Diversity and inclusion in the workplace has, in recent years, become a boardroom issue. There is a recognition that aside from the obvious ethical motivation, diverse organisations also perform better, according to almost all metrics and studies.

But it’s not always an easy thing to get right. It requires time, resources, sensitivity and expertise. In this series of guides, RedCat Digital explains the “how” and “why” of various different areas – each equally important – of diversity and inclusion.

This edition deals with racial equity. An important point to note from the start is the difference between equity and equality. Equality means treating everyone the same regardless of need, whereas equity means treating people differently depending on their need.

It’s easiest to explain this through a hypothetical scenario:

Imagine three people standing on boxes trying to look over a fence. One, the smallest, cannot see over the fence, even if he stands on a box. The tallest can see over the fence without a box, while another can see over the fence using just one box. Equality is giving all of them one box – meaning two of the three can see over the fence. Equity is giving the smallest person two boxes, so all three can see over it.

The why

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently partnered with dozens of major organisations on an initiative to create racial justice in business. In announcing the initiative, the WEF noted that there have only been 15 Black CEOs over the course of the 62 years of the Fortune 500’s existence. Right now, only 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs are Black.

Black employees form approximately only 4.7% of executive team members in the Fortune 100 and 6.7% of the 16.2 million managerial-level jobs in the index.

What’s clear from these numbers is that minority ethnic groups, particularly Black people, are not getting a fair deal in the workplace. On a wider scale, this manifests as “a lack of opportunities, lower socio-economic status, higher unemployment and the racial pay gap”, the WEF says.

In recent years, the world has been forced to confront the sometimes-shocking realities of systemic and institutional racism. It’s with that reality in mind that racial equity strategies must be formed: they must seek to tackle structural issues.

The how

To join the World Economic Forum partnership, companies must “put racial and ethnic justice on their board’s agendas, take at least one firm action and set a long-term strategy to become an anti-racist organisation”. That’s a good summary of the type of action required: it must come from the top, it must be decisive, and strategic.

Robert Livingston, an author and expert on diversity and inclusion in the workplace, has a five-step process for promoting racial equity in the workplace, which he has outlined in the Harvard Business Review.

The process, which he calls PRESS, starts by acknowledging that racism can – and often does – occur without conscious awareness or intent. “When defined simply as differential evaluation or treatment based solely on race, regardless of intent, racism occurs far more frequently than most White people suspect,” Livingston says.

Problem awareness

The first stage of the PRESS process is about building consensus. People are often unaware of racism, particularly if it is on a structural level, or believe that their organisation does not suffer from these types of problems. These beliefs can undermine efforts to address racism by reducing support for diversity policies, and so should be addressed first.

A well-known example of problem awareness is “white-sounding” names on CVs. Numerous studies have shown that names that sound more “white” are likely to get more responses than minority ethnic-sounding names, all other things being equal.

Root-cause analysis

Again, an important thing to remember here is that many examples of structural racism do not involve malicious intent. However, management teams often attribute problems to individuals – “bad apples” – and assume the best thing to do is organise training sessions for people, rather than addressing organisation culture.

An example might be promotion policies. If an organisation promotes mostly from within but does not have a diverse workforce in the first place, the problem will persist. In such a situation, external recruitment efforts must be encouraged.

Empathy

The third stage of the PRESS process is about whether people are sufficiently empathetic to racism issues in the workplace. Livingston stresses that this should be empathy, rather than sympathy – that is to say, experiencing the same emotions of hurt and anger that people of colour feel when confronted with institutional, structural racism.

One way to do this is through exposure and education. Exposure and education are what we witnessed on a mass scale after the murder of George Floyd. Activities like safe listening sessions can achieve this goal; employees must, of course, be willing to share their experiences, rather than feeling obliged to do so.

Sacrifice

This is the final stage, and it may be one of the hardest to achieve in terms of leadership buy-in. There is an assumption that tackling racism will inevitably involve sacrificing some other business goal. But this is often overplayed.

Consider recruitment, for example. People often assume that increasing diversity means sacrificing meritocracy, but this doesn’t have to be the case. It is well-established that it is very difficult, near impossible, to find the “perfect” new hire, and so when assessing candidates, it can be best to rank them in statistical bands rather than in simple rank order.

That way, you can account for diversity without sacrificing merit. As Livingston puts it: “The big takeaway here is that “sacrifice” may actually involve giving up very little. If we look at people within a band of potential and choose the diverse candidate [within the same band] over the top scorer, we haven’t sacrificed quality at all – statistically speaking.”

Because most new hires equate to a certain amount of potential rather than a guaranteed result, this approach – statistically speaking – provides the same amount of potential. The key then is to invest in the person. The end result is fair and equitable and does not equate to “special” treatment, as is often the perception.

Redcat Digital offers a consultancy service, leveraging its many years working with clients to find the best digital and technology talent, to help organisations become more diverse and inclusive. Get in touch here.

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