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Utah Business

Companies who pledged allegance to Black Lives Matter this summer have gone quiet, putting their BIPOC employees in a position that ends with them leaving the company.

Now that the protests are over, companies are going back to business as usual

In the wake of the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, organizations across the nation were urged to think about the ways in which racism festers in the workplace. In the summer of 2020, organizations seemingly started to engage in anti-racism work and addressed a few low hanging fruits.

They sent out public statements in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement; donated funds to racial justice organizations; held racial bias trainings for their staff; hired diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders (DEI); bolstered employee resource groups (ERGs); and tightened hiring practices. 

It was a pretty sight; there was a lot of commitment to stamping out the throes of racism—overt and subtle—and engendering a truly inclusive corporate environment. Newly hired DEI leaders were pumped up for the implementation of their inclusion strategy. But as the year wraps up, I’ve noticed that these efforts are taking a back seat and organizations are reverting to business as usual. 

The loud voices of support for underrepresented groups are fading away. Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) employees have had to resettle into their pre-summer 2020 work environments and pumpkin spiced latte recipes have drowned out BLM posts on social media. 

Sure, 2020 was the perfect storm, combining racial unrest with a pandemic, working from home, and access to constant social media. However, last time I checked, we are still in a pandemic, everyone is still balancing work/home life, and racism is still thriving. Why have we slowed down? Was it just a moment? 

Here’s the thing: the low hanging fruit that companies targeted over the summer just scratched the surface. Undoing racism requires commitment―a lifetime commitment stronger than that which enshrined racism into American structures and psyche. A movement cannot run on momentum alone, no. It needs a visionary, a plan, a fearless executor, and a willing leadership. If the first three are present and the last isn’t, nothing will get done. 

So, let’s talk about what happens to organizations when anti-racism work is no longer a priority. 

The vision becomes a distant memory

Remember when you were a child and wanted to be a superhero? That seems like ages ago, right? That’s exactly what it will feel like to the millions of BIPOC employees who looked forward to actual anti-racism initiatives by their organizations, except that they didn’t want to be superheroes; they wanted their organizations to show that they actually cared about them. 

Summer 2020 will feel like eons ago if it doesn’t already feel that way. Within the organizations themselves, nobody will seem to remember what was on those statements in solidarity with the movement. It just becomes another hazy period of distraction. Without a strong, ever-present vision, there is no plan.

One person carries all the weight

Let’s go back to the DEI leader that was hired, the one with all the great ideas to create a clear plan for anti-racism initiatives. Yeah, they’ll quit.

When anti-racism is no longer a topic of discussion, they have to bear the burden of making it remain relevant. This means consistently reminding leaders to continue allocating funds towards initiatives and fighting to keep those initiatives alive. This also means having to address BIPOC employees that are still waiting for promises around DEI to be fulfilled and explaining why these promises can’t be fulfilled *yet.*

Leaders tend to think that this work can be handed off to the (single) person hired rather than take full ownership and accountability. But no, any change that will sweep an organization must come from the top, must be talked about by the top, and prioritized by the top. If the top does not prioritize this, the reality is that the DEI leader will eventually become emotionally exhausted and leave the organization, leaving initiatives incomplete. 

This happens more often than we think. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the DEI leadership role has a very high turnover with an average tenure of three years. This is due to burn out, lack of support from the leadership, and the insurmountable pressure coming from all directions of an organization. Leaders tend to push back on anti-racism work―more so if you’re a DEI leader of color―if anti-racism work is no longer a priority, which it too speedily becomes. 

Company reputations suffer

Long gone are the days when racial discrimination in the workplace can be brushed under the rug. Young folks are holding these organizations to the fire and looking to social media as a north star on what brands they want to support. Studies show millennial and generation Z consumers are willing to buy from brands that authentically (and overtly) acknowledge, advocate, and support racial justice. 

And it’s never enough for an organization to just release a statement condemning racism, there has to be transparent action to support it. If the organization returns to business as usual, you’ll have to answer to the public and well before the next crisis comes along to prompt a reaction. Knee-jerk reactions to crises never bode well for an organization’s reputation. 

Employees feel unsafe

There’s one DEI leader, a few ERG’s, and maybe a training or two on bias. When investment in these efforts is deprioritized or minimized, the responsibility to continue educating on racism inadvertently falls on BIPOC employees. BIPOC employees are asked questions, often ignorantly, day in and day out about their experiences. They are expected to assume teaching and/or advisor roles, and are essentially asked to solve workplace racism on top of the actual work they are hired to do. 

This emotional labor can lead to psychological unsafety in the workplace. Catalyst released a study that explored the emotional tax that employees of color face in the workplace and found that 60 percent of BIPOC employees feel on guard and most likely want to leave their employers. This tax is not something that organizations can afford, but that they run the risk of when anti-racism is not part of the workplace culture. 

Trust is broken

When anti-racism work comes to a halt in an organization, BIPOC employees lose faith in the leadership. During the BLM protests, leaders of corporate America opted to listen to their BIPOC employees by way of listening tours or focus groups. Black employees were prompted to be vulnerable, share stories, and revisit racial traumas. BIPOC employees were invited to advise on how to foster belonging in the workplace—for free. 

When leaders go silent, avoid follow-up, or ignore the work altogether, they send their BIPOC employees a message—a message of inauthenticity and lack of empathy, that they just have to “deal with” a workplace that is inconducive to them. These employees then have a hard time trusting that their employers actually care, and everything said about DEI moving forward will sound like lip service. Eventually, the organization becomes a revolving door for BIPOC employees, and it will be no secret.

It is easier to address issues like racism when it’s in your face. But there’s a substantial amount of privilege in being able to look away at any given time. The real work is being proactive while things are not on fire—moving away from crisis management mode and towards crisis prevention mode; from promise mode to impact mode. 

Just because it’s not as “trendy” or as “interesting” doesn’t mean that racism has ceased to exist and that organizations should push it back where it was before summer 2020. Anti-racism should be an enduring movement — not just for the moment.

Neelam Chand is the CEO and founder of Shift SLC, a diversity and inclusion consulting firm located in Salt Lake City, Utah. With over a decade of D&I experience, Chand has worked with different industries ranging from higher education to financial services and tech startups to break down systemic barriers and design a more equitable workplace environment. Before establishing her firm, Chand served as SVP, Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Zions Bank. Chand currently serves on various social justice boards and commissions throughout the state of Utah. She has also been a contributor to Forbes, Bloomberg Law, Women, Medium, Utah Bankers Association, and Silicon Slopes, for her expertise around anti-racism, intersectionality, tokenism, microaggressions, and women of color in the workplace.

Comments (5)

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    Shawn Newell

    Thank you for writing this article. I have long stated that these times of silence seem to be inevitable leaving feelings of aggrievement in the wake of the everlasting lure of pecuniary concerns. This is why the issues of race, equity, injustice and inclusivity have yet to meet some semblance of resolution and mending. The burdens shouldered by DE&I practitioners and activist are real and it takes all of us , as humans, to imbue grace and empathy to our fellow human beings.

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    Joey Marquart

    Great article! From a PR perspective, brands also suffer reputational damage from hollow commitments. A solid leadership approach as described in this article should be paired with a disciplined and realistic external communications approach.

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    Dee Billings

    While this is a well-written article, it isn’t an inspiring or completely truthful one. This type of contentious and negative messaging has not yet proven to be the answer to solving any social problems, but in fact do the opposite. Did you not know that? And as a specialist in this area, where is the data and real information vs. opinions and commentary?

    I understand that this is what your company is all about, so you have to keep selling it to stay in business. But why not shift your paradigm and come at it from a kind and professional approach? An approach where you are really serving all people and focused on positively transforming your community?

    Important, big changes are nearly always brought about slowly, but we can be focused, continually working as individuals to show love, goodness, and kindness, and act when there are opportunities to do so. And we need people like you to encourage and lead in the right way. We have seen great changes in our history over time, and we have learned a lot, and we still have work to do. But your article asserts that no progress has been made in businesses or in peoples’ personal lives then or now, and that no one is working hard to make change. I know that’s not true because of my own experience in my workplace, and with talking to others about theirs. Today there are a lot of caring people continuing to do good and making a difference without anger or strife. We will continue to see change as people are honest in heart, really care about others, and inspire rather than bully or try to make people ashamed or afraid. The message of your article did the latter.

    Instead of this unhealthy, divisive approach, why not inspire, lift, and help others in a sincere, loving way? Why not do important research and identify all the good that has been and continues to be done on this front, focus on that, and help people learn to follow best practices and teach they why it is so important? You could still have influence and get new customers taking this approach. You could have written an extremely useful article, with your expertise in this area, about how to move forward, instead of framing it the way you did. But is your goal to unite or divide? If it is to unite and truly help others, you could have done better.

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    Jane Holms

    I’ve noticed people have commented and you’ve deleted them because they oppose what you’ve wrote. You speak about diversity and inclusion yet when it comes to opinion that does not exist? I wish you would have done your research because companies like mine have built out entire committees to this cause. How about instead of instilling fear and negativity, how about you highlight what companies are doing to make a difference in the workplace?

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    Tori Spellings

    Excellent piece! You outline so very well the systemic complacency that happens when DEI is performative and not an organizational imperative. I appreciate your thoughtful analysis, Neelam.

    Not sure why there are people in the comments questioning this and if it is backed by countless academic research. And questioning the professionalism?! But white privilege and white supremacy does that and allows people with little to no expertise fake expertise on race and DEI. Read an academic article or two on this topic. This list good enough for you? https://mitpress.mit.edu/blog/articles-understanding-systemic-racism-and-social-justice.

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