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Corporate America's Role in Fighting Racism

Racism and Corporate America

June 18, 2020

In the wake of George Floyd’s death by a police officer in Minnesota, thousands of people of all races and backgrounds took to the streets to express their frustration, anger and rage not just because of the death of George Floyd, but also the illegal and unnecessary killing of hundreds of African American men and women before George Floyd. African American communities across America and allies from all faiths and backgrounds have being saying ‘enough is enough’ and demanding change to improve generations of oppression, exclusions, institutional and systemic bias and racism.

Most of the protests have been in public spaces, demanding change in legislation at the municipal, state and federal levels. Many corporations have released statements to show solidarity — some bold and with specific actions for change and some not — but what next? What role can corporations play, specifically, in fighting racism? Do they have a role?

The answer is YES.

Watch this Ted talk by Janet Stovall where she makes the case that there is no other institution better suited than corporate America to dismantle racism.

Implementing Workplace Diversity Initiatives

While approximately 20 million Americans are enrolled in colleges and universities, a whopping 158 million people go to work every day. We spend one third of our life at the workplace, according to Gettysburg College. Our workplace is likely one of the few places where we interact with someone who is different than us (coworker or customer), whether in race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, etc.

If there is any place where we can bring a large group of individuals to learn about each other to understand other cultures values and ideologies, it is at our workplaces. Workplace Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) initiatives have the ability to educate, influence and change thousands of people at a time. So, it is time for corporate America to step up, invest in such initiatives and help fight racism.

Race is by far the most difficult conversation to have and the hardest nut to crack. One way we deal with it is by avoiding it. This only perpetuates the situation and worsens it. Because there are other dimensions of diversity (ethnic diversity, physical abilities and others) that corporations have to focus on, D&I initiatives have struggled to prioritize one over the other in fear of being accused of playing favoritism.

It is time for all of us to make race the focal point of our initiatives. If we can solve the problem of race, we will positively improve lives for other diverse communities, including whites. It is not a zero-sum game.

Many large corporations have had D&I initiatives for decades and yet we only see a handful of people of color as CEO’s and in senior-level positions. Mid-size companies have begun to incorporate D&I within the last decade, while a large number of small businesses have not even started the conversation.

It’s widely proven that diverse companies are more innovative, productive and can expect higher financial returns. According to McKinsey & Company, executive teams that are highly gender-diverse are found to be 21% more likely to outperform profitability. Racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35% more likely to outperform peers and competitors. Diverse companies are 70% more likely to capture new markets which means higher profits.

By creating an inclusive culture, companies are able to retain employees which reduces costs. Happy employees are also productive and contribute to innovation by successfully working through differences across teams.

To the large corporations who have done this for a long time, consider mentoring small and mid-size companies to help them with this journey.

For organizations looking for ways to act, here are some best practices for you to consider.

Create a Diversity + Inclusion Plan

Make a commitment to ensure this is sustainable and long-lasting.

  • Take time to lay a strong foundation by looking at your overall strategic plan and see how D&I may be woven into every aspect of the organization. Every activity or event done through D&I should be tied to a goal that is measurable.
  • All D&I initiatives should be financially viable. It should either save your organization money (for example: through retention) or bring in additional revenues (reaching new markets and customers).
  • D&I should be an important function of your organization just like marketing, finance, sales, etc. and led by a dedicated professional whenever possible to achieve the best results. •
  • Leadership commitment is key and will help in getting buy-in from all managers and employees.
  • Companies already have a large amount of data on employees, including age, gender, race and ethnicities. Look into your data deeply. Slice and dice the data in every way possible. Check into which populations are not represented and what voices and perspectives are missing at all levels of the organization. This data analysis will lead you to your required interventions on recruiting and retention goals.
  • Design your D&I strategy to match your business objectives. Using the different sets of data, employee surveys and focus group discussions you can identify some key areas that need improvement. Make sure you look at every aspect of your organization and see how you can weave in diversity and inclusion.
  • This is by far the most important step. Do not forget to set measurable goals into your D&I plan. Everything done through the D&I plan should be tied to saving money (e.g. reduced turnover due to high employee engagement) for the organization or increased revenues (e.g. finding new markets). Examples:
    • Increase employee engagement by X%.
    • Increase retention — decrease voluntary turnover by X%.
    • Increase representation of (specific underrepresented groups) at X level(s) of the organization by X%
    Data about employee engagement can be maintained through an annual cultural survey. Learning from training and education can be assessed with pre- and post-questionnaires about understanding attitudes towards various D&I topics. Assess how managers and employees actually applied the learning in their jobs.
  • Like all other plans, this plan needs to be reviewed annually to see what improvements need to be made. Consider external factors, such as changes in business practices, markets and other changing external environments that need reflection and incorporate updates into the plan every year.

For more information on the business case for diversity and best practices around how to start an effective and successful D&I plan, please contact Sanjita Pradhan at spradhan@dsmpartnership.com.

Sanjita Pradhan

Sanjita Pradhan is the director of diversity and inclusion at the Greater Des Moines Partnership where she leads our internal and external DEI strategies to ensure DSM USA is welcoming and inclusive to all individuals.