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.