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Racial equality remains unfinished for workplaces

Research is clear about the divide in American workplaces on race -- including the burdens Black employees and executives carry. There's much more work to be done.

4 min read


Racial equality remains unfinished for workplaces

Kate Sade/Unsplash

For all the good intentions raised by corporations after George Floyd was killed in May, Black employees do not feel any more welcome at work. Two recent studies, reported by Axios, cite the challenges Black employees feel.

Let’s take them one at a time.

In one study, conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management:

  • 49% of Black professionals feel that racial/ethnic discrimination exists in their workplace
  • 45% of Black employees feel their employer discourages discussions about racial justice
  • 37% of Black and white employees feel uncomfortable discussing race at work

In another study, from COQUAL (formerly CTI):

  • One in five Black professionals feel an individual of their background would never receive the “top job” at their organization
  • 65% of all employees believe that Black employees have to work harder to advance
  • 31% of Black employees feel they have access to senior leaders (compared with 44% of white employees)
  • One in three Black employees intend to leave their current employer (with many thinking about starting their own businesses)

Differing points of view

On the heels of this research comes an article from diversity scholar Robert Livingston, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of “The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations.

In the September-October Harvard Business Review, Livingston writes in the “a 2011 study by Michael Norton and Sam Sommers found that on the whole, Whites in the United States believe that systemic anti-Black racism has steadily decreased over the past 50 years. … The result: As a group, Whites believe that there is more racism against them than against Blacks.”

“In thinking about fairness in the context of American society,” Livingston argues, “leaders must consider the unlevel playing fields and other barriers that exist — provided they are aware of systemic racism. They must also have the courage to make difficult or controversial calls.”

He continues: “Fair outcomes may require a process of treating people differently. To be clear, different treatment is not the same as ‘special’ treatment — the latter is tied to favoritism, not equity.”

In some cases, managers believe “sacrifices” must be made to ensure equality. Livingston disagrees:

“Managers should abandon the notion that a ‘best candidate’ must be found,” he writes. “That kind of search amounts to chasing unicorns. Instead, they should focus on hiring well-qualified people who show good promise, and then should invest time, effort, and resources into helping them reach their potential.”

In the aftermath of what we have witnessed this year, Livingston argues that “the question we now must confront is whether, as a nation, we are willing to do the hard work necessary to change widespread attitudes, assumptions, policies, and practices.”

And then Livingston makes a critical point. The workplace is different from “society at large.” Why? Because “the workplace very often requires contact and cooperation among people from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. Therefore, leaders should host open and candid conversations about how their organizations are” progressing or not.

Unspoken bias

Racial inequality in the workforce is nothing new. It has been ignored or bundled into corporate diversity, inclusion and equality initiatives. While those initiatives are laudable, if Black employees’ specific challenges are not explicitly addressed, they will remain unaddressed.

From my perspective, white executives remain mostly unaware of the challenges of being Black in a white culture. In senior ranks, often a Black man or Black woman is the only one of their race. Discrimination may not be overt, but it is felt. It takes a toll on the emotional health of minority employees.

As Black executives say, it takes them time to decompress after a workday, longer than for their white counterparts. The Black executive has had to play a role within a white culture that asks him or her to sublimate their culture to blend in.

The momentum for change is building. Effecting change means changes the numbers in the SHRM and COQUAL studies cited. Turn “majority opinions” into gains for “minority employees.” Specifically, recruit, develop, retain and promote candidates from different backgrounds who will help turn the workplace culture from exclusion to inclusion.


John Baldoni is a globally recognized executive coach and leadership educator. ranked John a Top 50 Leadership Expert and Top 100 leadership speaker. Trust Across America awarded John its Lifetime Achievement award for Trust and Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of Top 30 leadership experts. John is the author of 14 books, including GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.

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