When leaders commit to achieving racial equity in their organization, many employees will want to know what is the measure of success. What constitutes a racially equitable organization? People have a limited tolerance for the chaos and uncertainty that accompanies deep change, so it is important to clearly define success. People will also need clear milestones so that they can determine whether or not they are on course and making significant progress. I often hear this expressed as a question or series of several related questions:
“When are you diverse enough racially?”
“How do you know you are done?”
“Will we always have to pay attention to race?”
These questions are legitimate and deserve clear answers. Unfortunately, I have seen too many leaders assume that awareness training is sufficient to create a climate of respect, value, and inclusion of all groups—without defining what being respected, valued, or included will look like. This is complicated by the fact that there are no universal standards that leaders can “take off the shelf’ to define successful achievement of such terms.
Terms such as “respected, valued, or included” are inherently subjective. What feels like respect to one person may not seem like respect to another. The same holds true for feeling valued or included. However, some objective measures that operate at a group level can be used to determine how one group fares compared with another. For instance, measures of success can be stated as:
Turnover rates for BIPOC and for whites will be statistically the same.
The proportion of BIPOC in upper management levels will mirror the proportion of BIPOC in the organization.
Rates of promotion for BIPOC and for whites will be statistically the same.
In each of these examples, the standard of comparison is the career opportunity of the whites. If BIPOC have the same level of acceptance or career success as whites, we can assume that people are treated fairly. Let me take this a little further. Racial equity visions focus on respect, inclusion, and feeling valued because those who succeed do feel respected, included, and valued. It is possible to identify concrete behaviors that impart the extent to which people feel respected, included, or valued.
Imagine a meeting where one person’s ideas are endorsed and acknowledged, but another person’s ideas are not. If this experience happens regularly, the experience of working in that organization will be very different for the two individuals involved. One will have the experience of being able to influence the decisions of that work group and the other will not. One will feel recognized and maybe valued.
When it comes time for performance evaluations, the person whose ideas are accepted is much more likely to be rated as a valued contributor, while the person whose ideas have been ignored will not be rated as a significant contributor to that group’s work. In short, the way peers and their boss respond to employees directly affects their careers. After all, promotions depend to a large degree on how others view you. When it comes time to entrust someone with an important or risky piece of work, decision-makers usually look to someone they view as trustworthy or as a proven contributor.
As a result of their segregated upbringing, whites can easily fall into a pattern of discounting contributions of BIPOC co-workers, because the way they interact does not fit the norm of white culture. For example, white culture has norms of speech that value speaking in succinct, non-emotional language. Styles of speaking that deviate from this unwritten norm may seem ineffective or less professional. Those who do not adhere to these norms are often viewed as less smart, less sophisticated or less assertive. Yet in many cultures, people do not speak in unemotional or succinct ways. In Latinx culture, people listen for the feeling. African Americans also value the expression of emotion, even negative emotions such as anger.
It is very common for whites in organizations to assume that the norms of “professional” behavior that we were raised in are neutral and universal. That assumption is not accurate. Because of colonialism, whites were the first racial group to establish corporations and bureaucracies across the planet. During the nineteenth century the French, British and Dutch administered the entire economies of most of the countries in Africa, Asia, Indonesia and Australia. They were following in the footsteps of the Spanish and Portuguese who had done so in the eighteenth century, before South American elites revolted against the Spanish rulers.
This legacy of Eurocentric norms in professional organizations is one holdover from the colonial period. Today, the workforce is no longer all-white. People with different cultural upbringing now populate our organizations. If these organizations continue to judge everyone’s contribution by the standard of white norms, then they are operating the organization on a basis of assimilation. In order to be accepted, you have to assimilate to white norms. This is an imposition of one culture’s style of speaking upon everyone. It does not conform to a stance of equality. It also confers on those who grow up with white norms a distinct advantage in that they do not have to learn and adopt these norms when they join the organization. In an organization where there is racial equity, there is a wider range of acceptable speaking and presentation styles.
In summary, an organization that operates in a racially equitable fashion will see their BIPOC members progress up the hierarchy up the career ladder at rates equal to that of whites. We can assume that they have adopted a more inclusive standard that now values other styles that previously had been seen as substandard or of less value. This assumption can be checked out fairly easily and with minimal expense. A leader or HR professional can observe a group at work and quickly determine how broad the criteria are for acceptable contributions. If whites in that group accept ideas of BIPOC, even when they are expressed differently than the way whites express their ideas, we draw the conclusion that a more inclusive standard has been adopted.
Of course, getting to this point will require work on the part of leaders. Leaders must help white co-workers adjust to a wider range of behavioral styles than the ones many grew up with. This is where the role of leaders is so important. They have the positional power to require that everyone embrace the new norms. They have the ability to reward those who do embrace the new norms. They articulate the new norms and they demonstrate that those who succeed are people who operate in accordance with the new norms.
Most importantly, they also model the new norms. When they speak or interact, they consistently use the new norms. These two roles of (a) modeling the desired behaviors and, (b) holding everyone accountable for using the new behaviors, are essential components of any plan to achieve racial equity. Without them, the organization can get caught up in actions that fail to implement racial equity.