workplace culture, they would likely confirm what you are seeing from the C-suite. Nearly one-quarter of HR professionals SHRM surveyed affirmed that racial discrimination is evident at their place of work. For Black HR professionals, that number rises to almost half.  The same pattern holds true when you ask your corporate counsels.

The solutions at our disposal in the fight against racism in the workplace leave us armed with a Swiss army knife while facing a nuclear opponent. We can all do more and do better.

The tools created years ago when D&I was the buzzword of the day were developed for different times and different problems. There hasn’t been enough focus on innovating new resources and approaches.

This is what SHRM is striving to solve with Together Forward @Work.

Invest in Experts, Not Just Training

Changing your culture requires serious investment in the right expertise. According to new research conducted among SHRM members, fewer than one-third say their organization has a specific team focused on diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I). This is no time to be under-resourced in this area.

Now, more than ever, organizations must spend money and time to hire smart, academically prepared and experienced DE&I experts. They should be vetted, valued and remunerated at the same level as any other executive responsible for a mission-critical function like finance, technology, etc.

Prioritize Inclusion

You could hire the most diverse workforce on the planet, but if those hires are excluded and sidestepped by the culture, and are not part of the activities and opportunities that lead to advancement and achievement, you have failed.

Diversity should never be the final goal; it’s the outcome of efforts to cast a wide net for talent and to value the unique experiences and skills each individual brings. True workplace inclusion must be both a daily practice and a guiding principle deeply embedded into the workplace culture. Companies must hire for it, promote for it and reflect it at every level of the organization. They must also “walk the talk”—be held accountable to the promises they make to their customers, shareholders and workforce.

Check your inclusivity constantly. Observe how meetings are conducted and who is present. When you see random acts of inclusion, note and reward them. And put an inclusion filter on every employee interaction, from hiring to incentives to benefits. Take the perspective of: How will this bring people together? How will this meet the unique needs of diverse individuals?

Organizations must also recognize that inclusion and diversity extends far beyond race, gender and sexual orientation to include age, abilities, veteran status, criminal history and even political differences. Inclusion benefits everyone, not just those in the minority or outside the mainstream.

Create a Culture of Candid Conversation

Since early last year, SHRM has been encouraging business leaders to foster constructive, candid conversations with their workforces about organizational culture. We believe open, honest conversations at work can repair toxic cultures—including at workplaces plagued by conscious or unconscious bias.

For many people, their entire exposure to people who are different from them—in terms of race, cultural background and even political thought—is in the workplace. And the best way to understand what others experience and what motivates them is through authentic conversation. By stepping into these previously evaded conversations, we can solidify cultures of inclusion while making us all more comfortable with the most uncomfortable of topics.

Through candid conversations, we can learn what culture employees actually experience versus what we think it is, or want it to be. Informed by these conversations, business leaders can create a strong statement of values and start living it from top to bottom. You can hire for it, promote for it and fully inhabit it.

These conversations can be society-changing. People take the experiences they have in the workplace home to their families and out into the world. So when they can be honest and respectful of differences at work, it impacts all of us.

Racial and social justice of all types is fundamental to creating a thriving workforce and a thriving business. We can use this moment as a catalyst, with all of us playing our part to fix our company cultures to become what we all want and need them to be.

SIX WAYS BUSINESS LEADERS CAN SHOW THEIR COMMITMENT TO EQUITY AND INCLUSION

  1. Redefine your culture and values. Organizational leaders need to change their values to include real, measurable diversity and inclusion across all activities, and then measure the impact of intentionality.
  2. Practice inclusive hiring and promotion like you believe in it. Organizations that hire and promote with an unmitigated commitment to inclusion—all the way to the top, including boards—show that they are truly diverse.
  3. Have open dialogues about taboo topics, such as racism. Since employees are going to bring up these issues anyway, employers would do well to offer protocols to guide discussions and a safe space in which to conduct them.
  4. Invest capital in social impact funds and corporate social responsibility programs. An investment of venture capital in social impact funds provides the incentive needed to propel real, monumental social change. Another approach is to expand corporate social responsibility to include equality and inclusion.
  5. Market to those who have been ignored. Social injustice includes the failure to market directly to an audience devoid of opportunity. This means altering organizational schedules to present social justice programming.
  6. Rebuild your enterprise to be a force for good. Organizations truly interested in replacing inaction with action should consider rebuilding themselves as a force for good in matters of social justice—from changing revenue streams to adding another business line.