Race, Ethnicity, and Social Justice: Questions that Matter in Systemic Change

Categories: Diversity & Inclusion

With the complex issues of race, ethnicity, and social justice emerging worldwide, global companies have plenty of pressing questions. There were a number of such questions in our most recent webinar on the topic. Here we’re pleased to bring you selected questions — along with answers from our Aperian Global experts — in the second of a three-part series. 

  1. Learning and Development
  2. Systemic Change
  3. Inclusive Leadership

This group of questions focuses on SYSTEMIC CHANGE within organizations. In the coming weeks, we’ll address INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP; please visit our earlier LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT piece here.

How do you make a business case for developing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion? A report by Citi estimates $16 trillion in lost GDP due to racial inequality in the U.S. How do you think D&I advocates can use these findings to gather more support for their work?

The CITI report, as well as research from other sources such as McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group, provide useful reference points. In addition, many executives want to see a specific business case for their own organization. 

One possible strategy for making a business case would be to compare the company’s employee demographics with those of its customer base, noting areas where there are major gaps. For a customer-facing organization, having a deep understanding of customers is vital. Companies that identify such a gap can leverage their own diversity by engaging employees in product development efforts who have unique insights into a particular customer group or nationality. A very active Employee Resource Group or subsidiary operation, for example, may have useful suggestions about the best way to serve the needs of high potential customers. 

Talent cycle metrics that examine the hiring, retention, assessment, and promotion of qualified employees within the company could also reveal areas where the company is falling short. Robust hiring practices that bring in substantial numbers of minorities are insufficient to bring about systemic change. Organizations can also compare how these recruits perform over time relative to other employee groups and consider how to address points where their career tracks diverge.

How can we drive the conversation about “white privilege” in corporations (without being offensive or insensitive) given the denial that often exists on this topic?

The term “white privilege” can be supported by starkly divergent data on access to quality education, employment rates, income, family assets, homeownership, health care, arrest rates, prison sentences, longevity, and so on. However, it has sometimes been linked with “blaming and shaming” techniques in Diversity & Inclusion training programs — these have even resulted in backlash and lack of progress in creating more inclusive workplaces. This topic has become even more controversial now in the U.S., as a recent Executive Order refers to the term, “Privileges.” (The EO prohibits “race or sex stereotyping” broadly to mean “ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of his race or sex.”)

An alternative approach is to focus on external or internal workplace data. For instance, the September 28 issue of BusinessWeek (p. 40) includes a demographic overview of the U.S. corporate workforce by job level, indicating little progress for men or women of color in promotions to higher ranks over the past several years. The implication of such workplace demographics is that systemic progress will be difficult to achieve without fully understanding and dealing with the obstacles regularly encountered by members of some groups.

Another approach is to provide a structured training forum for sharing personal narratives. This type of format usually helps participants understand the impacts of privilege or lack of privilege in a vivid and personalized way without divisive ideological debate or “blaming and shaming” based on overly broad categories. Each of us has been shaped by many influences in addition to race and gender: family, religion, socioeconomic status, education, military service, local community, sexual orientation, disabilities, time spent living abroad, and so on — knowing more about colleagues tends to evoke mutual empathy and a readiness to address unearned disadvantages, while unexpected similarities may be discovered as well.

How do we balance the differences in views on dimensions of diversity in a multinational corporation – particularly when it comes to shared goals and objectives?

There are multiple approaches to selecting and balancing priorities, including:

  1. What is most important for us to prioritize in order to achieve our business goals?
  2. What is the moral business case? How about the social justice perspective? 
  3. What do we need to do as an organization to mitigate potential risks?

Each of these questions could yield somewhat different answers, which then need to be triangulated based on the organization’s strategic objectives, core values, and key stakeholder needs. Usually, there is a way to structure a global initiative that could be focused, for example, on supporting the advancement of minorities and women in the U.S., while at the same time, this initiative is adapted to developing a robust leadership pipeline in India that provides equal opportunities to people from different ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and genders.

How can we ensure inclusion and diversity in international research/capacity development projects and project outcomes?

One of the exercises we regularly use with clients could be relevant to this situation. It’s called the “Go-To People Mapping Exercise.” We ask program participants to create a map, with themselves at the center, of individuals they reach out to most frequently when gathering information and making important decisions.

Then we ask them to code the map based on different types of diversity that could be relevant to their project: nationality, function, gender, age, etc. Finally, we request that participants consider whether there may be a lack of representation from others likely to make a significant project contribution and provide an opportunity to plan the next steps for reaching out to include them.

How do you deal with the various country prohibitions related to capturing identity information?

There is little choice but to follow the legal restrictions in some regions and use the freedom to gather information in others. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) severely limits the use of personal data, while in some locations in Asia, it is actually possible to request and gather more personal information than would be customary in the U.S. Global legal firms or organizations such as the Employment Law Alliance, which contributes information to Aperian’s GlobeSmart web tool, can provide more specific information about country-by-country practices.

How can we continue to keep folks engaged on issues around race to support employees of color (who are suffering disproportionately from much of what is going on today) without overloading the rest of the employee base?

The questioner also says, “Overloading the messaging can lead to burn-out and can actually be counter-productive, as it may cause backlash or feelings of resentment at worst and a feeling of numbness/fatigue at best.”

Inviting individuals to participate in coaching, mentoring, or other forms of support for employees of color can be a way to keep them engaged in a very personal way without repeatedly messaging large numbers of people. Also, when a commitment to support disadvantaged minority employees is built into the organization’s talent development systems (recruiting, performance evaluation, promotion, etc.), this becomes more natural and accepted rather than being a constant point of tension or requiring repeat messages. When executive sponsors make it clear to employees that inclusion is a journey that will take consistent effort over time, this helps shape expectations. Volunteer activities such as task force participation may also result in tangible progress, greater learning, and a sense of momentum that encourages others to join in as well.

With Aperian Global’s Inclusive Behaviors Inventory (IBI), you can measure inclusion in the workplace and use dynamic data to drive real progress.