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Creating A More Equitable Workplace This Black History Month

Thanks to the efforts of Black Lives Matter and global protests for racial equity, many companies feel the need to reevaluate the inclusivity of their work environments. Due to shifting market and social demands, customers are demanding more social responsibility from the companies they patronize. This rise in corporate social responsibility (CSR) not only affects potential customers, but directly influences where employees will choose to work. With this paradigm shift, positive corporate cultures are essential for attracting and maintaining high quality employees, meaning companies must cater to employees of all backgrounds and identities, creating diverse work spaces that honor differences and develop equitable practices.

When Business Insider asked 50 leading executives how to achieve a positive corporate culture, they unanimously had two keys to success: “empowerment and inclusivity.” This is why the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are so important to modern companies, especially in the age of Black Lives Matter. DEI programs add crucial points of view to the decision making process, giving employees and customers opportunities to speak out against prejudice in corporate settings.

However, DEI implementation can often seem detached, framing employees of color as statistics on a spreadsheet. As Michele Parmelee – Deloitte Global’s deputy CEO and chief people and purpose officer – puts it, “Diversity is just a numbers game unless you have an inclusive culture.” This clinical approach to DEI brings none of its benefits, and may even draw negative attention to underrepresented employee groups.

With Black History Month approaching, many companies are looking for means of addressing discrimination within their walls, yet may not be fully aware of how to authentically accomplish this goal. With education and hard work, managers and professionals can learn to view diversity and inclusion as an opportunity and not a checklist.

Recognizing Personal Biases

Many, when defining discrimination, think of it in broad strokes, perceiving it as explicit or transgressive behavior. However, Stanford University psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt explains why this definition is limiting; “When people think about racism they’re thinking about bigots. But you don’t have to have a moral failing to act on an implicit bias.” Racism is not a binary phenomenon, and can be performed subconsciously or maliciously, directly or indirectly.

Racism is not inherited at birth, but is something taught by larger social systems which we all inhabit. Biases are created by depictions in fiction, news media, and from the words and actions of others around us. For one to properly implement a DEI system, they must be aware of how these implicit biases are created and enforced, and create a game plan of how to combat them in the workplace.

But before applying outward facing programs, how does one break down their own perceptions? The first step is to understand one’s own biases and actively address them. Jennifer Eberhardt partially attributes unconscious bias to letting the mind run on autopilot, saying “We can slow down and make a shift so we’re less likely to act on bias.” Breaking biases is like disrupting any ingrained habit, and requires conscious effort to perform. However, if one can admit that they are prone to discriminatory biases, then they can begin to alter and question their thoughts and actions.

The next step in growth comes from education, especially from Black perspectives. Media – lectures, books, poetry, music, film, etc. – that covers the Black experience are an incredible way to understand other perspectives, providing the opportunity to see identity and discrimination from a first hand viewpoint. Not only do these culturally enrich and expand horizons of taste, but offer tangible examples of discrimination and how it affects individuals on an emotional level.

To teach others to combat their implicit bias, one must confront one’s own. Of course, unwrapping years of systemic racism is extremely difficult, but it is very possible. By listening and fostering a desire to learn from others’ experiences, one can make incredible strides towards breaking down bias and embracing openness.

Reforming Corporate Culture

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Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

Once a CSR or DEI manager understands bias on a personal level, they can then turn their focus outward to reform the work environments around them. It is important to note that racial discrimination is often seen on a personal level, but is enforced by larger systems at play. This is why workplace education is paramount to reforming corporate cultures, making individual employees observe how they perpetuate racist systems and attitudes, while giving them tools and resources to amend their habits.

Much like the education of the self, it is the responsibility of managers to present employees with resources and information which highlight systemic racism, how it works, where it comes from, and how to deconstruct it on a personal level. These programs should give employees a place to ask questions and receive feedback, taking the stress away from Black colleagues to repeatedly explain bias and discrimination to their co-workers.

Racial bias exists in many work environments, however it can be even more apparent as a customer. Many Black Americans have experienced discrimination while shopping, from being ignored by sales staff all the way up to being detained for suspected shoplifting. For companies to fully commit to DEI, they must educate their staff on how to respectfully treat both coworkers and customers. This equality of treatment is not only the right thing to do, but offers tangible financial benefits. Black Americans spend over $1 trillion annually, and on average will not support brands which make them or their community members feel unwelcomed. For companies to retain Black customers and employees, they must create spaces which are accepting to all.

Stripping racial bias from work environments is quite challenging, however it is essential to longevity and creating diverse workplaces. Often, these initiatives are haphazardly implemented, focused solely around Black History Month or in response to news stories. This approach is short-sighted and is often perceived as transparent and spurious. Black Americans deserve the right to work and shop in peace, and it is up to business leaders and managers to create diverse, equitable spaces for all employees and customers.

Creating A More Equitable Workplace

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In mid-2020, in the midst of the international Black Lives Matter protests, beauty and cosmetics company Sephora closed all their United States locations for two hours to host an internal racial profiling training seminar. While the brand is often noted for its inclusive and equitable workplaces, they have been accused of racial profiling in the past, most notabily by singer/songwriter SZA in 2019. Sephora took all accusations – and the larger discourse on racial profiling – very seriously, and invested in outside research to study how to end racial discrimination in their stores.

Along with retraining their staff, Sephora vowed to stock at least 15% of their shelves with products made by Black-owned businesses. However, unlike many brands, Sephora’s investment in the study of racial profiling in their stores has been on-going for years, with the brand pioneering practices like keeping products outside of locked display cases to foster a sense of trust among customers. Because of this commitment to safe, equitable stores, Sephora is often ranked as one of America’s best employers for diversity. For any managers looking to authentically implement DEI programs, Sephora is an amazing example of how to do it right.

But how can companies authentically celebrate Black History Month? The month is a great time to reflect on diversity in the workplace and examine the ways your business supports inclusivity. However, the discussions this month must continue into the future for substantial functional change to manifest. Like CSR, DEI is quickly becoming an essential component of modern business theory, and will be required to thrive and survive in the coming decades.

Creating inclusive workplaces and businesses will not be easily or quickly achieved. DEI requires long-term thinking along with a commitment to challenging systemic norms, while employing external, diversity-focused perspectives. However, as companies like Sephora have shown, it is not an impossible feat. With education, self-reflection, and dedication to diversity and inclusion, any company can transform themselves into welcoming, discrimination-free places of business.

We at Impactree are devoted to assisting companies with their equitability and sustainability journeys, offering dozens of actions and resources which help companies make a meaningful impact on their workplaces and communities. To find ways to celebrate Black History Month, check out our Racial Justice Action Hub. To learn more about corporate social responsibility, read our series on the importance of CSR to the future of business.

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