The corporate world has upped the ante in its commitment to so-called “diversity and inclusion.” In June 2017, 175 CEO’s pledged to work together to share best practices – and failures – on diversity and to, “cultivate a trusting environment where all ideas are welcomed and employees feel comfortable and empowered to discuss diversity and inclusion.”
This initiative, now known as The CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, began in response to PricewaterhouseCooper chairman Tim Ryan’s email to staff to discuss five police officers killed by a Dallas sniper. The disturbing incident, reported as retaliation for the loss of Black lives at the hands of police, tapped into a sense of fear in the heart of white folks from board rooms to bus stops across the country.
It was under this backdrop that the chairman of the multinational accountancy sent an email seeking to, “reassure the accounting firm’s employees.” The chairman correctly perceived that many of his employees, the majority of whom had been untouched and comfortably silent in the face of the murders of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown and others, now had a need to be reassured of their safety and to discuss race at work.
Regardless of its impetus, as a racial equity consultant, I received this announcement with cautious optimism. My nearly 20 years in corporate America, including working for Fortune 500 companies, has taught me that excitement in the face of bold ideas is best reserved for their execution.
The initiative has 3 goals:
1. We will continue to make our workplaces trusting places to have complex, and sometimes difficult, conversations about diversity and inclusion;
2. We will implement and expand unconscious bias education;
3. We will share best—and unsuccessful—practices.
An action by a key signatory of the initiative leads me to write this article and to test whether these organizations are truly ready to have, “complex, and sometimes difficult, conversations about diversity and inclusion.” Deloitte has announced it will eliminate affinity groups and replace them with “inclusion councils.” This action taken by Deloitte is problematic and does not effectively address the issues related to African Americans, in particular, as it relates to diversity and inclusion. My sense is it will not benefit any marginalized group. However, the focus of my work at Harriet Speaks is on Black people. This does not mean that other groups are not important; it is simply a reflection of the reality that other groups often have a unique voice at the table of “diversity and inclusion.” Conversations often specifically name women, LGBT, and increasingly Latinos when speaking of inclusion, while the Black perspective is lumped into the “multicultural” and/or “people of color” bucket. This is a practice that results in the erasure of a group for whom, arguably, has faced unprecedented levels of global oppression at the hands of business and capitalists. Furthermore, it is apropos to talk about Black employees in a discussion on diversity and inclusion in the workplace because statistics show that Black employees are more likely than any other group to report they have experienced racism outside of work and/or are fearful of discrimination/bias/racism for themselves or their family. 78% of Black employees report such compared to 52% and 50% of Asian and Latino employees, respectively. Remember, this initiative was started to address issues that take place outside of the workplace because of the recognition that there is a spill-over effect.
Over the next 18 months Deloitte will phase out diversity groups for women, LGBT, veterans, and racial groups for inclusion councils, “that bring together a variety of viewpoints to work on diversity issues.”
Affinity Groups, also known as Employee Resource Groups (ERG’s), have been in existence for over 60 years. While I am not an advocate of maintaining the status quo, I am a believer that when we make a change we must first do no harm. The rationale for eliminating these groups is to allow white men to be a part of the conversation. The company’s managing partner for inclusion says, “A lot of our leaders are still older white men, and they need to be part of the conversation and advocate for women. But they’re not going to do that as much if they don’t hear the stories and understand what that means.”
There are numerous instances in corporate America where leaders are not directly involved in conversations, yet are aware of what is taking place. The corporate structure and hierarchy makes this possible. I think of my time at Ford Motor Company. Corporate leaders were not in every meeting, yet they remained abreast of the strategy and decisions taking place. In unionized organizations, CEO’s are not a part of every union meeting, but somehow they remain informed about the needs and wants of labor. However, the decision by Deloitte would ask for us to ignore these instances and assume that the only way CEO’s (white men) can know what is taking place is if they hear stories directly. Of course, taken to its logical conclusion, this thinking renders the other individuals and roles in the organization unnecessary.
This statement by the managing partner for inclusion at Deloitte begs two critical questions: 1) Why is it necessary to eliminate affinity groups in order for white men to be a part of the conversation? and 2) Why are these leaders not hearing the stories in the current structure? To answer the second question, perhaps it is because these organizations have yet to remedy a culture that members of racial groups are all too familiar. Racial minorities understand talking about race is toxic and potentially career ending. This is confirmed by a study by The Center for Talent Innovation, “Easing Racial Tensions at Work.” The study finds a large percentage of racial minorities do not feel they can discuss racial bias at work. Among those who feel that way there is heightened alienation. These statistics reveal a cultural issue. The issue is not that white men aren’t hearing the stories, but more often than not the stories aren’t being shared. Nearly 40% of Blacks and Asians feel they can’t discuss racial bias at work and this leads to isolation.
But even if one was to believe that white men are not hearing the stories, this assumption would lead reasonable minds to conclude there is a breakdown in communication in the organization and the stories are not being shared up the chain of command. What the move by Deloitte says is, “Instead of changing the issue with communication within the chain of command, or increasing the likelihood that employees will talk about race – let’s abolish such groups all together.”
Any corporation serious about diversity and inclusion should understand that (even anecdotally) Black people have different conversations about race among themselves than when white people are present. Not only that, but history confirms that white people insert themselves into Black (or other) spaces when there is concern and/or a desire to protect their own interests. When enslaved Africans rebelled against the system of slavery one of the first changes made, after limiting educational opportunities, was to limit the spaces where Blacks could congregate; church services required the presence of a white person.
There is yet another issue with eliminating such groups to, “allow white men to be a part of the conversation.” The action centers the needs of white men without considering the impact it will have on the storytelling process, and those who the organization is ostensibly trying to “help.” It also ignores the uneven power dynamic that prevents many people from sharing these stories. Centering whiteness and those in power is the very opposite of inclusion.
Another rationale given for the change made by Deloitte is, “in part because millennial employees—who make up 57 percent of Deloitte’s workforce—don’t like demographic pigeonholes.” While the research Deloitte cited on millennials is good for how work is organized and communication takes place, other research shows that when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity millennials have problematic views. A well-cited study of millennials and race by MTV states, “Overall, MTV confirms the general view of millennials: Compared with previous generations, they’re more tolerant and diverse and profess a deeper commitment to equality and fairness. At the same time, however, they’re committed to an ideal of colorblindness that leaves them uncomfortable with race, opposed to measures to reduce racial inequality, and a bit confused about what racism is.” The millennial aspiration to colorblindness is not what should be driving the diversity and inclusion strategy of multinational organizations – in fact, it is harmful.
A Better Approach
PwC, Deloitte’s competitor, will not be adopting this practice of eliminating affinity groups. Lisa Ong, diversity director at PwC, said in a statement, “Our affinity groups at PwC are focused on business outcomes and come together to sponsor events that provide cultural awareness, mentoring, and opportunities to network. We believe there is tremendous value in also having individual ERGs to provide more leadership opportunities to their members.” The Deloitte initiative should be reversed and not adopted by any other corporations, and Black employees should demand it.
The earlier referenced research by The Center for Talent Innovation suggests approaches to increase communication about race at work – and none include abolishing affinity groups. However, some suggestions include:
· Empower small group discussions
· Enable one-on-one conversations
· Hold a discussion within your company’s Employee Resource Group
Another suggestion that I offer, and related to my work, is to engage with external consultants who are committed to helping Black employees gain the confidence and courage to talk about race at work. The fear of having these conversations is real. The most important work that can be done to encourage discussions about race is to maintain groups where employees can learn to do this. Employee Resource/Affinity Groups are where this work can take place. But they are not as effective as they can be because they are often underfunded and given little attention by upper management. Furthermore, the type of programming is usually relegated to celebrations during Black History Month and making sure potential recruits are aware such a space exists.
Since the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, companies have pursued diversity initiatives with dismal results. Therefore, it is not hard to agree that a change is in order at Deloitte and other corporations. As previously stated, when making a change in policy or procedure, we should first do no harm. Eliminating Employee Resource Groups is harmful. It does not provide the answer to the question of, “How we can increase diversity and inclusion in the workplace?” The answer can be found in efforts focused on making these groups more effective -- not eliminating them.