An Open Letter to Corporate America, Philanthropy, Academia, etc.: What Now?

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We black folx exhaled, just a little bit, when we saw the letters to employees and to the public from Target, Wells Fargo, University of Minnesota, and even Melinda Gates. Maybe they see us now? Maybe our murders will not just go quietly into the night after a hashtag is stamped in front of those we’ve lost on the frontlines of racism, again? Will anything change for me at work, or do I need to get ready to gird up for the standard onslaught of debilitating aggressions?

The fact that some of the leadership of these organizations were awake just a bit or impacted enough to recognize that they should respond to this national crisis could be a tiny glimmer of light. For many of these CEOs and companies this was the first time a statement about racism or the trials of blackness was ever publicly acknowledged. Now we ask you: do you know what needs to come next? Do you know that sending that letter to the public and to your employees does not end with a period? In fact, there should not even be a comma. Keep moving. There is work to be done- work inside of your company, in your leadership teams, among the Amy Coopers and Karens who are making decisions, who are active aggressors, who look like your mothers, daughters and wives. All too often the focus is on white men. There is work for everyone.

Here are some steps you can take now that you penned those letters that reflected on how soul crushing this week has been- and dedicating your support to black employees.

1. Stop demanding the business case for investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Just do it.

2. Ensure that race is an overt topic addressed within your organization and not overshadowed and ignored by cognitive diversity, gender diversity, etc.

3. Build in accountability measures (and enforce them!) for aggressions and discriminatory behavior- and completely do away with the excuses like: They didn’t intend that. They didn’t know.

Shift this into: You must understand the impact of your actions. What are you going to do so that you are aware and intentional? You are accountable.

Naturally, termination of employment, suspensions, etc. should be applied as appropriate. Note: The external conduct of your employees not only impacts your company’s brand, but its unlikely that racist and other inequitable behavior is limited to “after hours”. Have a clear plan and guidance on how you will respond to these moments. Perhaps take a page from Franklin Templeton’s book, but know that equity in applying consequences is expected.

4. Compliance reports (including all allegations) of discrimination, harassment, or other forms of inequitable treatment should be shared quarterly or annually with senior leaders. Awareness by leaders should be elevated as opposed to having the old school “containment” approach where reports are “contained” within only HR and/or Legal. The context of these allegations will result in organization-wide learning, clarity on the ongoing state of your culture, and perhaps used as case studies to skill up your people managers. (Be mindful of trends of reports and allegations that consistently derive from specific departments or leaders.)

5. Avoid limiting metrics to demographic representation and counting the number of ethnic groups, gender, abilities, sexual orientation, etc. Expand metrics to include:

- What does retention look like for underrepresented groups? (Review the numbers and reasons for voluntary and involuntary departures as well.)

- What does the promotion rate (and bonuses) look like?

- What does compensation look like amongst groups?

- Are employee engagement survey results disaggregated to recognize responses by underrepresented individuals (race, gender, abilities, etc.) as well as those who opt not to self-identify? Being satisfied with outcomes that reflect the majority responses will leave you ignoring clear and telling trends from your underrepresented populations.

(Note that all people of color should not be clumped together when disaggregating data. This is how you may identify that Black employees have a different experience from Asian or Latino employees. Similarly, all women should not be clumped together and you should clearly be able to discern the different experience between white women and women of other ethnic groups.)

When identifying disparities, determine why they exist. What are the causes? Are underrepresented employees getting equal opportunities to develop? Develop a plan to address them, including milestone points that are revisited on a regular cadence.

Be as transparent as possible about the metrics and disparities. Have a plan to hold your organization accountable for change. This should include annual leadership report outs to the organization. (I am very aware of legal risks associated with this degree of transparency. But I am also aware that lack of transparency doesn’t change the actual facts concerning disparity. It merely serves to hide them and leave them unaddressed.)

6. Every annual budget should include a sustained budget for DEI line items as a standard business cost that is not limited to your HR budget. Funding for diversity, equity, and inclusion should not be relegated to what is “left over” or be the first costs that are cut.

7. Learning and development opportunities on biases, aggressions, and other matters that have been categorized as “DEI matters” should be labeled as leadership training and development, as this is precisely what this type of development is. Too often this important work is marginalized and stigmatized once the title diversity, equity, or inclusion is attached to it. To be a successful leader, one must be competent and aware in these areas.

8. Such leadership development should not be relegated to “parachute” training that is a “one and done”. Develop communities of practice, conversations, and actionable behaviors that are expected and modeled throughout your organization. Accountability to ensure modeling will ideally be integrated in performance review check-ins throughout the year and tied to promotion and compensation outcomes. (Consider having communities of practice specifically for your people managers.)

9. The highest levels of leadership must initiate conversations on DEI topics. This should not be left to just HR and your ERGs. This could come in the form of leadership organizing, moderating conversations or introducing panels. You don’t have to be topical experts, but you should be able to show up and to lead from the front. It makes a difference. (The highest levels of leadership also have the support staff to dedicate to this work that is usually done voluntarily and unpaid by ERGs. Consider including a compensation framework for ERG leaders.)

10. Your ERGs should be working beyond the three Fs: food, fun and festivities. Are you including their perspectives in product development conversations, leadership development needs, etc.? Leverage them for their strategic strength that will also support their individual professional development. ERGs are often the most under-valued and under-utlised Business Resource.

Ensure that your ERGs have dedicated budgets. They should not be working full-time and passing the hat around to raise money for efforts that provide high value to the culture of your organization. Again, consider the compensation, recognition, and incentives for ERG leaders. ERGs are often led by underrepresented employees. It is nothing short of inequitable to have them provide free labor, or double up on their work responsibilities when they are adding value to the organization. The work should be honored, guided, and supported. Too often managers are punitive towards employees who lead or participate in ERG work because this work is seen as “extracurricular” or fun and foolish. The highest levels of leadership must elevate and champion this work.

11. Hold memberships (company-funded) in local, regional, and national membership groups that elevate equity so that your employees are able to continue their development and have communities of support, and so that your company is investing more broadly in this work. In philanthropy this might look like membership groups like the Association of Black Foundation Executives or Asian American Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy AAPIP. There are similar affinity groups for almost every profession and sector. Support the sector and your employees.

12. Assess who is “policing” or acting as security on your campuses. Are they trained on intercultural dialogue, biases, aggressions, proper force, or are they mimicking the mindsets and behaviors we’re witnessing across the nation? Are they held accountable for how they manage situations. Are these “situations” documented and reported regularly as a standard part of compliance reporting? (See guidance above.)

I will never forget being searched at an organization where I served as part of the leadership team- as all of my white colleagues walked past me wondering what I did wrong. The security team learned that a bag was taken. My bag looked nothing like the one reported missing, but I was the first black person seen coming from the direction where the bag was reported missing. After this, I never brought my sons to that campus again and increased my efforts to transition out of that organization.

If your leadership team hasn’t developed the connection, vulnerability, or empathy to lean into these conversations. Consider bringing in leadership frameworks and tools like Dare to Lead. Also, retain executive coaches who are skilled in emotional intelligence development and equity matters. Coaches of color will bring strong value to your executives and people managers. It is critical that your leaders are not operating within echo chambers that allow their blindspots to fester.

These steps only focus on your internal organization, but always consider how your business and partnerships can shift in order to make a scaled impact for equity.

#equity #racism #corporateamerica #philanthropy

Aiko Bethea is Principal of RARE Coaching & Consulting and a Senior Consultant for Frontline Solutions. This article is also available on LinkedIn.

Aiko is Founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting, a leadership development agency that focuses on emotional intelligence. NYT Best Seller: You Are Your Best Thing.