Today, most corporate websites have expansive statements in large fonts that say the organization believes in social justice, diversity and inclusion, and workplace equality. Imagine how people of color and women feel when they read these statements but continue to work in a place where experiencing bias is an everyday occurrence. The barriers to career progression are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Today’s leadership challenge is reconciling the contradiction between what the company says and what the company does. Developing a true organizational structural system of racial equality and equity is imperative for every organization.
Supporting employees of color isn’t a U.S. issue, a Canadian issue, or a European Union issue. It’s a global country issue, and also, most companies, small and large, have global operations or global supply chains. Mercer published a report in 2020 that addressed the need to pursue real equality in the workplace rather than making frequent promises that never seem to materialize. In Mercer’s let’s get real about equality, a survey of 1,157 companies in 54 countries representing seven million employees concentrated on women’s equality, but the results are applicable across groups of employees. Mercer found that overall, Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino populations are underrepresented at every career level above support staff.
How do you get real about including people of color? How do you implement true diversity and inclusion in your workplace? Think about this number. According to Mercer, approximately 42 percent of U.S. organizations have publicly documented commitments to racial or ethnic equality, but only 13 percent offer programs specifically targeting women of color. Here’s another disconnect. Only 23 percent of U.S. organizations have high-potential programs for people of color. And here’s yet another critical statistic. Only 38 percent of U.S. organizations routinely review engagement responses by race or ethnicity. How can any organization know if their personal employee relations are good for all employees if everyone is lumped together?
Leaders from the Toigo Foundation, an organization promoting career advancement for underrepresented groups, used an expression that briefly describes the issue – “the illusion of inclusion.” Organizations point to figures meant to show inclusion is real, like Black people making it into higher leadership levels, but they fail to publish figures that present the bigger picture. Getting real about supporting people of color means getting honest about what that means. It means:
Do your employees of color experience a heightened sense of difference among white coworkers, have to manage their careers more strategically, prove greater competence to win promotions, feel compelled to not mention microaggressions to avoid creating more resentment, and maintain inauthentic personas to “fit in”? It’s impossible to achieve a high level of employee engagement with people of color when they spend their work lives feeling isolated, excluded, and inauthentic. It is a similar issue the LGBTQ+ community addresses when given the opportunity.
The book Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives On the Black Experience offers a wealth of essays and writings on race in the workplace presented by influential business leaders, social scientists, psychologists, D&I professionals, and others. In Chapter 5, authors Ella F. Washington, Ellyn Maese, and Shane McFeely discuss the black professional experience in relation to employee engagement.
The main point made is that engagement scores are commonly used to measure the work environment’s inclusiveness. The assumption made is that engaged employees also feel included on their teams and within the larger organization. The authors’ research examined employee engagement by racial demographics and the effects making the black professional’s experience unique. The research results are that accurately evaluating engagement for black professionals must consider the complexity added by things like organizational culture, employee level, and career trajectory. Engagement scores are just the foundation for moving forward on D&I strategies.
“Borrowing” Mercer’s six P’s for achieving gender equality and applying them to achieving racial equity, Projections, Inc. makes the following recommendations to support people of color with an expanded employee engagement strategy:
People can only thrive when the employee experience is fair and equitable at every step – recruiting, job application evaluation, interviewing, hiring, onboarding, training and development, and career and promotion opportunities. One barrier in place at any step in the process leads to inequities. It’s up to Human Resources and hiring managers to question why there are no people of color on the list of people to be interviewed or why people of color are not applying to the company (brand reputation?), or why there are few people in management positions or why people of color have a higher turnover rate than other groups of employees.
Relying on our experience working with companies interested in staying union-free, developing effective leaders, and/or improving communication with and between employees, Projections, Inc. adds several more items to the list:
No one should have to “fit in,” meaning pretending to act, think, and express oneself according to a mold made out of a white person. Expecting people of color to fit in defeats the whole purpose of diversity. Developing a rich workforce tapestry in which people bring innovation and creativity is the only way businesses can be sustainable in the future.
High employee engagement means all employees are engaged – not just some employees or a certain function’s employees or employees of one race, ethnicity, or gender. Your leaders want to engage all people, including people of color, and that requires ending bias and discrimination in the workplace. Though it will help your organization stay union-free and be more productive and more innovative, the reality is that it’s just simply the right thing to do.
In over 25 years of helping companies connect with their employees, Jennifer has gained a unique perspective on what it takes to build a culture of engagement. By blending a deep understanding of labor and employee relations with powerful digital marketing knowledge, Jennifer has helped thousands of companies achieve behavioral change at a cultural level.