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How businesses can repair the chasm created by racism

Companies are scrambling to fix racial injustices and inequities. But to become anti-racist requires hard work, an awareness of microaggressions, and buy-in from leadership, among other steps.

4 min read


How businesses can repair the chasm created by racism


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Many chasms start with a chip that takes advantage of a weak spot.

“Often chasmal” is how Nadia Owusu described “the gap between what institutions commit to in their mission statements and how employees actually experience the workplace.” Owusu is associate director for learning and equity at Living Cities, and she has shared the experiences of women of color who are chief diversity officers in this blog post.

Owusu was also one of four panelists in the Quartz at Work [From Home] webinar “How to Build an Anti-Racist Company.”

Whether you are the most junior employee in a small organization or a C-suite executive in a Fortune 500 organization, there is something you can do at this “moment of reckoning.” That’s what Workhuman Chief HR Officer Steve Pemberton calls this period when corporate statements are flooding our timelines to acknowledge that black lives matter and resolve to honor the equity of all.

The role of microaggressions

Organizations can — and should — resolve to make structural changes and reform their hiring and retention practices to be more diverse. But organizations should also recognize the role of microaggressions in shaping a company’s culture. Quorum executive Melissa Theiss notes that Quorum uses the term “subtle acts of exclusion” to define microaggressions.

Anyone can be on the lookout for microaggressions as defined by Derald Smith Sue. They are described in this article as such:

  • Microassaults: Conscious, intentional actions or slurs to indignify a person of a different race, gender, class, or ability.
  • Microinsults: Verbal and nonverbal communications used to subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity to demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.
  • Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings, or reality of another person.

Be aware of microaggressions and strive to rid your workplace of them. 

Tools for contributing to eradication of racism at work

One of the webinar participants asked what their organization can do. The participant is with a small company with three white employees that expects to remain static in size. Even for organizations that are small and don’t have plans to scale or grow, Theiss suggests they can:

  • Increase education on anti-racism, perhaps form a book club
  • Reevaluate policies to make them more inclusive, even if it doesn’t need them yet (for example, include foster parenting in family leave policies, even if no one on staff has considered fostering yet)
  • Assess the diversity of suppliers and customers

Organizations of all sizes can:

Ultimately, leaders must set the tone

Of course, eliminating racism at work is something that requires people at all organizational levels. However, without the support and clear example of leadership, many efforts will wither. In Owusu’s words, it “requires a real commitment by leadership to seeing racial equity or diversity and inclusion as an ongoing daily practice and commitment from all employees, not just employees of color, and particularly those at the top.”

It’s a vulnerable position to be in, but leaders “need to see themselves as part of the problem too,” she notes.

What commitment can you make to making your organization more anti-racist? Tweet us at @SBLeaders to let us know.


Paula Kiger edits SmartBrief’s nonprofit sector newsletters and co-manages @SBLeaders on Twitter. She worked extensively in Florida’s quasi-governmental children’s health insurance program that became a national model, has served as a United Nations Foundation Shot at Life Champion leader, has proofread professionally and has extensive social media experience. You can find her at her blog Big Green Pen, on Instagram, at LinkedIn and on Twitter.

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