How Businesses Can Advance from Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toward Anti-Racism

(Photo by Josh Olalde on Unsplash)

“Diversity and Inclusion aren’t good enough.”

This sentiment has proliferated in the charged months following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The protests over their deaths catapulted longstanding issues of racism and injustice to the fore of our national conversation. As dozens of companies took the unprecedented move to speak out against police brutality and affirmed that #BlackLivesMatter, employees and consumers moved to hold these companies accountable for their role in perpetuating systemic racism and inequality.

“If Black Lives Matter, why doesn’t your leadership team have any Black representation?”

“If we stand against systemic and widespread police brutality, why do we sell our products to police departments?”

In response to the suddenness and intensity of this pressure, corporate leaders looked to their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs for answers but found few. Some companies had recently downsized DEI programs in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and reassigned DEI professionals to focus on managing the shift to a virtual workforce.

DEI programs as they exist today aren’t able to create the anti-racist companies employees and consumers want. To create truly anti-racist companies, leaders need to dig deeper. Here’s a guide on how, starting from this moment of crisis.

1. Recognize that symbolic or one-time actions are crisis control, not solutions.

The outpouring of public statements from companies and their CEOs on public media and in companywide emails shows that they recognize the intensity of this moment in time. Making Juneteenth a company holiday, as many companies have done, is a symbolic gesture to show that they recognize their Black employees. Companywide conversations and unconscious bias training are signals that companies are willing to get vulnerable, court conflict, and introspect.

Know that none of these actions will create an anti-racist company. What they will do is raise awareness and inspire hope that companies will make a change.

In that respect, they are an essential first step. Unless you want to destroy the trust your company has built, this cannot be the only step.

2. Create a working group or cross-functional team to guide and implement the process of long-term change on top of ongoing DEI work.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion roles within most companies are frequently over-scoped and under-resourced, with a handful of employees saddled with the Sisyphean task of “making the company more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.” Herein lies one of the fundamental paradoxes of this work: How can a company reconcile the fact that everyone should own responsibility for DEI with the fact that without dedicated DEI roles, advocates are forced to work without pay or recognition? One answer to this question involves establishing a working group or cross-functional team tasked with guiding the direction and implementation of anti-racist changes across the company.

Design this working group to ensure that it includes decision-makers with authority, representatives spanning different business units and employee communities, and experts and advocates with needed skills and networks. For example, your working group may include the CEO; Head of People; a DEI Program Manager; Directors from Marketing, Sales, Product, and Engineering; an external consultant; and rotating seats for passionate advocates from anywhere in the company.

It’s important that this group supplement, but not replace, existing DEI efforts. Doing so ensures a more sustainable distribution of responsibility and accountability for change across the organization. It allows employees within DEI roles to resist the scope creep that is common in many companies.

3. Develop a shared vision and understanding of what anti-racism looks like.

Work broadly and deeply to understand how employees and customers envision your company’s anti-racist future. Ask yourself and your company’s constituencies the questions below as you engage in this process, which can be supplemented via town halls, surveys, focus groups, and your anti-racism working group or cross-functional team.

  • What should the experiences of People of Color be in this company? What should the experiences of People of Color in the world?
  • What should the experiences of white people be in this company? What should the experiences of white people be in the world?
  • What is happening now in this company that should no longer happen? What isn’t happening now in this company that needs to happen?
  • What is happening now in the world that should no longer happen? What isn’t happening now in the world that needs to happen?
  • What impact should the company have on the world, and why?

The goal of this process is to arrive at a clear and compelling vision that everyone, especially senior leaders, feels inspired by and excited to own.

4. Make and implement a strategic plan to achieve your vision.

Make heavy use of your working group or cross-functional team and engage in long-range strategic planning around your company’s vision for anti-racism. Ensure that corporate mission statements and core values are aligned with this vision and rewrite them if they aren’t. Anticipate how the company’s strategic plan for anti-racism might interact with its other future-oriented strategic plans (for example, related to industry trends, national and global politics, demographic changes, digitization, and artificial intelligence) and plan accordingly.

Within companies, culture takes the longest to change, followed by shared practices and processes. The goal of foundation-laying isn’t to achieve these kinds of changes immediately but to prepare the organization to make consistent progress.

Outside of the organization, give weight to your public statements by walking the talk. End relationships with customers and partners that don’t embody your vision or values, and build relationships with those that do. Donate, but with the tactical understanding that charitable giving is but one of many strategies to drive change.

5. Do the anti-racist work, iterate, and improve.

The hardest work happens when the media attention moves on. What differentiates organizations that are genuinely committed to doing right by their employees and the world from those that are only interested in maintaining appearances is what they do when the moment passes and tensions simmer down. The work that happens here is the most important of all. What does it look like?

  • Performing continuous surveys to stay on top of your company culture as it evolves.
  • Maintaining the ability of all your leaders to be champions and custodians of the company’s mission and values, even through turnover and leadership succession.
  • Assessing the impact of your working group every year and tweaking its composition, incentives, and goals to do better.

“Anti-racism” is a commitment and an outcome, not an award. To that end, we can’t have truly anti-racist organizations until we have a truly anti-racist world. That’s reward enough to do this work.

A version of this article by Lily Zheng was originally published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

B the Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.


5 Steps to Make Your Company’s Commitment to Justice a Reality was originally published in B The Change on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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