Right now, people everywhere are taking a close look at how unconscious bias, privilege, and structural racism continue to manifest in the so-called woke world. This includes the workplace, and these conversations underscore the importance of regularly reevaluating and re-energizing equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) initiatives to ensure real change is still happening.
Adding the following three criteria to your ED&I strategy will go a long way to disrupting the organizational structures that continue to stand in the way of meaningful change in the workplace.
Empower leaders responsible for ED&I so they can enact systemic change
Most ED&I tool kits include some form of unconscious bias training where individuals reflect on their own intrinsic biases and learn how to adjust behaviours to mitigate the ways these preconceptions play out in the workplace. What these activities don’t specifically address, however, are the systemic issues inherent in most organizational cultures at a structural level that allow bias to continue to operate in the workplace.
And while it is still important for each of us to be aware of personal bias and to learn how this impacts our behaviour, ED&I initiatives also need to evaluate systemic issues that are deeply ingrained in organizational structure, and interrupt those systems to create a more genuinely inclusive work environment. Change of this magnitude needs to be initiated, implemented, and evaluated by someone in the organization with authority and autonomy to overhaul current systems.
James D. White, former CEO of Jamba Juice, discusses in a digital article for HBR how important it is to empower those responsible for ED&I so that sweeping change is actually possible. “[T]he standard DE&I playbook has been to hire a chief diversity officer (CDO) with a budget for consultants and enrichment programs. But you can’t build capacity if the problem is not with the diverse talent but with the culture that determines their future… doing anything once cannot change a corporate culture that reinforces itself day after day.” As CEO, White was able to implement broad change at a high level, including championing a more diverse Board of Directors — something a consultant or CDO likely could not have done.
Change how high-profile projects are assigned
Despite the time and resources invested in ED&I over the years, data shows that we still have a long way to go when it comes to diversity, particularly in leadership. Up to 70% of senior leadership roles (VP, Senior VP, and C-Suite) positions are held by white men, and over the past 12 years, the percentage of white male CEOs has only fallen 4% from 93.4% in 2005 to 89.4% in 2017.
White and his co-author, Joan C. Williams, suggest that changing how “glamour work” is distributed can help boost diversity in all levels of management.
According to White and Williams, “glamour work” refers to the high-profile assignments and projects that get people noticed and ultimately position them for promotions. By purposely choosing employees who were previously overlooked for glamour work, White appointed Action Learning Teams (ALTs) who had on-the-ground expertise and skills that made them ideally suited for solving relevant issues related to key business goals.
Selecting individuals based on frontline experience and grouping them in teams to leverage the right mix of talent and skills to solve the issue at hand “meant that the teams were far more diverse than the company’s workforce as a whole.” It’s also important to set teams up for success by giving them release time from their regular jobs so that they can work on these projects and execute them well.
Interrupt structural racism at every level including HR and middle management
As White and Williams point out, “effective policies enable inclusion, but middle-level managers [and HR] hold the key to delivering it.” It is crucial that every level of your organization is highly attuned to issues of bias and, more importantly, is empowered and encouraged to enact concrete changes to interrupt them.
At Jamba Juice, White implemented a new incentive system that assessed store manager compensation based on a variety of criteria including engagement, climate, and organizational health scores. In terms of debiasing HR, White and Williams suggest creating an action learning team that includes the CEO or equivalent, and setting a mandate and timeline to restructure the hiring process by developing objective hiring criteria to promote diversity and inclusion.
Having an ED&I statement on your website or an annual bias awareness workshop simply isn’t enough. To see real change in the next 10 years will require a complete overhaul of all organizational systems — from hiring to promotion and everything in between — with a focus on eliminating privilege and inequity in the workplace.