It’s been a little over a year since a groundswell of calls for racial justice began to build, fueled by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery in February and Breonna Taylor in March 2020. After George Floyd was killed last May, driving more Americans out to protest under the banner of Black Lives Matter than had demonstrated during the 1960s civil rights movement, an unprecedented number of organizations took a public stand and pledged to join the fight for racial justice.
We applaud organizations for speaking out and making their support — and intentions — for racial justice clear to employees, customers, and other stakeholders. But, as we noted last year, speaking out is not enough. Organizations must walk the talk by taking specific actions that advance racial equity. Their public statements raise the bar for what employees — particularly Black employees — not only hope for but also believe their companies will deliver.
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As we look back at the racial reckoning of 2020, some employees are looking for their companies to make good on their declared ideals, and others are looking for signs that actions taken are leading to sustainable progress. Companies must demonstrate what Cornell University professor Tony Simons calls behavioral integrity by taking actions that move the needle toward racial equity or risk being seen as hypocritical, especially by Black employees who may be particularly skeptical of false promises.
We are cautiously optimistic about the path forward, thanks to historic levels of support and a change in the conversation that includes a recognition of how deeply racism is embedded in systems and structures. But enthusiasm often wanes and efforts can lose steam when good intentions must be translated into intentional action or when shifts in public attention seem to lessen the urgency. We encourage employers to stay the course and focus on accountability, results, and transparency to ensure alignment between their anti-racist statements and practices — using the following recommendations to guide their actions.
Consider your motives. Your reasons for working toward racial equity will influence your success. While public opinion matters, it should not be the primary motivation behind anti-racism efforts. Unless action springs from authentic concern for and commitment to addressing racism and equity issues, it is unlikely to be sustainable or effective — and may reveal a lack of behavioral integrity that harms employee morale. Further, racial equity work, like most diversity and inclusion work, is not a quick fix; it can be emotionally and cognitively taxing. As such, it is important to make sure that there is a true commitment to endure the prolonged effort it can take to effect lasting change.
Develop SMART goals. One surefire way to fail to follow through on engaging in anti-racism efforts is to not have a clear plan for specific actions. Establish goals that are SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. It is not enough to state that the company will increase racial equity in the next two years; you must drill down into defining specific goals and prioritizing them in light of how advanced the organization is on its anti-racism path. Ambition is good, but it is better when it does not far exceed what is possible — you’re not going to end racism this year.
Once goals are in place, ensure that progress toward them is measurable. What specific key results will signal a more equitable organization? Figure out which metrics you need to track and how you will obtain accurate data underlying those metrics, and begin keeping tabs on your progress. Commit to tracking metrics over the long term to ensure that apparently positive results, achieved when the initial energy is high, are in fact true indicators that the organization is meaningfully advancing toward the actual goals of anti-racism.
Be comprehensive. One reason leaders may lack behavioral integrity around racial equity initiatives is because they are focusing on only a single issue without stepping back to examine how racism is embedded in policies and practices. For instance, increasing Black employee representation without addressing inclusion concerns for current employees risks lowering retention rates of Black employees who are disappointed with how the organization is fulfilling its diversity promises. Instead, organizations need to develop a comprehensive plan that addresses racism throughout the employment cycle.
Choose evidence-based practices. Another reason anti-racism goals may fail is because companies choose tactics to address particular issues that aren’t designed for that purpose. For instance, many companies use unconscious-bias training as a standalone cure-all for racial bias, although it was never intended to address systemic racism built into organizational policies and practices. When developing a comprehensive action plan, choose compatible practices and tactics that have proved effective for reaching the intended goals. Equity officers and human resource managers should review the range of available tools, training, and practices, and seek expert insight into their efficacy and potential implementation challenges.
Be accountable. Transparency and accountability will go a long way in convincing employees that the organization is sincere and making progress toward racial equity. Companies should keep employees informed about actions being taken to advance racial equity goals and share data about progress. Where progress lags, leaders should not try to spin the narrative. Instead, own up to failures and discuss how you’ll get back on track. It may not be the story you want to tell or that employees want to hear, but it will help build the trust that is critical to the success of these efforts.
Keep listening to Black employees. We often want to celebrate progress toward diversity goals, and we should. Small victories are important and add up over time. However, it’s important not to become complacent after a few wins and think that the work is done. The presence of diversity initiatives may signal that an organization has achieved fairness and inclusion even if these goals have not truly been realized in practice. Such signals may make it more difficult to detect racial discrimination that is occurring, because people presume that the stance on anti-racism ensures that racism is no longer present. Racism and its consequences are deep-seated, and there is a lot of work to be done. This is why it is critical to continue listening to Black employees to understand the current reality of their experiences — positive and negative.
Getting to a place of true racial equity and anti-racism is a marathon, not a sprint. Research shows that although many Americans believe we have made great strides toward racial equity for Black people since the 1960s, in reality, progress has been slow, uneven, and often stalled. We believe that organizations can make real and demonstrable changes to create more equitable workplaces. To this end, we implore them to develop long-range, comprehensive strategies, be intentional, and sustain their energy. Systemic racism has been constructed over centuries; undoing it mustn’t take as long, but it will require long-term commitment and continuous action.