Black Lives Matter began as a hashtag in 2013. It has grown into a decentralized, galvanizing and exacting tour de force. Now a movement with universal gravity, it surfaced at the top of our agendas this year with pain, shock and bewilderment due to a crystallizing series of murders.
The protests, conversations and grief circulating the tipping point of George Floyd’s murder were not just about police brutality. They were about the numerous, insidiously ‘everyday’ ways that Black lives and livelihoods are not given a fair chance. They’re treated as though they matter less, even in places full of people that know racism is wrong.
And many of us thought, read, tweeted, and prayed that this time it feels different.
The movement found new traction with the way it confronted businesses. The decisions organizations make shape society. And many organizations faced up to the reality that they were built upon historically racist foundations and continue to reproduce inequality in complex ways whether intentionally or not.
But rather than seeing this as a year of reckoning, the really smart organizations are channeling the inertia and imperative of BLM into their DEI work.
After all, employers continue to play a central role in creating progress for people of color. Studies show that white employees are more likely to be promoted than equally qualified Black employees. Plus, Black American men earn $0.87 for every dollar their white counterparts earn. As our friend Toby Mildon shared:
Workplaces play a really important role in challenging [societal] inequalities. Workplaces educate employees on creating a fairer society, which they take back to their families around the dinner table after work.
We know that ‘this time’ will only be different if we harness the powerful opportunities that come from tragedy. And we will only be able to create a truly equitable world when we level the playing field at work.
That’s why we set out to explore and share the real, practical actions organizations can take to make sure the corporate world does not revert to business as usual once the shockwaves and media buzz have faded.
Our research: what smart organizations are doing
This report will not delve into the kneejerk reactions we’ve all spoken about already. CEO messages, telling our Black colleagues we’re “sorry”, donations and hiring figureheads are all important. Yet they don’t reveal how organizations and the people within them can meaningfully examine, dismantle and rebuild their culture and processes.
To find out what experts and change agents are doing to seize this energy and make sure they design a better future, we spoke to 34 leaders at the forefront of DEI to get their take on one important question:
How can we harness the power of the Black Lives Matter movement to create lasting change at work?
We distilled their insights into this practical, action-oriented pulse report designed to give people leaders inspiration on where to take their strategy next. In the following sections, you’ll find smart warnings and objective-oriented tips to address racial inequity and turn this year’s conversation into a revolution.
P.S. The report should take you no longer than 25 minutes to read, but hey, we get it, you’re busy. (The world is operating at unprecedented speed, right?) If you don’t have time to read it now, sign up for our newsletter and we’ll deliver the report straight to your inbox in bite-sized chunks over the course of the next week.
From tragedy comes great opportunity. Many of the leaders we spoke to highlighted that this moment is uniquely important to help employees connect, support and learn about racism through meaningful conversations.
It’s not new for businesses to help their employees have conversations about race. Learning about the experience and barriers for Black folks has long been considered a critical step in becoming an antiracist organization.
In fact, we spoke to Droga5’s Tiffany Edwards on the Inclusion Works podcast back in 2019 about how to make courageous conversations about race a habit in the workplace.
But to correctly respond to today’s needs, we need to focus on certain skills and considerations for conversations about race. Experts are emphasizing quality interactions in peer groups. This is so issues can be understood, knowledge can be retained and peers can work together on the solutions.
First, you need to practice active listening. This means listening to understand, rather than to respond, which requires more hard skill than you might think. Specifically, one of our interviewees told us they asked managers to do 80% of the listening and 20% of the talking.
An ingredient for (or perhaps an outcome of) active listening is empathy. Crucially, our contacts were all keen for empathy to be enacted in the right way. The misuse of empathy can result in non-Black employees demanding Black colleagues share their experiences, a mire of stock phrases like, “I hear you” and more guilt than action.
So, how do you get conversations about racism and equity right in your business? And how do you make sure they have a lasting impact beyond a one-off reactionary event?
First off, 25% of our interviewees explicitly warned that people should not burden their Black colleagues. It’s retraumatizing. One interviewee said that well-intentioned people in her organization, at the very beginning of their journey in understanding systemic racism, were approaching their Black colleagues and asking them to confirm things they’d read or requesting specific examples. Instead, curious employees need to be furnished with self-serve learning resources.
Additionally, the DEI leaders we spoke to warned that conversations should be about more than passive listening if you want to drive change. They need to involve openness. Openness to updating your world or organizational view or openness to admitting you were wrong and perhaps still have more to learn.
Empathy is essential but, as Vernā says, we need to be more pragmatic to translate conversations into behavior change.
A significant number of our interviewees shared that they were working to be inclusive of different starting points. Winning over and engaging everyone in DEI work means meeting them where they are. A popular way to do this is to surface and update resources about the facts of racism and what it means to be antiracist, and to commit to iterating and developing them. At Hive Learning, we held a six-week discussion series and shared our step-by-step Workouts to help others do the same. We were heartened to hear how many organizations are being specific and clear about their language. The consensus is that antiquated language or euphemisms are not helpful. Companies can make use of language to clarify the reality of systemic racism and nurture a shared vocabulary.
To start, you can explore D&I Glossary on the Hive Learning website. Pay particular attention to definitions like ‘Black’, ‘oppression’ and ‘white privilege’.
Share the definitions that you think are most pertinent now with your teams. Crucially, help teams engage with these definitions together, explore whether they would be comfortable using these terms and if any definitions spark deeper questions.
Josh Bersin reported that learning as an interactive group like this improves retention by 146% compared to studying resources alone. For a step-by-step guide to how teams can run a conversation about language in the workplace, see our Workout Your team glossary: Address problematic language.
Of course, conversations about BLM aren’t confined to team meets and safe spaces. Companies have to be wise about their messaging in internal and external communications. They shouldn’t overlook the importance of giving people managers the building blocks of supportive, exploratory conversations. These must squarely align with the organization’s principles and approach to racism and equity.
Checklist: how to have conversations to learn and grow
To have productive conversations about race and equity, apply these three top actions in your organization.
✅ Create a common language and ground rules around how to discuss racism and BLM. We know how powerful our simple DEI glossary can be to alleviate fear, clarify intentions and help people to start talking. Ensure your messaging and statements from leaders are aligned with this.
✅ Ensure you have a range of learning resources that your people can use to self-select their learning. Include resources that explain the factual nature of racism.
✅ Empathy is a good start, but upskill your people in the skills to actively listen and process what they learn from conversations about race and equity. Otherwise, we stall at the, “I’m so sorry” stage. You can use our BLM Discussion Guide Workouts to steer a conversation about race and racism productively.
‘Holding space’ might be one of the most overused phrases in DEI.
So we were fascinated to hear practically how organizations were creating and holding space for conversations about BLM, systemic racism and equity.
Many interviewees shared the importance of their employee resource groups (ERGs), sometimes called employee networks. ERGs hold space by connecting people and shaping topics of discussion. They are also a source of insight and expertise into the employee experience for the demographics they represent.
We also enjoyed hearing how firms are using technology to navigate the pressures of remote working and maintain psychological safety during difficult conversations. Several interviewees explained how they used anonymous chat room spaces to help people speak their minds with a sense of safety and confidentiality.
But holding digital space doesn’t have to mean anonymity. Cyient shared that their new platform has been an eye-opening place to ask earnest questions about BLM:
Other participants explained that focus groups can be split by different demographics. This helps employees step into different spaces so they can discuss and discover different things.
One of the most discussed topics within the theme of holding space was how to have leaders hold that space.
Leaders need to be brought into spaces to hear from and fully understand the Black employee experience in their organization. They need to take ownership of their roles as change agents and use their expertise to suggest how the organization can be reworked.
Listening should extend beyond the strategy stage. Provide digital or physical spaces on an ongoing basis to listen to Black colleagues. This will facilitate empathy and continuous learning.
RTI International pointed out that it’s also powerful to combine what you learn in these spaces with the quantitative measurements relating to your change strategy. This provides richer insight into how your approach is working and what you might do in the next change cycle.
Checklist: how to ‘hold space’
Consider how you might create and sustain a combination of the following spaces in your organization.
✅ Hold dedicated working sessions for senior leaders to co-create a list of actions and identify deeper level training required. If possible, invite your ERGs to share their experiences, or even lead these sessions.
✅ Facilitate upskilling programs where leaders can learn from their peer groups.
✅ Create digital spaces where employees feel empowered to ask questions to leadership, share knowledge and ask for help. These might be anonymous and chatroom-style, or a peer learning platform where people can connect and grow together.
✅ Provide ongoing listening sessions to gather qualitative data that you can combine with any quantitative measurements.
To transform the energy of BLM into action, our interviewees all spoke of clarifying their understanding of how employees are feeling to help motivate everyday behavior change.
Employees at all levels are demanding change in more exact terms and they want it faster than ever before. This is good news since we need to mobilize all levels of the organization to create lasting change.
In particular, you need to provide everyday tools and set expectations to help all employees enact change ‘on the ground’.
During our webinar panel on race, progress, and lasting change at work, Bridge Arrow’s founder Karen Brown shared that 53% of Black Generation Z adults believe brands are supporting the movement only to retain customers. So there is also external pressure for businesses to go beyond empty promises and put their money where their mouth is.
But here lies the challenge. What actions do you ask your motivated people to take first?
Allyship, of course, is a hugely important theme. But organizations are learning that allyship is more than simply caring. A broadly accepted definition of allyship is evolving, as are its associated best practices. This has opened an opportunity to develop ally toolkits and to engage volunteers to act as formal ambassadors.
To dig into the nuances of everyday allyship and calibrate motivations and approaches, some organizations are holding panels on effective allyship. Others have introduced ally badges to help their people show commitment and tap into a sense of achievement.
Several of our interviewees are keen to help their people see long-term change as building sustainable habits. Allyship, among other skills like bias awareness, will not stick through one-time training events.
Checklist: how to provide your organization with everyday actions
✅ Make a list of all the areas of your organizational culture where you can better support inclusive behavior. For example, does everyone benefit from your social activities? How about your norms for running and participating in meetings?
✅ Give managers session guides to explore with their teams what it means to be an ally and the small actions that everyone can take to put allyship into action. Running a session brings actions you learn about into the real world. It fuels behavior change by aligning team members, exchanging ideas and support, and building accountability.
✅ Remember to keep your actions sustainable. Help people to create long-lasting change by giving them the tools to create habits that stick with small behavior changes.
✅ Talk about privilege. Encourage leaders to think about their blind spots especially how they have been advantaged in their careers.
Some of our resources to get you started
Share our four-card learning pathway about privilege to kickstart learning together.
Share our card Why it’s best to be an ally in training to promote a growth mindset around allyship work.
Check out The ultimate checklist for listening as an ally. It rounds up the best tips for listening as an ally. You might ‘drip feed’ individual tips to your teams through your weekly all-hands meeting or as bite-sized emails. Or you can share the whole checklist to encourage leaders to radically listen to learn about issues they have never faced.
Our research confirms a theory that is growing in popularity thanks in part to the BLM-propelled understanding that racism is systemic: to create a new, lasting and better normal, organizations must change their systems and processes.
First of all, organizations need to assimilate what they are hearing and learning and specifically identify and diagnose their problems. You have to be sufficiently shrewd to call out what’s not working and sufficiently bold to accept that maybe nothing is working.
“Essentially, we must change habits. For example, we need to embed bias checkpoints in processes… this is key for people management leaders.” — Robert Barea, Director, National Inclusion & Diversity, KPMG
So where do you begin?
Some organizations set themselves no-nonsense timescales or “sprints” to focus on identifying problems. For example, one of our interviewees said their business embarked on a 90-day audit to measure what was and what wasn’t working. Others reported that they brought in external expertise to challenge and advise them.
Of course, talent processes are on everyone’s minds. Organizations have a huge role in creating opportunity, facilitating mobility and bridging communities. It’s clear that businesses should commit to helping their Black employees progress to where they want to be in their careers.
Many warn that looking at overall demographics or junior demographics is not good enough. You need to look at representation at every level of the organization and apply scrutiny to every policy and process that might be contributing to an attainment gap.
Checklist: how to change your talent processes
There are many things you can do to enable fair talent progression and address barriers that Black employees face to climbing the ladder in the workplace. The exact combination will be unique to your organization. These were the hottest actions on our experts’ lips to consider working into your strategy.
✅ Pick a place to start in improving your attraction of diverse talent. Do it well and understand why your efforts do or don’t get results rather than launching into an overhaul.
✅ Look at where you are advertising your job openings and get the data on who that means you’re advertising to.
✅ Partner consulting Black colleagues with your D&I team to provide feedback on internal processes, especially around performance and progression.
✅ Track workload and opportunities to take on stretch assignments and look at the data through a race lens.
✅ Put together a customized framework with leaders to identify the next big projects and the promotions you can make.
✅ Tell leaders specifically how they can sponsor Black talent.
✅ Go through all your hiring policies with a systemic racism lens. This includes looking at locations, required work experience, how candidates are screened based on educational background and so forth.
✅ Look at data on merit pay increases through a race lens. In other words, where exactly does the ethnicity pay gap begin to manifest in your organization? Remember to break this down by different race groups to understand disparities that are masked when you consider ‘people of color’ or ‘ethnic minorities’ as one group.
✅ Understand and strip coded language that “gets rid of Black talent” from job specifications, performance criteria and feedback. For example, challenge words that describe performance excellence and leadership qualities but are only ever ascribed to white males.
Some of our resources to get you started
Share our piece Racial bias in hiring: How to make hiring more equitable for Black professionals with hiring managers.
At Hive Learning, we’re culture obsessives. If you take culture to be ‘what people do when nobody is watching’, it encompasses everything that we do outside our formal, codified processes.
So we were cheering along when our interviewees pointed out that commitment to creating and sustaining a truly inclusive culture is essential for meaningful change.
Three of our interviewees mentioned the role of unconscious bias training in improving how bias and microaggression pervade organizational culture. But they noted that bias training is only a gateway to talking about inclusion.
To learn more about the limits of unconscious bias training, visit our pulse report If unconscious bias training doesn’t work, what’s the alternative?
Instead, everyone needs to understand what inclusion means and what their stake in an inclusive culture might be.
Many of our contacts pointed out that culture also depends on where “power is located”. Equip those in power to understand the role of privilege in their successes so they can use their position and influence to even the playing field.
Several of our interviewees warned that when there is only white, male talent at the top, it can create real tension. Employees don’t feel they belong and may even believe a commitment to inclusion is insincere.
Psychological safety reigns as one of the top ingredients of an inclusive culture. When you feel psychologically safe, you trust that you can be yourself, voice your opinions and point out or make mistakes without fear of negative consequences.
This year’s conversation about race has highlighted many of the ways that Black colleagues are shortchanged by their workplace culture and don’t feel as psychologically safe as their non-Black counterparts. This means they feel less accepted, and as though they are less able to speak up or make a mistake.
Black people are not allowed to have a full range of humanity. Everything is fine if we are agreeable and don’t challenge anyone. But as soon as we openly share emotions like anger, frustration, concern, disagreement, we are deemed difficult, non-collaborative, or a problem. For example, a white colleague curses (male or female) in the workplace, they are called passionate or having a strong opinion. But as a Black woman, you would be stereotyped and labeled as unprofessional, difficult or challenging. This keeps people from feeling accepted.
Anonymous, Consultant to FTSE100 businesses
Importantly, fear of saying the wrong thing needs to be addressed to sustain a psychologically safe culture. In particular, you must frame your DEI approaches as learning journeys that everyone is on. Ensure that your people see mistakes as part of learning together.
Checklist: how to understand and adjust your culture so it is more inclusive
✅ Understand and track the employee experience in different contexts. For example, in different regions, different departments and at the intersection of being Black and LGBTQ+ or being Black and a woman. Remember to gather data about intangible things like a sense of belonging.
✅ Use employee surveys to understand and support culture as you go. Define the metrics you want to measure and use technology tools to collect pulse data for richer insight.
✅ Hold sessions or spark conversations that help leaders and managers understand inclusion through business values.
✅ Set up a virtual coffee roulette. You might do this for all demographics or create a cohort of Black participants so they can connect with other Black colleagues across the organization.
✅ Show up by celebrating and commemorating important events. We all know the example of offering a day off for U.S. employees for Juneteenth. What other permanent additions can you make to the company’s calendar?
✅ Give everyone ground rules for how to intervene when they see or hear behavior that isn’t inclusive. Uncertainty about how to approach peers or ‘call out’ undesirable behavior is a key blocker to an inclusive culture. So set clear, shared expectations about how to do this at work.
Accountability is key to creating lasting change.
If one warning was clear from our research, it was that organizations should not promise a vision without a rigorous, long-term plan.
Our analysis reveals that organizations are planning to address this in three areas.
- Tie racial equity and inclusion to values
- Set measurable racial diversity targets
- Invest in developing talent and continuous learning
But doing all three well requires winning hearts, minds and wallets. And that’s easier said than done.
Daniel Danso shrewdly pointed out to us that the reason many businesses haven’t seen progress in DEI in the past is that the initiatives don’t line up with people’s values and priorities outside the world of work.
Optimism might lead you to think this will be easier now since BLM has been put on the radar in the ‘real world’. Still, 2020 has no shortage of real-world challenges fighting for our focus.
EY’s Sally Bucknell warns that leadership attention is already shifting back to getting people back to work following the COVID-19 pandemic.
This ups the pressure on DEI leaders to get people, especially leaders, to maintain momentum around BLM. And one way to anchor racial equity in mindsets is to tie it to business values.
Specifically, Netflix’s Vernā Myers recommends that leaders, managers and decision-makers ask, “Is working towards equity a good business decision? In exact terms, why does it make sense for us?”
From there, set measurable targets. Use your data internally and externally to paint a clear picture of where you are on your journey.
And then what? You must invest in continuous learning to assess, upgrade and rewrite the messages you put in people’s minds, the culture they feel in their hearts and the tools and actions you put in their hands.
When peers learn together, they can hold one another to account. They set and sustain expectations and model the desirable, equitable behaviors. Better yet, if you deliver learning in small and frequent doses, you bring the learning objectives into the everyday. Embedding conversations and practices that address racial inequity in ‘business as usual’ is what will separate organizations that harness the power of BLM from those that don’t.
Checklist: how to play the long game of accountability
✅ Don’t just talk about equity’s link to your values, make strategic decisions that prove it. Pivot your products and services so you better serve customer segments, partner with other organizations and invest in projects in your local communities.
✅ Set quotas and targets at organizational, team and individual levels.
✅ Use data internally. Present it in a way that your people can ‘speak to’. For example, a media planning business might hit home with a video campaign and an accountancy firm’s employees might be switched on by data visualizations.
✅ Publish data externally about your progress towards pay parity and representation in senior positions. In the UK, you can sign up for the Race at Work Charter.
✅ Set up a systemic impact group looking at the impact your business’s decisions and products have on equity in society.
✅ Expand income for Black businesses in your industry via vendor support.
✅ Increase financial investment in hiring and progressing Black talent. For example, you might invest more in outreach, recruitment and skills development.
At Hive Learning, we speak to 100s of DEI leaders each week. And the most forward-thinking among them share the views of the changemakers we spoke with to compile this report.
As employers, we play a critical role in breaking down the systemic barriers society has created — whether it’s by creating more equitable workplaces, or equipping our people with the tools to absorb diverse perspectives and take what they’ve learned back to the dinner table, the real world and beyond.
The BLM movement is a rallying call to do better. Since every person in your organization has heard this call, it is also an opportunity provided you act now.
This pulse report has found that organizations can take action through:
- Conversations to learn and grow. Model conversations that show empathy and actively listen. Equip your managers with the granular tools to do the same.
- Practically ‘holding space’ and doing it well. Dedicate times and places to meaningful conversations. Focus on connecting, understanding and working towards solutions. Use facilitation tools and technology to maintain psychological safety.
- Everyday actions for the whole organization. Many people across organizations are eager for direction so they can contribute to racial equity. Equip all levels of your organization with actions so they can build new habits and drive change.
- Changing talent processes. Debias processes and challenge norms that disadvantage Black talent. It’s not just about hiring and promotions. Look at performance appraisals and development opportunities, too.
- Calibrating culture. Work to understand the employee experience for your Black colleagues. There’s no silver bullet for making your culture inclusive. Still, there are many things you can do to help leaders, managers and individual contributors take action to shift your culture in a positive direction.
- Viewing accountability as a long game. For change that sticks, use data and impact groups so you can keep learning, reviewing and pivoting. Invest in projects that will have long-term impact, like skills development and partnering with other organizations.
Culture change spreads most quickly when it’s driven from the bottom up. Right now, we have to take our people’s willingness to do good and help them turn that into lasting change both inside and outside of our organizations.
We all know that diverse teams deliver better results, and that inclusion creates the conditions for diverse teams to thrive. But until now progress in creating equitable workplaces has stalled.
We believe that’s because D&I initiatives too often focus on driving awareness rather than action. They focus on winning hearts in the moment rather than changing processes for good.
Inclusion Works from Hive Learning is a peer learning program designed to take your people on a journey from awareness to action in as little as three months. As the world’s only digital solution for accelerating culture change, Inclusion Works gives your people the tools to be more inclusive every day through habit-forming nudges and conversations.
We combine the power of peer accountability, activated network science and nudge theory to help organizations create ripples of long-lasting change. In our programs, 88% of participants take action against bias and two thirds of participants create an inclusion habit in under 90 days.
If you want to find out how the likes of Sun Life Financial, Legal & General and Deloitte create culture change at scale, get in touch with us here or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A huge thank you to our expert contributors
Amanda McCalla-Leacy, Global Managing Director for Inclusion & Diversity at Accenture
Ashlee Davis, Vice President, Senior Diversity & Inclusion Manager at AllianceBernstein
Ruchi Jalla, Vice President, Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at BAE Systems, Inc.
Rekha Daniel, Division Director Total Rewards & Recognition, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Employee Well-Being at BAYADA Home Health Care
Dr. Todd Jenkins, Global Inclusion Leader and Consultant at Bowtie Leadership Inc.
Heather Gresham, Director Talent Acquisition at BlueCross BlueShield
Jennifer Lewis-Ford, Vice President, Strategic Communications and Digital Engagement at BNP Paribas
Shannon Bisping, Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion Programs at Cyient
Sally Bucknell, Director, Diversity & Inclusiveness at Ernst & Young
Kim Wylie, Global Director of People Development & Change at Farfetch
Lukeisha Paul, Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at GroupM
Corey Flournoy, Global Head of Inclusion and Diversity at Groupon
Heather Colquhoun, Global Director, Talent Acquisition at Hatch Ltd.
Mira Magecha, Chief People Officer & Diversity & Belonging Sponsor at JUST EAT
Robert Barea, Director, National Inclusion & Diversity at KPMG
Tina Allen, Head of Human Resources at Labelium
Daniel Danso, Global Diversity Manager at Linklaters
Richard Chapman-Harris, Head of Inclusion and Responsibility at Mott McDonald
Vernā Myers, Vice President, Inclusion Strategy at Netflix
Kathleen Navarro, Head of Talent Management & Chief Diversity Officer at New York Life
Ronald J. Adams, Vice President, Field Diversity & Inclusion at Northwestern Mutual
Lisa Smith-Strother, Vice President, Global Head of Employer Branding and Diversity TA Branding at RELX
Mitra Janes, Group Head of Diversity & Inclusion at RSA
Cara Valentino, CDP, Racial Justice & Equity Program Manager at RTI International
Marion McNally, Head of Inclusion at Sainsbury’s
Jennifer D. Franklin, JD, MBA, Principal Consultant at Sentient Strategy
Corie Pauling, Senior Vice President, Chief Inclusion & Diversity Officer at TIAA
Kim Weaver, Global Diversity & Inclusion Business Partner at Uber
Desiree Coleman, First Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion at Wells Fargo Advisors
Sylvia James, Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Winston & Strawn LLP
Cheryl Smith, Global Director, Talent Management, Organizational Capabilities and Diversity at Xerox
Anonymous, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging Talent Manager at a ~22,000-person biopharmaceutical company
Anonymous, Head of Regional Product Management at a ~9,000-person financial technology company
Anonymous, Chief Diversity Officer at a ~9,000-person management consulting firm
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