Today, we hear a lot about “diversity,” but diversity in itself does not end institutional racism.  After all, on the slave labor camps (AKA “plantations”) there was plenty of diversity.  Whites who owned those camps were hugely outnumbered by the enslaved Africans and enslaved indigenous people.  In my time doing consulting, all of the large corporations to whom we consulted had significant numbers of BIPOC employees.  They were, however, not visible in the upper ranks of those companies.  Instead, they were concentrated in the lower ranks of the hierarchy.  In many cases those jobs were in call centers or similar jobs where there was no career ladder.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, most organizations embarked on efforts to address racism.  I know too many institutions that have mandated that each division have an anti-racism plan.  In many ways, this approach is similar to the effort to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace.  It involves training in which employees are told which behaviors are forbidden.  Everyone is informed about the consequences that will follow an act of sexual harassment.  This approach that relies on education, vigilance and punishment will not work where institutional racism is concerned.

Much more is required if we are to ameliorate institutional racism.  President Lyndon Johnson demonstrated his awareness about this when he addressed the students at Howard University on June 4, 1965.  In that speech he clearly outlined his understanding of what was needed:

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, you are free to compete with all the others,” and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.’ is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All of our citizens must be able to walk through those gates.

This is the next and the more profound state of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom of opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but equality as a fact and equality as a result.

This speech immediately preceded President Johnson’s decision to institute the program of Affirmative Action.  Affirmative Action was a strategy to redress the unequal career opportunity that drove the very different outcomes for black workers versus white workers.   He understood that it was necessary to change the outcome.  He did not focus which behaviors whites needed to avoid; he focused on the results that needed to be achieved.

The same holds true today.  I have black friends who have to sit through sessions in their workplace where their work group has to discuss racism, and then plan how to eliminate it.  These sessions are led by white leaders who have themselves done things that hurt the careers of the BIPOC people in the meetings.  In many cases, I think these white leaders have so little experience being in equal relationships with BIPOC people that they are incapable of addressing the problem.  I am hearing that these sessions have yet to produce any change in how the BIPOC members experience their workplace.  Moreover, they have yet to see any changes that will redress the roadblocks they have experienced in their upward mobility.

If institutions and corporations are to make any meaningful changes, the leaders have to direct their managers to change the numbers wherever the numbers are racially skewed.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that change will not occur until managers are held responsible for equalizing the career rates of whites and BIPOC employees.  This involves focusing on several organizational performance measures.  These measures are:

    • The respective rates of promotion of BIPOC employees versus white employees. This includes an examination of lateral promotions compared to vertical promotions. It also includes an examination of whether those promotions are in the revenue producing jobs (production, sales,) or in the supporting/expense roles like HR, IT, or customer service.

    • The respective rates of hiring of BIPOC employees versus white employees. This includes data on how many interviews a BIPOC candidate has versus how many a white candidate has.

    • The respective rates of termination, both voluntary and involuntary of BIPOC employees versus white employees

    • The average performance ratings of BIPOC employees versus white employees

    • The respective salaries for BIPOC employees versus white employees at each job level

If leaders require all managers to report on these numbers every quarter, it will quickly be evident which divisions are making progress and which are not.  If these leaders act to reward those managers who show solid progress and penalize those managers who do not, all managers will realize that they have a career decision to make.  Either they equalize the career outcomes of BIPOC employees with those of white employees, or they will have to move to an organization where that is not required.  In the meantime, BIPOC employees will experience a real sea change in how their careers progress.

I don’t want to imply that these changes will occur quickly.  Of necessity, there will be a learning curve, and white managers will need support from consultants who can help them learn new ways to relate to BIPOC employees.  Once managers know that they must adapt or leave, there will be motivation to endure the discomfort that accompanies change.  Few, if any of us, look forward to the discomfort of learning by trial and error.  This is even more the case if we are in high visibility roles.  For this reason, it is imperative that leaders provide managers with consultants who can walk them through the new steps and spare managers that added discomfort of having to reinvent the wheel.

I don’t know when institutions and corporations are going to recognize this necessity to keep the focus on results.  I do know that there will be no real change in terms of the career opportunities of BIPOC people until they do.