BY NOW, WE’VE all protested, cried, vented our outrage with our peers and urged our white friends and associates to join the cause of anti-racism. The question now is: What can we do to turn the moment into a movement for racial equity? Many employers have been asking how best can they support their employees of color and play a more active role both in and outside the company to address systemic and structural racism.
Well, look no further than right within your own corporate walls where a coalition of black and brown executives from some of Massachusetts’s leading companies came together recently and launched the game changing New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund. This bold call to action was triggered by the brutal killing of George Floyd by police and other horrific racially charged incidents in the country. The Fund’s mission is to support black- and brown-led organizations and address the systemic racial inequities that have led to the significant underfunding of black- and brown-led nonprofits compared to their white-led counterparts.
Having worked in Boston for more than two decades helping organizations address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I believe that one of the most powerful vehicles companies have to address racial inequity is Employee Resource Groups/Networks (ERG). Some of you may be thinking: “I’ve belonged to employee resource groups at work – and I’ve never seen my employer take much interest in systemic and structural racism.”
But this is a moment unlike any other we have experienced in a generation – and employers have never been more cognizant of creating an anti-racist workplace that is welcoming to people of color. ERGs are a natural bridge to management to start a conversation about how they can lead with values of racial equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Stephanie Browne, vice president talent acquisition and chief diversity officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, shared with me how she engaged and encouraged her ERGs to facilitate dialogue across all ERG groups. She noted that since the killing of George Floyd, Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Black Professional Network has helped to build a library of best practices to talk about race with their peers, children, and leaders. They have hosted bi-weekly dialogues and learning sessions with employees to provide a safe space to share openly with colleagues. Roger Guzman, a senior manager at Mass General Brigham’s diversity and inclusion office, says Mass General Brigham (formerly Partners HealthCare) created a series called “Recovering our Breath” — designed to provide a safe space for ERG members to discuss their feelings and emotions around current racial tensions and to elicit recommendations for leadership on how to deal with these issues.
These initiatives are good examples of the important role that ERGs can play in helping colleagues and employers better understand racial equity.
You should conduct an informal “audit” of your employer, focused on key areas from which you can start a meaningful dialogue. Gather as much information as you can – and be prepared to engage management on how racial justice impacts the following areas:
- Suppliers and Vendors. Effecting change beyond your employer starts with making racial equity one of the criteria it uses to spend money – on which bank wants to manage your business’s cash flow, lawyers who want to represent your interests, the marketing agency you want help build your brand, or accountants who want to do your books. Find out how much your business spends with vendors of color, whether there are targets in place, and whether company leadership’s pay and performance are tied to meeting those targets.
- Philanthropy and Employee Engagement. Does your company use service days or any other tools to engage employees in advocacy for racial justice? What organizations do they support philanthropically. Do they support organizations that serve black and brown communities, affordable housing, education, workforce development, youth empowerment? How much do they give on an annual basis? Be prepared to come to the conversation to suggest some organizations and how supporting a group like the New Commonwealth Racial Equity and Social Justice Fund, Camp Atwater, or Madison Park Vocational School addresses racial inequity and levels the playing field and how supporting them might align to your employer’s racial equity or social justice goals and core values.
- Racial Equity Statement. Most employers now have a statement on their websites on equity and inclusion. But does it explicitly mention racial equity? If not, be prepared to help your employer understand why explicitly mentioning racial equity would be important to employees (who care about these issues) and customers (who are increasingly making purchasing decisions based on equity).
- Leadership. Next, begin looking more closely at the company itself – and start at the top: Is management racially diverse? Are there any people of color on the board (women alone don’t count)? If not, dig into the candidate selection process. Press leadership to bring a diverse slate of candidates to the table – and help them better understand how business partners are increasingly pressed by their own shareholders and stakeholders to work with companies with racially diverse leadership.
- Interview Practices. You can tell a lot about a company’s commitment to racial equity by who they bring in to interview for a job. I find a good place to start is the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” – which says for every new job opportunity the interview process should include at least one internal and two external racially diverse candidates.
- Implicit Bias and Anti-Racist Training. Holding a mirror up to understand our own biases is the best way for all of us to confront our own feelings about race. Does your employer provide implicit bias and or anti-racist training for every employee? If not, suggest your company make this part of its employee on-boarding within the first three months for new hires at all levels of the company from mail room to C-suite.
- Employer/Employee Commitments. Lastly, asking every employee to affirm their commitment to being anti-racist is the least companies should be doing. Suggestions include recommending that each employee read and discuss a book like Tim Wise’s White Like Me or Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Or as Eastern Bank recently did, have employees sign a racial equity pledge that encourages anti-racist behavior – including speaking up for persons of color, especially when they are not in the room, and asking questions rather than leading with assumptions.
Mother Teresa once said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across waters to create many ripples.” We may not be able to dismantle systemic and structural racism in one day, year, or decade. But by sparking a series of informed conversations in the workplace that propel real action, employees can start a movement that produces real change today.
Colette Phillips is president of Colette Phillips Communications, a strategic public relations and diversity and inclusion communications consulting firm advising CEOs and their leadership teams on issues of diversity, racial equity, and inclusion. She also the founder of Get Konnected!, a cross-cultural business networking event series in Boston, and a frequent employee engagement and ERG guest speaker.