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How businesses can encourage racial equity in the workplace

How do businesses respond to the current push for systemic change? Here are five key points for working toward racial equity in the workplace.

We are in the midst of a cultural shift. As people around the world take to the streets to protest countless deaths and other violence incited against Black people, our global consciousness is concentrated on a collective idea: racial justice. Opportunities to further this concept are being examined everywhere from the dinner table to the workplace.

So how do businesses respond to the present movement if they wish to become involved in this desire for systemic change? In the past, companies may have hired diversity chairs, donated to charities, and called it a day. Today, constituents are expecting more, including a recognition of wrongdoing and actionable steps toward equity.

Without a clear roadmap, where do companies start? Here are five key points in a business’s journey toward racial equity in the workplace.

1. Racial equality vs. equity

First it’s important to address the language of “racial equity.” This word choice is intentional, as equality and equity often signal different end goals and reform tactics.

Equality is the idea that equal pathways, opportunities, and access should exist for all people regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity. This means that in the case of, for example, applying to a job, all people would be given the same resources and opportunity in applying and being considered for the position.

Equity takes race, gender, ethnicity, and other identifying factors into consideration when developing processes and presenting opportunities. Then action is taken to offer varying levels of support depending on the specific needs of these identities. In the case of applying to a job, an equitable lens would account for bias toward minority applicants and offer them unique resources and levels of care to ensure the same standard given to non-minority applicants.

Equality gives the same resources to everyone, and equity gives different resources depending on need. Overall, the end goal of equity is to elevate marginalized identities to the same level afforded to others. By employing this ideology in the workplace, you can quickly see how intentional and far-reaching racial justice initiatives need to be.

2. Examining internal biases and processes

Businesses cannot only respond outwardly to issues of racial injustice. To make the most impact, they should instead begin by examining where they directly contribute to institutional racism.

While your first reaction may be to defend yourself or your business, it’s important to remember that everyone has work to do regardless of where you are in your journey to equity. Many instances of racism are not overt or actively expressed and realized. Instead, unchecked internalized biases are baked into our everyday actions. Many times, individuals and companies will not even realize the small ways they are contributing to the status quo, which often supports systems of racism.

The key is to examine and reveal these biases before they cause more unintended harm. Something like unconscious bias training can be a great first step for businesses to present this idea to employees and promote more active, aware allyship.

Then work to see how these biases play out in the everyday parts of your company. Do they reveal themselves in the structure of your meetings? In the hiring process? In the office culture and social life?

Work to identify these sectors and restructure them as needed, and always push to pair any changes with educational efforts. If you’re making a high-level change to your hiring process to better support and include BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) applicants, explain to your staff and other constituents why you’re doing this and why the existing practices required reform.

3. Acknowledge race for what it is

When working toward racial equity in business, it is common to fall into the trap of “color blindness.” This means that a company’s method of addressing race is through insisting that they do not see it. This may show through language like, “Everyone is treated the same in the office. The color of your skin doesn’t matter!”

But it actually does matter. It is always better to address and act on differences rather than to pretend they do not exist. In reality, the color of a person’s skin permeates how they are perceived and treated in every sphere of their life, including your office.

To combat this “color blindness,” it might help to turn to the numbers. By tracking and publicizing company statistics on diversity in house, you create a concrete record of how your company is doing in creating a diverse workforce. Diversity is often reflected in leadership––and with only three Black CEOs in all Fortune 500 companies, it’s clear that most companies have a long way to go.

However, it’s one thing to increase the number of BIPOC on staff. It’s another to create a workplace where people of all identities actively want to work, where they feel comfortable and empowered each day in the office.

4. Amplify Black voices. Don’t burden them.

It’s crucial to have active conversations about race in the workplace as well as within senior leadership. But senior leadership tends to be mostly white men. So if every conversation and initiative you’re having about race is spearheaded by a white person, you’re missing a crucial part of the puzzle.

In the process of restructuring an organization toward racial equity, Black voices and perspectives should be actively engaged, amplified, and referred to. Feedback—on both pre-existing practices and newly proposed changes—should be frequently asked for. Part of that is creating an open space where dialogue is welcome, and employees of color feel comfortable sharing their experiences with racism within the company.

Another key to this practice is balancing the need for Black voices with the tendency to place the burden of reform on them. Remember it is not the sole job of BIPOC within your organizations to educate your workforce. You can still request feedback and open up the opportunity for them to engage with issues of company reform, but do not expect them to take on the extra emotional and time-consuming burden of systemic change.

5. Recognize that this is a continuous conversation with wide-reaching benefits

Racial equity is not a one and done task to check off your company’s to-do list. It is an entire restructuring of company culture and workflow in a way that prioritizes marginalized voices. This kind of change takes time.

A company can benefit by its correct response to this cultural moment by striving for social change. Equitable workplaces show “greater profitability, innovation, and smarter teams,” according to Harvard Business Review.

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