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  • Writer's pictureJoy Akurienne Coker

Racism in the Workplace: After Uncomfortable Conversations, What Next?

Updated: Feb 1, 2021


Across America, across the globe, across industries and governments, fervent conversations about how to stymie racism are taking place. Yet to our chagrin, we have all been here before. Across social media, employees are having déjà vu moments about conversations taking place in their workplace. They have heard it all before and have become skeptical that any true AND lasting change can occur.

For industry leaders, Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and Chief Diversity Officers (CDOs), here are challenges and opportunities to rise to the occasion.

Employees Need Transparency

Businesses around the globe understand that every initiative needs funding and oversight to be sustainable. A lean business model must be followed and trimming weaknesses and failures are natural paths to running successful enterprises. Yet many companies who demand diversity and inclusion from their partners and clients consistently fail to live up to those ideals. It is not for lack of resources or money, but fear.

In today’s critique ridden culture, companies are leery of making any misstep. Fear of not pleasing everyone, making mistakes, being judged, or shamed. Fear that the projected investment and sustainability costs will be large and success is not guaranteed. Ultimately, this critical aspect of any business has been paralyzed by fear of the unknown.

Companies understand that dealing with biases and racism is not like dealing with an acquisition, the competition or a product launch. Yet, there is a reluctance to give it the same level of importance.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), especially when it comes to tackling racism and racial oppression in the workplace, must be approached with the same vigor of any C-Suite approved initiative. There must be a business case tailored to the company and its demographic. Annual budgets must have allocations for resources and funds needed for the programs(s).

Sally just received another email speaking of her company’s dedication to diversity but has not heard anything about how the plan is supposed to work, she gradually looses hope that the company actually cares about her career. She is expecting to see actual investment into sustainable career development; career training and pipeline creation. When will she be promoted? When will anyone care about the income disparity for similar or identical roles?

Perhaps, achievements can be assigned informa dollar amounts, assessed and tallied for loses and revisions. When quarterly results are announced for products and initiatives, the results for DEI investments in relation to projections should be announced as well. The knowledge that accountability will be upheld each quarter is a great incentive for everyone to take this seriously. It also sends a message to employees like Sally, that the company is committed to eradicating this issue. When companies promote and pay People of Color (POC) rates commensurate with their qualifications, experience, and industry practice, potential employees will apply in droves.

Mobilize Your Human Resources (HR)

Most companies typically assign large numbers of employees to a Human Resources Representative/Business Partner. Many of them are inundated with work and hardly have the time to become invested in their subjects before being reassigned. High turnover rates and warnings not to ‘rattle the cage’ eviscerate any connection or established trust. HR touts ‘job security’ and at-will employment status as reasons to hush-up employees.

Take Kevin, he was warned to endure his manager’s microaggressions rather than risk placing himself on HR’s radar. Kevin really hoped that HR would understand that this toxic situation was making it difficult for him to work and feel like he belonged. However, when he visited his HR Manager, he was shocked when he was told that he was reading too much into it. He was told that his manager had good intentions and it was just his personality. He felt like he was being dismissed as being petty and needed to 'man up.'

Marginalized employees like Kevin, who dare to report incidents to HR and are subsequently ostracized, wear invisible scarlet letters and serve as cautionary tales.

Companies can really show employees that HR is their friend. Encourage anonymous manager reviews and take a look at what your employees are saying. In most companies, manager approval is needed for company and career trainings, education, travel, bonus and merit increases. Review the rate of promotions across teams and verify that this is by merit.

When managers know that HR will not blindly sign off on 3 promotions in 5 years for one employee, they will strive for a fairer workplace. They will also come to the realization that DEI is not just a check the box goal.

Encourage directors and senior leaders to report to HR when they receive multiple complaints on one manager. Monitor mass exodus from particular teams, could it be that a manager is creating a toxic work environment? Could it be that a loyal employee, would rather move to a different department or leave the company completely, because he or she feels complaints are not taken seriously?

These questions are pertinent and necessary for the creation of a comprehensive overhaul of a company’s DEI program.

Make Concerted Efforts for People of Color

Despite the volume of data and statistics proving that DEI is good for business; businesses are struggling to implement effective programs that exemplify a diverse and inclusive work environment.

The struggle to appease non-People of Color and elevate marginalized and traumatized POC continues to create a seismic tension.

In one camp, assurances must be given that the standards will not be lowered to incorporate diversity. In the other camp, acknowledgments must be made for institutionalized suppression despite exceptional talents. The phrase Affirmative Action hangs in the air, unspoken and stifling.

Companies must ensure that implementing DEI programs is not seen as lowering the standards. It cannot afford to feed the microaggression rhetoric that, lack of diversity is due to the lack of talented professionals amongst POC. Senior leaders, question your colleagues and subordinates when you start seeing the same faces over and over again on projects and for appointments. Demand a balance in your Business Unit (BU) for representation on high level visible projects and initiatives.

Create a clear path for career acceleration within your BU. There is no reason why after 15 years, Sally has only been promoted twice while her orientation mate is now the leader of her division. Most often, this is not because Sally is not a hardworker or lacks the desire to grow and lead. When everyone is given an opportunity, talents can be fairly celebrated, evaluated, and rewarded.

For each DEI initiative, make sure you are asking and answering the how, not just the what.

  • How do we plan to increase representation in senior leadership – First to last steps?

  • How will that process work – Roadmap?

  • How does it fit in with your current framework – Overhaul or Adjustments?

  • How will the pipeline be sustained – Quota/Metrics?

DEI programs must be tied to department or BU annual goals. Create a panel to vet applicants. Assign senior leaders as participants, mentors, and eventually sponsors. Track progress; if no one from a cohort has been promoted in 12 months, investigate.

After the diversity quota is reached for internships and graduate programs, examine who the company offers employment to and why. This will put the business in a proactive position that will accelerate DEI beyond just a quota.

Without a clear path and a ladder that leads from ground zero, the professional fates of your employees are left to chance. There must be a deliberate plan on each leadership level on how leaders are appointed, hired, and promoted.

Acknowledge Failures and Be Honest

Employees are accustomed to the fanfare unveiling of the next career changing initiative. Many of them are already critiqued as dead on arrival. Why? Employees have seen these over and over again; they know that without allocated funds and oversight, there is no survival.

When managers rule over professional destinies, arbitrarily allocating projects and promotions, where is the hope? Employees see through these churning of programs. They watch the committees or leaders of the program get promoted for their incredible work — even if the work is over the following year.

Social media campaigns, branding efforts, donations made to the community around the business, sponsoring a table at a DEI gala, and recruiting at Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs), are wonderful DEI efforts. However, for current employees who are being stifled, it does not alleviate the problem.

When a POC at a career fair asks how many POC you have on your board, your executive leadership, and the next three leadership levels, you should be able to tell a compelling story about your DEI efforts. When asked how many development programs you have for POC. You should be able to tout a strong track record of the program(s) advancing careers. Like any great salesperson, be ready to discuss changes, incremental growth, and progress, over the years within divisions and BUs.

Your employees are your biggest marketing success stories. Like Kevin, when employees feel they have nowhere to turn to, they will seek employment elsewhere and provide negative feedback on their experiences with you. Invest more in your current employees; show them that you value their contributions and they will spread the news to potential employees.

Don’t Forget Your Stakeholders — Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Over the last decade, it has become cool to have town halls, unconscious bias trainings, manager trainings and of course, Courageous Conversations. Yet, those who are actually impacted by institutionalized racism are rarely at the table after these conversations. Those who wield the power to instigate and implement change are also not at the table.

Sometimes, they are welcomed at the beginning but gradually shut out once it is time to actually put a meaningful step forward. How many POC are invited to attend the series of meetings between HR, Legal Counsel and the DEI Office? Employees are used to the “we will take it from here” attitude. They are given sympathies and then excluded from every decision making process and model meant to create change.

Do not just collate complaints and concerns from stakeholders, also solicit plans from them. Make sure POC have the ears of those with the power to authorize changes. Ask them what they think the solutions are. Do not be surprised that employees, who actually experience these issues daily, have concrete and thought-out plans on how to fix the problem. They want to be part of the vision and growth of the company. They will no longer be at your company if that were untrue. Give them the chance to guide you.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is Achievable

Companies cannot keep repeating the same thing and expecting a different result. DEI can no longer be a check the box item. It can no longer be about repeat trainings and hollow gestures. It must become a long-term business goal pegged to financial benchmarks and overall business strategy.

Companies must desist from just hiring a new DEI leader or team and focus on making this an initiative where failure is not an option. It must be a goal across all BUs. It should not just be a side project for a senior leader; it needs to have the full backing of the CEO and Board of Directors. DEI oversight is crucial to achieving set goals. Quarterly evaluations are necessary to track progress and agile response to change and revisions will lead to sustainability.

Break the Cycle — Change the Narrative and Change Results

We all know these steps: everyone is shocked by a crisis, CEO and or CDO releases statement disavowing racism and discrimination, sometimes acknowledging company shortfalls and vowing to fight for what is right. Resources for help especially mental health are made available. Leaders meet with Business Resource Groups (BRGs)/Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) and they are asked how they feel. Leaders commit to listening. Broad sweeping initiatives are announced without a matrix to evaluate and ensure success (transparency). The waiting game begins. Cycle repeats itself when the next crisis occurs.

Companies can break the cycle by being proactive. Applying the aforementioned approaches will put the company outside the cycle. It will place the company in an offensive, and not a defensive stance.

If DEI programs are implemented with intent, drive, and accountability, employees will become comfortable and versed with the myriad of resources available. They will believe the statement made in solidarity. The community around you will gradually change because of your efforts and because your employees have been your greatest evangelists.

Joy Akurienne Coker

Joy Akurienne Coker is an Attorney Editor at Thomson Reuters. She has been a DEI advocate for over 15 years. You can connect with Joy at

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