Open Letter to CEOs: It’s Not That Hard

By Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole 

Dr. Cole is currently is the Chairman of the Board of the National Council of Negro Women

Racial unrest in the US motivated many of you to issue heart-felt messages, statements of solidarity and/or conduct employee town halls and listening sessions with black and brown employees.  You expressed your commitment to ensuring racism-free work environments, frequently calling for a renewed focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

You reached out to your internal communications and legal teams and have your diversity offices working overtime. You are connecting with your Boards of Directors and other leaders, discussing the current protests, developing short-term approaches to quell the palpable anger, sadness and frustration your employees are feeling, and are establishing a list of actions your organization will take to respond to the calls for racial justice. To eradicate disparate treatment, and stop the psychological, economic and emotional damage will require more. Much more. 

   

As a group of inclusion diversity, equity, and accessibility (IDEA) practitioners, we have some recommendations for corporate executives. Collectively, however, we must share our consternation that it took thousands of protests sparked by unconscionable incidents of racial animus to get your attention.

We have attempted to engage you to take action to address racism in your organizations.  And, while noting your discomfort talking about most diversity topics (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, ethnicity), we have observed that you are most uncomfortable talking about race; choosing to lump the unique issues of black and brown people under the broader diversity umbrella to avoid having a candid conversation about race and racism.

Clearly, denying, minimizing or ignoring racism is no longer an option and you are hearing a resounding message from the many voices that are speaking out globally-- from your C-suite to the entry levels of your organization. The message? The daily racism your black and brown employees live with is killing them literally and figuratively. 

We urge you to develop and implement a strategic action plan, measure outcomes and with incentives and/or consequences, hold leaders accountable for creating a more equitable and anti-racist work environment.  

We recommend the following approach:

  1. Recommit to, or update your global IDEA strategy. Fully support your organization’s inclusion, diversity and equity strategies, statements and commitments including sharing ownership of measurable goals and accountability metrics.

  2. Commit to learning and talking about the history of racism.  Undertake a personal course of study and require all of your leaders to learn this history. Incorporate anti-racism education into your portfolio of leadership, management and employee education, and conduct facilitated discussion sessions to pull-through the learning concepts. Agree to plans that encourage, sustain and reward mindset and behavior change.  

  3. Scrutinize company policies, practices and procedures. Look for ways existing processes encourage and perpetuate unequal and inequitable treatment of black and brown employees. The baseless claims against, and disparate scrutiny of black and brown people we see reported to the police (e.g., Central Park, Starbucks, etc.) occur in the workplace as well; in talent and performance discussions, handling of employee relations matters, assignments, promotions, etc.    

  4. Focus on your culture.   Solicit input from black and brown employees and champion a “speak up” work environment. Take action to create and reinforce psychological safety across the organization so that these employees feel they can speak candidly without repercussions. Acknowledge that doing so, for many employees, will be difficult due to years of mistrust and fear of being labeled as angry, militant, not a team player, etc.   

  5. Invest in what you value. Give your inclusion and diversity offices the voice and the financial and people resources they need to effectively lead. Too often IDEA offices have limited budgets, are thinly staffed, and, in many cases, receive limited support from their HR, Legal, Communications, Procurement and Philanthropy colleagues.  Set clear expectations with the leaders of those five functional areas about the level of transparency you want, and the amount of risk you are willing to take, to accomplish the strategy to eradicate racism in your organization.

  6. Stay the course. You will no doubt receive messages from some departments, divisions, employees and perhaps external stakeholders opposing any more focus on race. You must trust your decision to focus on addressing racism. You must stand on what is fair and just; doing your homework to arm yourself with the understanding and facts to build support for your efforts against racism. 

  7. Be an exceptional corporate citizen.  Take a public stance against racism.  We consider Ben and Jerry’s approach an example of best practice. Partner with, and donate to, community organizations dedicated to anti-racism. Examine all of your giving and government affairs efforts to ensure that you are not supporting organizations that are advancing racist ideas or policies. 

 

It will take commitment, grace, and frankly, grit, to undertake the recommended actions to begin addressing racism in your organization.  

 

“Somebody has to stand when other people are sitting. Somebody has to speak when other people are quiet.[1]"  Will you be that somebody? Commit to doing more than issuing a statement or scheduling a town hall. Commit to bold action. Commit to real change.  We stand ready to partner with you.

 

 

[1] Bryan Stevenson, attorney, social justice advocate and founder of the Equal Justice Institute

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