How leaders can promote racial justice in the workplace
strategy+business|Winter 2020
Embrace four principles to turn today’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives into sustained progress.
Stephanie J. Creary

The late Georgia congressman John Lewis had a well-earned reputation for being uncannily optimistic, courageous, and values-driven. These characteristics were also core to his identity as a leader. Although Lewis was brutally beaten by police during a 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Ala., he said, “I have an obligation to continue to do what I can to help because I am here to continue to tell the story.” His final public statement challenged us to get into “good trouble, necessary trouble” by pursuing nonviolent protest and taking a stand against injustice and in favor of unity and peace. He reminded us that rocking, and even capsizing, the boat — not returning to business as usual — is needed to bring about a world that is more racially just than the one we inherited.

In recent months, many company leaders have embraced good trouble in their organization. In response to the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks, and protests over criminal and economic injustice, countless leaders have spoken out publicly. They have donated millions of dollars toward causes focused on ending the harmful effects of systemic racism or sought avenues to provide their company’s goods and services to underserved communities that would benefit from greater economic development. Many have started auditing the systems and processes that create racial inequity in their organizations, pledging to create more opportunities for people from underrepresented groups. They have sponsored town halls and other forums intended to shine a light on race and racism, and have encouraged managers and employees to keep these conversations going.

To realize the progress being promised, today’s strong momentum needs to be sustained in the months and years ahead. And that could prove challenging. In addition to having to resist the tendency for business priorities to naturally shift to activities more focused on the bottom line, we are in the midst of a pandemic. As the devastating health and economic realities of the coronavirus continue to sink in, senior leaders will become mired in business contingency planning. With that comes the risk that the spotlight on racial justice will dim and issues of racial inequity will continue to plague their company.

To combat this risk, senior executives need to act now to clearly define their identity as leaders in the fight against injustice, guided by transparent policies, compassionate conversations, bold strategies, and an unwavering commitment. Such action is critical, because the success of any racial equity and inclusion initiative starts at the top. Without executive-level buy-in and support, the initiative will likely fail to achieve its intended objectives. These four principles can provide the basis for that ongoing support.

1. Be transparent about policies and progress. Regardless of the company’s approach, leaders need to be transparent in explaining the potential value their initiatives can have for employees, the organization, and society at large, while also acknowledging the difficult road ahead and the organization’s openness to feedback. For example, executives can create public or internal company statements that communicate clearly and consistently what they understand but also admit what they do not yet know about racial equity and inclusion. In addition, leaders should assign clear roles and responsibilities and determine what should be transparent to whom, and through which mechanisms.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM STRATEGY+BUSINESSView All

Transforming information into insight

Focus on six organizational elements to build a world-class data and insights capability.

8 mins read
strategy+business
Winter 2020

THE URGENT NEED FOR SOPHISTICATED LEADERSHIP

The pandemic has highlighted a series of paradoxes inherent to the work of leaders. What comes next will depend on how well leaders face up to them.

10+ mins read
strategy+business
Winter 2020

The road to successful change is lined with trade-offs

Rather than trying to convince people your change initiative is the right one, invite them to talk openly about what it might take to implement it: the good, the bad, and the frustrating.

10+ mins read
strategy+business
Winter 2020

Sustaining productivity virtually

Maintaining productivity levels among remote employees is an enduring challenge. Here are five ways to help businesses and employees thrive while people work at home.

7 mins read
strategy+business
Winter 2020

FORWARD TO normal

Entertainment and media companies are building business models that are resilient to the enduring changes in consumer behavior ushered in by COVID-19.

10+ mins read
strategy+business
Winter 2020

How leaders can promote racial justice in the workplace

Embrace four principles to turn today’s diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives into sustained progress.

9 mins read
strategy+business
Winter 2020

CREATING THE OFFICE OF THE FUTURE

In a remodeled world, it is vital for companies to reinvent ways of working.

10+ mins read
strategy+business
Winter 2020

Consumer companies must take leaps, not steps

As shoppers show how quickly they can adapt to external shocks, retailers will need to radically reconfigure their business models.

7 mins read
strategy+business
Winter 2020

Businesses can fast-track innovation to help during a crisis

“Unrealistic” timelines can actually work. Here’s how.

5 mins read
strategy+business
Winter 2020

Agility and experience management work better together

Many companies achieve early wins with separate transformational efforts, then stall. But if combined and enhanced using “return on experience,” or ROX, measures, these two programs can unlock each other’s potential.

7 mins read
strategy+business
Winter 2020