Is your company accidentally racist?

Posted on September 25, 2020 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 0 Comments


In what can only be described as the post-George Floyd era, we find ourselves in a global reckoning of systemic racism. Issues of race have found their way to the forefront of our collective social consciousness. Aunt Jemima, the Washington Redskins, Old Sam, Edward Cornwallis… governments, companies and institutions have been forced to rethink systems, policies and iconography that speak to a deeply embedded and normalized racism. What it took to get here was horrific but the urgent necessity for things to be different has been nothing short of revolutionary. Which is why now is the ideal time for corporate leaders to ditch their diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs.

For over 25 years, these initiatives have been built on the false premise that individual growth and education are the key to change. Imagine you’re part of the BIPOC minority (black, indigenous or person of colour) and you’re speaking to a very engaged, very determined and very earnest white senior leader who clearly wants to do the right thing. He expresses how important it is to talk about these issues. He wants to learn. He wants to understand. He feels there’s so much opportunity for growth if we would just listen to each other. 

He’s so wrong. His intent is great. But his approach and the impact of the approach are a big problem.

Not only is it unfair to expect minoritized peoples to bleed all over the ground so those in positions of social power can understand and learn from their pain, but more importantly, it doesn’t work. Learning about the pain of racism, or the history of that pain, has not driven change. If it worked, we wouldn’t be in the midst of a racial crisis. 

Ending ineffective D&I programs—such as one-and-done unconscious bias training, the sharing of personal stories, diverse hiring panels, simplistic surveys that can’t possibly elicit reliable data, counting diverse bodies—is the best thing that could happen for those who want real change. Simply put, these programs sustain the illusion of systemic change while doing little to address social power (i.e., racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism) as the real wellspring that forestalls that change.  Unless they run parallel to real substantive change measures, surface level efforts such as a Juneteenth holiday or a black square on an Instagram page amount to little more than exercises in performative allyship and virtue signaling.

Racism is a systemic problem and so achieving real sustainable change requires a higher level organizational mindset and systemic framework.

Are you really an inclusive leader?

This is an important question for organizational leaders who look to justify existing staffing homogeneity that ladders up and amplifies in managerial and C-suite positions.  If your management team is exceedingly male, the “reflecting the community” excuse doesn’t quite fly, but what often happens is a fallback to the “dearth of women in the field and pipeline” rationalization.  That should be a red flag.  The lack of women in the pipeline is a direct result of the larger systemic problem of sexism so if you truly want the best, if diversity and inclusion is truly a core value, you might want to help rupture this external system too.   

That said, quite often the lack of diverse bodies in leadership isn’t just a factor of hiring and promotion, it’s connected to how quickly diverse leaders leave.  If you are in a field that has been historically male and white, you may want to ask yourself where you recruit from, how you support diverse hires and perhaps most importantly, if, how quickly and from what departments/teams diverse leaders leave your organization.  Is the cadence of their departure different?  

Metrics matter

Successful leaders map and monitor the various parts of their business that are key to their success. Chances are that you track and analyze key performance indicators to see if there are trends and areas for improvement. But do you measure your D&I initiatives/goals with the same rigour? Your answer will say a lot about whether D&I really is a core value for your organization. This is where traditional D&I programs fail and why you should consider calling them to a halt: it’s time to do things that work.

To be clear, this is not as simple as counting the number of BIPOC people you have on staff or how many women you have in the C-suite.  Metrics are only powerful when you measure the right things in the right way. For instance, hiring quotas become problematic if you aren’t also measuring behavioural profiles for inclusivity.  Simply put, hiring a person of colour doesn’t help your culture if that individual is also sexist or homophobic.  Your metrics have to take these keys into consideration. Fortunately, the technology has advanced to the point that it’s possible to get this level of insight in assessing your D&I metrics.

Implementation, of course, depends on a willingness to take action: you have to really accept and embrace change if meaningful change is to occur. Marrying science, technology and business imperatives will allow you to make thoughtful choices that are both impactful and fundamentally conducive for your organizational culture and your bottom-line.

Test your diversity quotient

Where does your organization sit on the inclusion spectrum?
(Source: The MESH/Inclusion Pyramid)

Stage 1:  No real interest in diversity and inclusion

  • Leadership tends to be reactionary when it comes to grievances and complaints
  • Culture tends to be transactional with little understanding of the business case for engagement and cultural health
  • There is little diversity in the organization and its absence is generally ignored or minimized
  • There is no organizational consciousness regarding the issue of diversity, let alone inclusion or power dynamics
  • There is no consideration for how unconscious bias impacts day-to-day operations

Stage 2: Basic compliance

  • HR begins to enforce human rights and compliance-driven standards
  • Diversity is seen as a project where events and activities are led by interested and passionate personnel (usually minorities)
  • Little thought is given to ensuring that organization culture supports the ability of marginalized personnel to integrate and thrive
  • Diversity is supported through time-limited funding and for short-term projects, limited consultations and tick-box tools
  • The underrepresentation of minoritized bodies is noticed and “quota type” approaches begin to be implemented

Stage 3: Early stage implementation

  • There is little interest in acknowledging power dynamics such as miss/micro-management, even less so when diversity is involved
  • HR personnel lead diversity initiatives without the support of external experts or formal education/certification
  • Workforce is relatively diverse, but connections are generally not made between diversity, inclusion, culture and engagement
  • Social programs are engaged, D&I assessments begin, quality education is engaged, but funding is susceptible to budget cuts
  • Personnel are diversifying and some efforts are being made to reduce unconscious bias in recruitment and hiring

Stage 4: Inclusion starts to be systemized

  • Senior leadership actively stewards D&I as an organizational pillar
  • HR works closely with the internal diversity lead (someone specifically hired for their subject matter expertise) and/or external diversity experts
  • Survey data is regularly examined and clear metrics are used to ensure employee engagement
  • Recruitment and hiring are examined through the diversity lens but metrics haven’t been integrated yet
  • D&I education is an organizational requirement, led by external subject matter experts or certified internal facilitators

Stage 5: Proactive inclusion

  • Inclusion is systemized (i.e. metrics, behavioural analytics, coaching, mentoring, etc) to monitor, manage and mitigate power dynamics)
  • Inclusion is an established program, led by internal or supported by external subject matter experts and stewarded by Executive Leadership as a Core Value
  • Inclusion is data-driven and proactive with culture trend metrics used to drive engagement, culture, retention and productivity
  • HR proactively drives inclusion and engagement across the talent cycle (recruitment, hiring, promotions, team composition, etc)
  • Full-phased D&I learning program, designed by experts, is in place and supported by online resources, coaching and mentoring

What an inclusive workplace means to me

I am Standing Elk of the Eagle Clan, a proud nehithaw-iskwew (Woodland Cree woman), member of Lac La Ronge First Nation in Saskatchewan, and have lived in beautiful Kjipuktuk/Halifax for the past 21 years. 

Since my first day with Deloitte Canada, I have felt valued for who I am. In 2018, very shortly after I presented the idea to our Atlantic leadership, the firm established its first Downie Wenjack Legacy Space, to commemorate those who attended Residential Schools in Canada, raise awareness about this part of our shared history, and foster dialogue about Indigenous issues in general. Since then, the firm has been establishing other such spaces across Canada. As the granddaughter of a residential school survivor, words can hardly express how much this moves me.

When you work for a company that truly values your voice, is open to change, and commits to your growth as a leader, it earns your loyalty and respect. 

This spring, despite the disruption of a pandemic, the firm decided to place a priority on reconciliation and on building meaningful relationships with Indigenous peoples. As a result, I now have a dream role, where I help lead our national Indigenous marketplace strategy and am a champion of our newly-released Reconciliation Action Plan, the first of its kind in corporate Canada, as an answer to the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #92.

As it turns out, simply being me has delivered the best career move of my life. It doesn’t get much more meaningful than that. •

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