Here we are in the year 2020. While the world continues to evolve in response to the unprecedented circumstances imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears that the only ‘constant’ which remains steadfast throughout time is racial injustice against black people. Civil demonstrations such as those organized by the Black Lives Matter movement have been effective in turning the world’s attention to the long-standing systemic oppression that has plagued the black community for centuries. Of the various challenges that members of the black community have been expected to overcome, unequal opportunity and economic disempowerment are two barriers to racial equality that employers could have an influential hand in tearing down. It is important for those in leadership to recognize the opportunities that exist to impart real, tangible change in support of black people beyond standing idly in solidarity. Organizational leaders need to take action in solidarity, too.
It is no secret that black members of the workforce are not being offered the same opportunities as their white counterparts. According to Statistics Canada, as of August 2020 the unemployment rate for black Canadians was 7.7 percentage points higher than that of white Canadians. Additionally, a study conducted by Ryerson University’s Diversity Institute found that out of 1,639 board members from 178 corporations, black board members represented only 0.79% of total members despite black Canadians comprising 3.5% of Canada’s total population according to the most recent census. For comparison, white board members filled 91% of board seats, with white Canadians making up 72.9% of the country’s population. Despite the recent controversial comments made by Wells Fargo CEO, Charles Scharf; the stark difference in the representation of black and white professionals is not due to there being “a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from.” Generally speaking; an increasing number of black students are successfully graduating from university programs each year despite facing greater barriers to higher education than white students, and yet a study conducted by the Higher Education Statistics Agency found that black graduates were twice as likely to remain unemployed for over a year past graduation compared to white graduates.
Although investing in community-based skills development programs is a vital component to bridging racial equity gaps; employers must recognize that the racial disparity that exists within the workforce is not due to a supposed shortage of black talent, but rather a shortage of opportunities and tangible support for black talent. Issuing public statements, posting hashtags and making donations in support of pro-black movements may effectively communicate an organization’s values and provide a modest boost to employee morale; but these gestures are not as impactful in supporting and advancing black talent when compared to addressing the organizational practices which may be inadvertently contributing to racial inequity. A complete assessment and overhaul of an organization’s diversity and inclusion policies and practices can be a lengthy process requiring specialized expertise; however, there are actions employers can take right now to start authentically supporting black talent and eventually move away from saying “this is what we’re doing now” to “this is what we have always been doing.”
Take Responsibility and Remain Accountable
It is critical that organizational leaders take responsibility for educating themselves on the issues of racial inequity and anti-black racism. Equipped with the proper knowledge, leaders can make well-informed decisions regarding current organizational strategies, policies and practices which may need to be revised, replaced, or entirely discarded in order to bolster black talent and equalize any existing racial disparity. Employers must develop an action plan that highlights the organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion and outlines active steps the organization will take to achieve its diversity objectives. Once implemented, organizational leaders must continually hold themselves accountable for the outcomes of the action plan.
Re-examine Your Recruitment Strategy
If your business is operating within a diverse community but is only attracting applicants and employees who fall within the same demographic, it is time to re-evaluate your recruitment strategy. The job description is often the first opportunity an employer has to make an impression on a candidate and is where many employers make their first mistake in their diversity and inclusion practices. The value and importance of an accurate and well-written job description cannot be overstated, one reason being because the job description directly determines the type of candidates you receive. Your job descriptions should make use of inclusive language and emphasize your organization’s commitment to diversity – don’t be afraid to go beyond the generic “We are an equal opportunity employer” statement. Have an HR professional review your company’s job descriptions to ensure they are appealing to the types of candidates you are trying to attract.
Organizations should also carefully consider what seemingly innocuous recruitment practices may be inadvertently hindering diversity among their workforce, such as having interview panels be solely comprised of individuals of similar backgrounds; or relying on employee referrals from a homogenous workforce. Organizations committed to improving racial diversity and black inclusivity may consider implementing alternative recruitment strategies such as exclusively using diversity-based job boards and offering targeted internship opportunities.
Know that Representation Matters and Invest in Developing Black Talent
All too often, organizations mistakenly believe themselves to be the embodiment of diversity and pro-black inclusiveness based on their achieving a certain quota of black employees. Meanwhile, their executive team is fully comprised of white, near-retirement aged men. Genuine diversity and inclusion initiatives should start from the top-down. Organizational leaders must realize that black representation, diversity, and racial equity is not a numbers game and does not mean filling the lowest levels of the organization with black faces. Black representation means offering black talent a seat at the table and the opportunity to make meaningful decisions within the organization. Having black representation at the highest levels of an organization not only reassures employees of the organization’s commitment to racial diversity; but could also save an organization from unwittingly making racially insensitive decisions.
Authentically supporting black talent means investing time, money, training, and mentorship into their development. If you notice a lack of black leadership within your organization; identify your high-performing black employees, develop a succession plan with clearly defined professional development goals, and allow them the opportunity to shine.
Become a Safe and Inclusive Space for Black Talent
Transparency is one facet of positive organizational behaviour that has become critically important for organizations to start practicing now. Practicing transparency requires self-awareness and openness to change because it requires being honest about present shortcomings and past mistakes with the intent on doing better. In order to create a safe and inclusive space for black talent, organizational leaders must encourage open communication, remain receptive to feedback, and be willing to do the work required of them to become better allies and leaders. That said, it is also important for organizations to avoid committing the common faux pas of unintentionally ‘othering’ black talent by constantly reminding them of their blackness during the effort to support them. Black employees do not need regular reminders that anti-black racism is still an issue in 2020; they simply need to be treated with fairness and respect and given the same opportunities to succeed as their non-black counterparts.
Bonus: Give Back to the Local Black Community
For organizational leaders looking to support the black community outside of the workplace, here are some additional ways you can ‘take action’ and make a meaningful impact directly within black communities:
- Establish partnerships with local black professional networks and provide opportunities to develop local black talent.
- Launch book drives and school supply drives for schools in predominantly black neighborhoods.
- Create a scholarship fund to support black achievement and academic excellence.
- Focus community service and volunteer work within black communities to help maintain the health of those communities.
Despite the racial inequality and anti-black racism that continues to exist around the world; it is important that we all realize that we are not helpless in determining our own actions and how we choose to respond to injustice. We are all capable of making a difference in improving racial equality, and this is particularly the case for those in positions of leadership who have the ability to establish organizational practices and make hiring decisions that can directly impact people’s lives and economic outcomes. It is important for organizational leaders to be intentional in their commitment to racial diversity and pro-black inclusiveness and understand that the ethical high ground must come before the bottom line because we have an obligation to one another as people. This is what authentic leadership is all about.
In the words of one leader who led with authenticity:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
HR Business Partner
Cierra is an experienced human resources professional with a comprehensive background in recruitment and onboarding, contract writing, compensation and benefits, health and safety, and policy development.