I live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. These past eleven days have been a catalyst for much personal and professional reflection.
Personally, I’ve been on a slow and steady journey these past several years educating myself about systematic racism, seeking to understand my socialization into a society of white dominance and oppression, and working to discern and address my implicit bias. Admittedly, it has been a journey that has fit around other priorities in my life. That is my white privilege, that I can tackle these issues as they are convenient for me.
Now, as I reflect on the past eleven days, I see the impact of my de-prioritization of this work, of not seeing the urgency of this work and, indeed, not fully owning it was my work to do.
How many leaders and companies are asking themselves the same questions as we sit here today?
We’ve seen a lot of companies posting their stance on racial inequality lately given current events. Many are being called out as to what actions they will take to back up these posts. Some are being called out to share the statistics on the make-up of their Board of Directors and Executive Leadership teams. The question that people are trying to address is: How are companies currently, or taking the actions to, walk the talk?
I’ve led a global social media team for a large organization. During any trauma event, we would always see an increase in the number of social media escalations. The ugly side of humanity would be on full display and, in fact, increase in noise. It was emotionally challenging to manage social media during these times. The most disheartening were the few that involved former or current employees. No, they did not represent the majority of employees at our, or any, organization. And yet, these escalations make it clear that racism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice were present within our places of work.
I’ve checked in with a few of my peers across Fortune 500 organizations, and they are experiencing that right now. I saw a post of an employee of a large company that was overtly racist two days ago, the same day that company posted its commitment to addressing racial inequalities. I couldn’t help but think about the coworkers and customers who interact with that employee. Would they share similar experiences interacting with them in the workplace, if we asked? Do we ask? I don’t know.
Employer Brand Leaders can play a vital role in helping companies walk the talk. They have been actively working alongside their talent acquisition and human capital leaders to attract talent and to promote messages of diversity and inclusion. Most companies and HR organizations know their statistics for hiring, promoting and retaining people of color. Most Talent acquisition organizations understand their candidate funnels to know where they are most successful at attracting diverse hires.
With the exception of conferences specifically addressing diversity and inclusion, rarely has race and racial inequality in the workplace been a major theme at the many conferences I have attended and spoken at for social media, communications, recruiting and employer branding. Compliance? Yes. How to reach, attract or engage people of color? Yes. The lived experience of black people within our places of work? Racial inequality in the workplace? How to talk about race at work? No. If these have been topics, it is the exception rather than the rule.
As I start to reflect on the role of the Employer Brand leader in aggressively helping their organizations to walk the talk, these are some of the questions that have started to emerge:
Are survey analytics teams parsing employee survey data to determine any gap between the experience of its values and the delivery of its brand promises to employees of color? Is this data shared broadly across the organization?
With respect to candidate experience, are we taking efforts to understand and address the experiences of people of color in the hiring process? There is a lot of work around compliance, training for bias and partnerships with organizations like NBMBA. That was a start, but is there more that could be done to specifically address and level the hiring process? For example: Many of us are aware that gaps in technology access or bandwidth have worsened education inequality in this time of distance learning due to coronavirus. Do similar gaps exist in our candidate experience?
With respect to employee experience, what efforts are being undertaken to understand and address the lived experiences of employees of color within an organization? Forbes published an article in January as part of the launch of the book Race, Work & Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience. The bottom-line message is that race remains a barrier to African Americans from ascending into leadership roles. There are 3 black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. This outcome of so little representation is one indicator of how systemic racism is as much a part of our corporate world as it is our health care, education and legal systems. It shows up in the daily experience within our places of work, so are we doing the work to understand what IS that daily experience?
The Forbes article also references the taboo of talking about race at work and that the burden continues to fall mostly on black leaders within organizations to lead these discussions. Most of the corporate training around diversity and inclusion is around bias. It is a start. It may define and mention systemic racism. It will occasionally discuss how systemic racism shows up within its company culture. Rarely do these trainings address how to talk about race in the workplace, or anywhere. With the bulk of the leadership of corporations being white, if we aren’t doing the work to get comfortable talking about race, can we be surprised that 38% of black professionals do not think it ever acceptable to speak about their experiences of bias at their companies?
The field of Employer Branding has an opportunity to start elevating the voices of people of color and asking ourselves: How do we bring more people of color and diverse perspectives into the field of Employer Branding? I’m going to digress with a story for a moment. About ten years ago, there was an #employerbranding event hosted in Minneapolis. Afterwards, about ten of us gathered for dinner and dialog. As we looked across the many conferences tackling Employer Branding, “thought leaders” in the field were predominantly men. Meanwhile, most of the practitioners were women. We asked why the hard work of building business cases, securing resources, managing stakeholders and forwarding progress was not as valued in our field so as to claim thought leadership and conference keynote speaking slots? At that table, we vowed that we wanted to see more women thought leaders in our field. We have seen some progress, and much remains the same. That is not the point of this story. The point is this: What was left unspoken and not addressed at that table ten years ago, and continues left unspoken and not addressed today, is race. We were talking about white men and, given the makeup of the table, white women. And that has not changed in a meaningful way. Spend time looking through Employer Brand leaders on LinkedIn for major corporations in the United States and you will see that we have work to do to walk the talk. And "we" includes me!
For all Employer Brand Leaders, the work to better understand and deliver on the brand promises to ALL employees, without disparity, will require something more, something different than how we have approached Employer Brand work in the past.
I’ve come to understand, in a way I didn’t before, that my work to create empowering and enlivening work experiences where employees and businesses thrive requires this work of dismantling systematic racism and being anti-racist. It is a non-negotiable.
My commitment is that these last eleven days offer profound value to our country; that this time becomes a line of demarcation where a seismic shift occurs in racial inequality.
It is not lost on me that we are now in Pride month, which started with the Stonewall riots fifty-one years ago. Nor can we forget that Breonna Taylor would have turned 27 today. She was an EMT, a person who made her work about caring for others. She took action during a pandemic to continue making a difference. Perhaps the best way we can honor her is to do the same.
I don’t have answers for how we move forward from here. I’m starting with questions of myself, the organizations I support and the professionals I work with. Questions and listening. Listening for understanding, true empathy. Listening for the work there is for me to do. Listening for what hasn’t been working and why. Listening for what we are missing in the questions we have been asking and actions we have been taking. Listening for what could make a difference. Listening to empower organizations to walk the talk.
Let’s do this work. Here and now. With urgency.