- Corporate diversity plans will fall short if companies don’t make Black and brown employees feel valued.
- That’s because employees who don’t feel heard will quit.
- Successful diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) plans give employees voice and agency.
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Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have gone from empty buzzwords to well financed initiatives within companies across the country. Industry leaders – from Google to JPMorgan – are investing in internal and external programs to promote racial equity. Leaders are hiring more DEI executives and promising more workplace diversity within the next few years.
But this progress is at risk of falling flat, some of the country’s top DEI experts told Business Insider.
Mastercard’s chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer Randall Tucker said efforts by leaders to advance racial justice and equality in their workforces will be short-lived if they focus only on getting more Black and brown employees in the door. That’s because if Black and brown employees don’t feel respected and valued at a company, they’ll leave to find another job.
“It’s not just ‘Let’s find diverse talent.’ It should be you’re hiring diverse talent, and at the same time you have the levers to retain that talent. Otherwise you’re just wasting a lot of money,” he said.
It’s not enough to focus on diversity alone. Black employees make up 12% of entry-level employees, but they account for just 7% of managers, according to McKinsey research published in February. A big part of this problem is that Black employees feel less supported than their white colleagues, the same research found.
To retain and promote talent, executives and managers alike have to prioritize equity and inclusion at the same time.
Equity goes beyond equal opportunity and encompasses the distribution of resources in a way that ensures everyone is treated equally. Inclusion encourages everyone to bring their whole unique identity to work and respects and values difference.
Black and brown employees face ‘onlyness’ at work
For many newly hired or promoted Black and brown employees, there’s a real risk of “onlyness,” Tucker and other DEI experts told Business Insider.
“Onlyness” is the phenomenon whereby a person is the only person of color, woman, LGBTQ person, ect. in the room. McKinsey and Company researched “onlyness” and found that LGBTQ women of color are the most likely to feel this way in the workplace.
If leaders don’t assess their company culture and proactively give employees from marginalized backgrounds a seat at the table and a voice in company decisions, “onlyness” turns into feeling excluded, or worse.
“Diversity and inclusion have to happen in concert,” Tucker said.
Doris Quintanilla, executive director and cofounder of The Melanin Collective, a DEI consultancy, said companies are at real risk of only achieving part of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“Since Trump’s election, I’ve seen hiring of people of color in different organizations, but I don’t see them staying or being happy because we’re not treating them like the human beings that they are. They’re still tokens, they’re tokenized,” she said.
Being tokenized is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly,” per Merriam Webster.
“It’s not just about getting people in the door if they walk right out in six months to a year, right?” she said.
What it takes to prioritize equity and inclusion
Equity and inclusion can seem like such intangible ideas. But certain key steps can help make it happen.
- Treat DEI initiatives as core to your business’s strategy
Prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the profitable thing to do.
A 2018 study by Boston Consulting Group found that increasing diversity in leadership teams increases profits. Another study of 22,000 firms found that companies with more women in their board rooms and on their executive teams were more profitable. When diversity increases, so does company performance.
- Invest in DEI initiatives like you would other core business areas
Quintanilla of The Melanin Collective said you can’t underinvest an area and expect great results.
She suggests hiring top-tier consultants and paying employees, or otherwise recognizing employees, who lead employee resource groups (ERGs) and other important company inclusion initiatives. Indeed, more Black and brown employees are asking for recognition or payment for their ERG participation, which some call “a second job.”
Boston Scientific has adopted this approach by inviting its ERG leaders to executive-level company conferences, among other perks.
- Examine who’s in leadership positions in your organization
Kerryn Agyekum, principal of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice at The Raben Group, a DEI consultancy, said employees from marginalized backgrounds need to see people like them in positions of power to feel that they can aspire to similar levels of success.
Agyekum has a question executives should ask themselves: “Are we still relegating our Black and brown people to service areas or support roles within an organization or do they truly have influence and power as decision makers in business critical areas?”
- Remove systemic barriers that prevent Black and brown people from succeeding
There are many ways your organization might unknowingly be holding employees of color back.
For example, mentorship opportunities that rely on relationships that form naturally often leave employees of color behind, considering that many people in high-powered positions are white. And people are more likely to mentor those with whom they have things in common. This is why women of color are the least likely to have sponsors in corporate America, research shows.
Agyekum encourages corporate leaders to enact plans that give Black and brown employees equal access to sponsorship and mentorship opportunities.
She also suggests leaders revisit their hiring practices to weed out unconscious bias that favors white candidates.
In addition, leaders should conduct pay equity reports and proactively remediate any discrepancies they find, she added.
“If you’re a person in power, it isn’t your job to leave all of the Black and brown employees to figure out this whole ‘race thing’ on their own. You actually have a responsibility to remediate toxicity and remove systemic barriers,” she said.
This is an updated version of an article originally published in November 2020.