It’s time to bridge the ‘say/do’ gap in diversity and inclusion

Real change requires real actions—empathy is not enough
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Moved by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year, many companies have been loudly reaffirming: Black Lives Matter.

This past summer, email inboxes and corporate blogs were flooded with heartfelt messages from companies expressing outrage at the inequity that permeates the lives of Black people.

At the same time, CEOs have been reaffirming commitments to creating workplaces built around the ideals of diversity and inclusion. These commitments are now corporate imperative, offering a clear opportunity to be introspective and listen to the challenges of Black employees in the US workforce.

It is a positive sign. But will it drive lasting change?

Addressing the Say/Do gap

Some believe that we are seeing a watershed moment in US history. According to a Monmouth University poll released in June, 76% of Americans say racism and discrimination are “a big problem” in the US — a 26% increase since 2015.

Longtime observers will tell you we have seen such hopeful moments before. That in fact, the history of civil rights and equality in America has been a long and frustrating cycle of promises to do better, followed by little real or sustained action for change.

This is particularly true in business, where there has long been a significant and discouraging “say/do” gap between the values companies express publicly and the impact of those values on real behavior and equality internally. According to Mercer’s recent Let’s Get Real About Equality report, 81% of organizations say they focus on improving diversity and inclusion, yet less than half (42%) of US organizations surveyed have publicly documented commitments to racial or ethnic equality. Furthermore, only 23% review performance ratings by race or ethnicity to ensure against any adverse impact, and only 38% review engagement surveys by race or ethnicity to understand differences in experience.

With this disconnect, organizations cannot measure or understand how an employee’s experience and ability to succeed in the organization may differ based on race and ethnicity, and whether diversity and inclusion initiatives are having an impact. According to Mercer’s Sirota database, representing over eight million employees globally, Black employees are 14% less likely than white employees to agree that their company has an environment where people of diverse backgrounds can succeed. They are also 10% less likely to say they work in an environment free from harassment and discrimination, and 7% less likely to say they can report unethical behavior without fear of retaliation.

Taking actions for greater impact

Normally, organizations don’t set out to be deceptive or insincere. However, the levers companies are pulling are not necessarily the ones that can make a sustained impact. Organizations can avoid falling short by taking these critical steps:

  • Placing accountability for D&I outcomes on senior leaders instead of HR: Diversity and inclusion is a business imperative foundational to company mission and should be taken as seriously as every other key P&L initiative with associated budgets, metrics and accountability.
  • Focusing first on inclusion and then diversity: Diverse hires will leave if you are not making your company a place where employees of color feel comfortable, accepted and able to thrive.
  • Inclusive culture goes beyond unconscious bias training: One-time bias training will not lead to long-term behavioral change unless backed by policy and accountability.
  • Utilize employee or business resource groups (ERGs/BRGs) for guidance and feedback, not to lead D&I strategy: Your Black employees may already feel overwhelmed by racism and injustice. Learn from inclusive ERGs/BRGs, but do not expect these groups to do the heavy lifting on inclusion.
  • Measuring and monitoring outcomes: Companies must take a data-driven look and ask themselves if they are driving culture change or just covering a few bases.

What practices drive real change?

Strategically working to develop an inclusive and equitable workforce for Black employees means hardwiring your organization:

  • Listening
    Begin by asking difficult, potentially uncomfortable questions of ourselves and doing more listening — both to the data and to the experiences of Black employees.
  • Representation
    People of color are underrepresented at all career-levels in the US workforce, especially in leadership. Black men and women represent only 2% of US executives (Mercer’s 2020 When Women Thrive data). Practices, policies and programs must ensure equity of opportunity, experience and pay to drive representation.
  • Transparency and trust
    Companies must communicate goals internally and hold themselves accountable for action by sharing results with employees similar to how they would financial/business objectives.
  • Corporate citizenship
    Companies that want to make a difference in advancing racial equity have an opportunity to wield external influence with customers, supply chains, legislators and communities.
  • Authenticity
    Speak with boldness and honesty. It should not be controversial or political to speak out against racism. Mention victims by name and acknowledge the patterns of oppression — including police violence and lack of accountability.

Change can be daunting — but if there was ever a year to act decisively, it is 2020. We have achieved nearly impossible things this year by fast-tracking programs and policies to battle the threat of COVID-19. We must also seize this opportunity to address the enduring threats of racism and inequality through deliberate actions in the workplace.

Companies have the power to make this time different. We must use it.

Rayna is a Principal in Mercer’s Workforce Strategy and Analytics practice and is
based in Atlanta.

Carole is a Senior Principal in Mercer’s Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion practice, responsible for research and consulting.

Categories: Business Insights, Management & Leadership