July 7th, 2020 | 9 min read

I’ve been listening and observing white people’s response to the BLM movement after the death of George Floyd. More people than ever before want to make an impact in their workplace but are stunted in their efforts. I aim to offer clarity around the resistance you might face on a cultural level and share ideas on how to create a culture of inclusion in the workplace. 

Let’s get some facts out of the way for those who need to hear it: We live in a culture of racism that no one is exempt from. Racism is a sociological fact that has created systematic oppression and opportunity inequality. We (white people) might not be overtly racist, but our complicit behavior furthers the racist agenda by not creating equitable solutions for those who have been left behind. When your colleagues resist change and defend the status quo this is white power at play- normalizing and supporting whiteness as the dominate culture. 

White people are in a place of privilege that obligates us to do what’s right: to do our part to help create and sustain inclusive work environments that create economic opportunity accessible for all. To not just check off an affirmative action HR box, but to create a real culture of inclusion where BIPOC* people feel safe to be themselves without assimilating to the current environment. Where BIPOC* people have the same opportunity to be in leadership positions as white people do. 

You can be the catalyst to this change if you are able to break through some of these cultural norms and take the ownership necessary to create real change.

Performative, profit-only focused businesses won’t last

Numerous cultural norms covertly limit our ability to realize our organization’s potential. The first is the metanarrative of performativity: the belief that we only have value when we perform a desired result, which puts us in a spiral of constantly evaluating worth. If it can’t be measured, it has no value. As a result, people and organizations ask: “What is the bottom line?” “How can we become more efficient?” “How can we increase performance?” Most companies stuck in this metanarrative over prioritize profit and under prioritize people. Sure, this creates short term results, but there comes a time when innovation and growth plateau. Unfortunately, when we are in a fear based mindset due to, say, a global pandemic, we lose the capacity to see the bigger picture and can only react to what’s right in front of us. Which is why the excuse around not prioritizing diversity initiatives due to budget cuts is so popular and frankly so weak. If our current climate has any lesson for businesses, it’s that only prioritizing profit will simply not survive the future of work

Another relevant example of performativity includes our reactionary activism around the BLM movement. As people are waking up to the realities of our racist society, and the shame that comes with it, I’ve observed many people responding by trying to do it all. This is not to say these actions aren’t impactful but that performative activism is not sustainable and will not create the necessary systematic change. Hatty J. Lee, M.S. captures this perfectly: 

“If our activism is rooted in our shame, it will be performative, obligatory, unsustainable, and lead to burnout. Shame encourages changed behavior for the short-term that is centered on our own feelings, rather than the feelings of others. Shame makes no room for appropriate guilt to be held, for authentic compassion and understanding for the pain of others, and for genuine responsibility to take place for the long haul.”

The cultural roadblocks that defeat DEI* efforts

Dismantling Racism goes further on the idea of performativity and how it creates characteristics that maintain a culture of white supremacy. These norms force non-dominate cultures to assimilate rather than expand on company values and stand in the way of creating a multicultural organization. 

A sense of urgency in the workplace is one characteristic that makes it difficult to slow down and take the time needed to create an inclusive culture. This sense of urgency is a symptom of a performative culture that continues to feed the belief that efficiency gains equate to evolution when in reality most companies are stuck. Urgency is needed as a launch pad for change but if we are stuck in urgency we lose the resilience needed to sustain efforts. To create real lasting change, companies need to consider the cost of moving so fast, and make space for proactive, democratic decisions and diverse perspectives. This will ultimately support the growth of dynamic business’ with happier people, and more revenue. 

Defensiveness is another characteristic that deters us from creating an inclusive culture. So much energy is put into protecting current power dynamics and as the article mentioned above  simply states, “the defensiveness of people in power creates an oppressive culture”. People fear change and think power is finite which perpetuates the problem. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, talks about how power over others is in fact finite, but power with others is infinite. 

Defensiveness comes up a lot around diversity initiatives because people equate racism to being a bad person and talking about race becomes intolerable due to the emotions that arise as Dr. Robin DiAngelo discusses in ‘White Fragility’. Instead of taking ownership in learning how to be better allies, we become defensive and organizations drop diversity initiatives for fear of hurting people’s feelings. 

If we can slow down enough to see breakdowns as breakthroughs and discomforts as a step towards creating a more inclusive culture, we might actually make some real change around cultural norms that hold us back. 

Creating a culture of inclusion

Long term, impactful revenue is the byproduct of an inclusive culture because working with different people encourages creativity, diligence, and hard work. Katherine W. Phillips explains in an article on How Diversity Makes Us Smarter:

“Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.” 

I’ve facilitated group discussions around creating inclusive cultures and learned that this not only means hiring diverse talent (especially in leadership) but also creating systematic ways to ensure BIPOC* talent will succeed in their role. This starts with creating a sense of belonging and offering extra support and growth plans for BIPOC* talent.  

Grid Alternatives (GA), a solar construction nonprofit, is a great example of how to create a sense of belonging in the workplace. They have baked DEI into their organization from interviews (requirement to have 3 DEI questions), to their physical environment (inclusive decor, seating arrangements, front desk person). They even took a group of 21 employees to Montgomery Alabama to connect to the history of systemic racism and found this to be a transformative experience that has greatly influenced the culture of their organization. How’s that for walking the walk?

Checkr, a background check tech company, is a great example of a mission-driven company committed to creating systemic change through tightly weaving fair chance policies into its hiring framework and ensuring that people with conviction histories have a fair chance to work.  5.5% of Checkr’s workforce has been previously incarcerated.  The professional growth of fair chance colleagues is supported through the education and enablement opportunities offered to all people who work at Checkr.  At Checkr, people who are previously incarcerated demonstrate the lowest rates of attrition and some of the highest motivation for performance successes. While Checkr’s mission isn’t focused specifically on BIPOC, Checkr is a great example of how businesses can advance social change.

Microsoft has also realized the importance of upskilling in our current times especially for BIPOC people who have been hit the hardest with layoffs. In response to this reality, they just launched a global skills initiative to help 25 million people acquire digital skills to increase their economic opportunity.

Defensiveness often comes up around the lack of quality, diverse talent. There is an important equity/ equality distinction here: there is nothing wrong with diverse talent, BIPOC people are perfectly capable but have been drowning in a system that was not designed for them to succeed. A way to respond to this objection is to start taking ownership, like GA, Checkr, and Microsoft have, and ask yourself and your colleagues…

How am I creating a culture that BIPOC* people feel they can belong to rather than assimilate to? 

What am I doing to offer upskilling to BIPOC* communities? 

What assumptions am I making around the qualifications of a candidate and how can I make more informed decisions and give credit where credit is due i.e. life experience etc.?

We must take action, in a holistic way, to level the playing field and stop making excuses around why we can’t do the work to create more equitable work environments. 

Call to action

Through my experience working for a DEI* staffing company and collaborating and learning from many DEI* consultants I have compiled a non-exhaustive list of ways to take action around creating an inclusive culture. Remember to not think of this as a band aid fix but as a holistic way to create systematic change.  

And before you offer a diversity workshop here are 5 Questions to ask before responding to the current crisis with a workshop that Michelle Kim, the Co-Founder and CEO of a DEI consultancy, put together:  

Why now?

What do you want to accomplish?

Whose needs are you centering?

Who are you learning from?

What happens after?

The current climate induces a range of emotions and I am mainly hopeful and excited to see the ways in which we are collectively creating true equality in this country as more white people step up as leaders. Thank you for your humility in facing the reality of our current culture and your courage to stand for inclusivity in the workplace and beyond. At the end of the day, we all have a lot to learn, and we don’t need to have all the answers, but we do need to have the courage to challenge the status quo and fight for what matters- black lives. 

I am committed to continuing to create more safe, equitable, and healthy workplace cultures that support companies to thrive. Please contact me if you are looking to make a concrete plan to promote DEI* work at your company that will create real systematic change. I am available for full time roles and I am excited to connect with mission driven companies who are committed to DEI*. Connect with me on LinkedIn and learn more about me here: www.sarahahoward.com I am open to feedback and appreciate any opportunity for growth around this topic, please reach out. 

*DEI: Diversity, equity, & inclusion

*BIPOC: Black, Indigenous, People of Color