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Corporate America’s Work in Fighting Racism is Just Beginning

THE ORIGINAL PODCAST PUBLISHED BY HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW. Listen wherever you get your podcasts, HBR IdeaCast/ Episode 744.

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

Over the past few weeks in the United States massive protests over the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police have thrown a huge spotlight on an issue the country has been struggling with since its inception: systemic racism.

Now, this is not a news show. We are apolitical. But Harvard Business publishing mission is to improve the practice of management in a changing world. And we think that these recent events do mark a shift in how companies are thinking, or should think about diversity, inclusion and racial justice. As CEO’s release statements disavowing bigotry, managers at every level are figuring out how to carry on and support their teams during this traumatic time. Our guest today wants to make sure that this momentum translates into the meaningful change in corporate behavior and workplace culture. Ella Washington is an organizational psychologist, coach and consultant and a professor at Georgetown University. She’s the coauthor of the HBR article “U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism.” Ella, thank you so much for being on the show.

ELLA WASHINGTON: Hey Alison. Thank you so much for having me.

ALISON BEARD: So first of all I just want to ask, how are you doing?

ELLA WASHINGTON: You know that is a loaded question these days. What I’ve noticed in the last few days as the days go on, and I find myself kind of slipping back into our normal retort of “hi, how are you” and then saying, I’m fine, how are you? And particularly for those of us in the black community, we’re used to code switching in the workplace. And so, ‘veI challenged myself in the last few days to stay in touch with my feelings and actually lean into them when someone asks me how I’m doing. This is the transparency we really need in both our work and our home communities right now.

And so, quite frankly I’m exhausted. I am exhausted from continuously doing this work and feeling like it has fallen on deaf ears. I’ve had lots of anxiety this week as I’ve heard sirens and helicopters for three nights in a row outside of my house in D.C. Every time I try to unplug I can’t relax because of what’s happening right outside my home.

But for me, I’m also engaged. I feel like writing and connecting on various platforms, sharing my research, sharing my work is my version of activism. And so, though I’m exhausted I’m also engaged and really grateful for the opportunity not only to be helping people, but it’s also helping me feel like I can do something in a time where sometimes it can be cycling to feel like you can’t do anything to make a real impact.

ALISON BEARD: So, you are someone who focuses on organizations. How are you seeing the reaction to these killings, also the fact that the Covid crisis has been hitting minority communities hardest and these protests play out in the American workplace?

ELLA WASHINGTON: Well Covid-19 was already a major disrupter of our way of live. Particularly in how we work. Leaders were just beginning to consider the desperate impacts of communities of color and what that meant for the workforce and how they were going to start to address things like performance management in the coming months. In the midst of all of this kind of uncertainty happening there was yet another two examples of racial injustice that played out literally right before our eyes because of the video footage of both the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. So, as a community already in pain, black people have had enough. There was this kind of uprising of sentiment that things were no longer going to be business as usual. And because of this unapologetic and unwavering stance, I think organizations have been forced to pay attention and to get involved.

ALISON BEARD: And normally as you say, employees, managers, people of color would code switch and sort of turn it off at work, but that’s not happening anymore.

ELLA WASHINGTON: Yeah there’s a few things I think that are contributing to that. I think because of Covid there is no longer this clear boundary between work and home. You log onto a Zoom call and your colleagues who maybe you have never hung out with outside of work or certainly have never been in your home, are now having a front row seat at your most intimate spaces.

It really is a callout to kind of the lack of separation that we have between our work life and home lives. And so because of that I think employers are forced to resolve the fact that employees that come to work or log into work from their homes, they can’t kind of check their race at the door. They can’t check their pain at the door. They can’t check at the door what’s happening in our outside communities. And so, there must be action now.

ALISON BEARD: And what is your verdict on how corporate leaders, you know, big U.S. corporations have been responding to this moment?

ELLA WASHINGTON: There’ve been waves of responses since the murder of George Floyd. So on the first few days what we saw was relative silence from companies. Maybe it was the shock that this was happening once again. But I really think that companies were unsure if this would be another issue they would just shake their heads at behind closed doors. But actually stayed relatively quiet and on the sidelines.

Then around Friday, May 29th, we started to see waves of a few companies that have already become pillars of support to causes like Black Lives Matter, start to speak out first. So Nike unsurprisingly released a moving ad “for once, don’t do it.” And it was in that first wave that said let’s stop and pay attention. No this time it’s different.

But then over the course of the weekend, through May 31st and into Monday, June 1st, we saw what I would say is the largest wave that we’ve ever seen of organizations making statements of support and acknowledging the need to fight for racial equality and fight against racial injustice. Now, these statements are certainly a great first step. We have been seeing statements from companies that never before had taken any stance on anything happening outside of their consumer base.

What we have to be aware of is the potential for performative allyship that some companies are showing through these messages instead of actual commitment to action and change. They have these well-crafted messages of marketing to appease their consumers and appease their employees, but not really making a commitment to change.

I would say companies like Nickelodeon with their eight minutes and 46 second blackout and Ben and Jerry’s statement about white supremacy have actually set themselves apart and raised the bar by marrying both statements with action. Black consumers and employees are also holding these companies accountable.

For example, I have friends that by Sunday night they were riding on the companies that they frequently patron on their social media websites and asking them why they hadn’t made a statement and what follow up action they were going to do. Some companies now are kind of getting on the final bandwagon I think of messages of support. But I think even the narrative at this point has shifted because people of the black community and their allies globally are saying, you got, OK, words are great, but they’re no longer enough. This one name that went viral has been circulating that says thank you for your message of support, now let me see a picture of your executive leadership team and Board of Directors. So I think there’s a clear call for action, so companies have been responsive, but their follow through I think is what people are really paying attention to.

I am advising my CEO and Board of Director clients to have honest conversations with first themselves internally on where they actually stand on these issues. It’s easy to jump on the social media bandwagon of sending messages of support, but where do they truly stand and how committed will they be to action? I think after they figure out where they stand on these issues, they also have to be accountable for how they contributed to inequalities within their own organization.

And then lastly, they need to be prepared to follow through with immediate and long term action. There should not be a conversation that expires when the new cycle expires. Organizations really need to be committed to long term change.

ALISON BEARD: And what should managers be doing right now, especially ones who have Black employees on their team who no doubt feel much more traumatized by what’s going on than everyone else?

ELLA WASHINGTON: So I read a piece on on the last few days that blacks are stuck in a loop of trauma. And that image of a trauma loop almost like from Jordan Peele’s movie, Get Out. It really stuck with me. This week has happened before in our history and as black Americans we fear that it will happen again and will continue to happen, so the only way out is to demand more from our leaders and managers.

Two weeks ago conversation about race were avoided in the workplace, particularly with their managers and higher up leaders. And now everyone wants to talk about it. Everyone wants to be in support and kind of do the right thing in this moment. But that can be even further traumatic for black employees and so we still need to figure out how we want to navigate this space. For some people it’s their ability to navigate this space through having these courageous conversations. But that should not be the expectation for every black employee. Being black does not mean that you have an expert opinion on how these issues need to be solved and it’s quite frequently unfair to assume that your black employees can solve your issues on racial injustice in the workplace. It really is the job of HR leaders.

ALISON BEARD: As we move on from this moment, what are the key policies that you would like to see organizations pursue to really change things for the better in a meaningful way and not let this all be for naught as so many previous killings, protests over those killings have been.

ELLA WASHINGTON: Yeah, so organizations have to think both in their informal and their formal practices. So, the common definition of culture is the way we do things around here, or the way we get things done. And so it’s important for them not only to look at their policies, but also to look at how, what their kind of informal culture of their organization is and think about strategies for enacting change at both levels. So that everyone understands and truly believes and supports action around eliminating inequalities.

ALISON BEARD: And are there any organizations that you’ve seen already really fundamentally change the way they work, how they hire, how they promote, how they develop in a way that has supported people of color?

ELLA WASHINGTON: Well I think many organizations are striving. I think the organizations in the tech space that have been transparent about their diversity numbers over the past four to five years. That was a huge shift in being transparent about the need to have a better pipeline for black employees and other people of color.

But every organization is still struggling. I don’t think any organization has perfectly figured it out. And further, what I always tell my clients is that inclusion is a journey. So, I wouldn’t give anyone a gold star and say you’re done with your journey to inclusion. You’re done with fighting against inequalities. Maybe you’ve done a really good job and so hats off to you. Hats off to companies like Accenture that have been spreading messages around inclusion for many years and have been putting action behind those messages in terms of having support for and goals around hiring and you know, gender equity, or racial equity.

However, even for companies that are at the forefront, they’re still not done. We’re not done until we have a systematic policies and a systematic ownership, not just within an individual company, but an ownership within industry. Ownership across both for profit and nonprofit organizations that we will not allow the status quo to continue.

ALISON BEARD: And diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives have been around for a while and companies have been investing in them, but it seems as if progress has stalled in some way, especially for black Americans. So, what exactly needs to change? Is it more funding? Is it more staffing? Is it bringing it out of HR and into the mainstream of the organization? What do you recommend?

ELLA WASHINGTON: Well I think one critical thing is that organizations have to be clear and firm on their values. They have to stand by them in both public and private moments. I think a great example is Franklin Templeton in the past weeks firing Amy Cooper. That’s great, however, I often wonder in those moments that aren’t being recorded, or don’t catch the media’s attention, what happens. And I’ve seen how many of those issues get swept under the rug if it’s not in the public eye. And that’s not courageous leadership. Courageous leadership is being clear on your values and standing firm with them when no one is watching.

ALISON BEARD: The other challenge we have right now is that there are just so many crisis that we’re facing. We have a pandemic. We have recession, climate change. How do leaders prioritize racial equity in the face of all of that, or are they all linked?

ELLA WASHINGTON: They are all linked. I mean you can’t think about the impact of Covid without thinking about its disparate impact on the black community and how this moment in time is connected with the frustrations and pain that the black community is feeling. And so, these issues are certainly all interconnected.

The truth is that employees and companies that are focused on doing the right thing, no matter what the business outcome is, usually have better business outcomes, right? And so, it’s not a matter of picking which point of pain to focus on. It’s how do we really consider what’s best for our organization, what’s best for the employees that work in our organization in addressing the challenges that they face?

And so, it might be a triage for a while because as we note, this year has been one challenging event after another. And then the reality also is that organizations are being asked to do more with less. I know we always say that, but truly in 2020, organizations, HR leaders are going to be feeling the impact of doing more with less. However, I would put a note that organizations that really do care about their workforce and do you want to see change, they have to start with internally.

ALISON BEARD: The economic crisis really does create a problem because we think of well how do I get a more diverse workforce? How do I bring in more people of color, more black people, and many companies will just simply not be hiring for the next couple months, if not years. How do we get around that?

ELLA WASHINGTON: Yeah so, though companies may not be hiring, they will hire again in the future. We know that the economy at some point will turnaround. They can certainly evaluate their policies and procedures around hiring and promotion so that when they can expand again and hire, they’re going at it with a new strategy, a new perspective that is in support of equality, and equity as opposed to continuing on as business as usual when they’re able to pick up their hiring again.

ALISON BEARD: What can the corporate world and the investment community do to support historically black communities and black-owned businesses going forward?

ELLA WASHINGTON: Yeah so there’s more than 2.6 million black-owned businesses in the United States. And where you spend your dollars makes a real difference. Black-owned businesses often face limited startup capital and challenges receiving loans from financial institutions.

Even in their first year of business, black-owned businesses are less likely to survive than non-black businesses. And so they don’t even survive long enough to flourish. So, I would say one thing corporations can do or specifically think about supplier diversity. Spending your money in a Black owned business has a doubling effect because it not only adds capital to that business, but it gives them the support they need to operate and grow.

Additionally, we have to think of black-owned and organizations that were created to support the black community, like historically black colleges and universities. There’s been debate particularly in this current administration of whether or not we still need HBCUs. And I would challenge we certainly do. Those institutions have been pillars of change in our community since their inception and they continue to be safe spaces not only for the students and faculty, and staff that are employed there or receive their education there, but also for the communities around them. And so it’s really important that we continue for our HBCUs so that they can thrive and continue to serve us in the way they have been since their inception.

ALISON BEARD: The other issue I’d like to address, we’re talking about supporting people of color as leaders, promoting black managers and executives, getting them into this sort of, getting them into the sort of white-collar management, corporate environment. But we know that so many of the essential workers, blue collar workers were getting this through the pandemic, are people of color. They’re typically overworked and underpaid. What sort of policy changes, corporate or government would you like to see on that front, supporting people on the front lines?

ELLA WASHINGTON: It’s a huge social economic injustice issue that you’re really seeing. Those disparities didn’t just happen overnight. It’s so interesting how, when there is a trauma or there’s something that goes wrong, we start to pay attention to and know that the things that have existed for centuries.

Our workers at the grocery store didn’t just become black and brown overnight when Covid hit. It has been that way. While there’s certain parts of our society that are flourishing. There have continued to be parts of our society, particularly in the Black community of people struggling to even make ends meet. So it’s challenging all of that and again, going back to kind of that ecosystem of change, not just coming at it from one perspective, but really thinking critically about how every entity in our community can play its part.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And also looking into the future, what can white bosses, white colleagues do to keep this momentum going, keep supporting their black employees and colleagues?

ELLA WASHINGTON: Well I think the most important thing to remember is that you need to be authentic to who you are and the relationship you have with your black peers or bosses. It’s not a matter of always saying the right things or putting the right words together, it’s a matter of just being genuine in your support and saying, you know, I might not know the right thing to say, but I stand with you. And if there’s anything that I can do to support you, or that I’m not doing right now, that I should be doing, please let me know.

I mean this is your opportunity to use your white privilege for good. The truth is whether you are an employee with organizational status and power, or not. If you are a white employee you have kind of legitimate power based on your status of white privilege in society. You’re often having conversations with other people of note in the organization that black people are not able to have. The back office conversations. The conversations on the golf course, et cetera that we know make a difference in the trajectory of careers. So, using your voice and using your privilege for good, it can be as simple as checking bias when you’re having a conversation that might show up. And so, being courageous enough to say, well wait. What did you really mean by that micro aggression that you may have heard? Or, asking are we sure that we have everyone in the room that would be helpful to make this conversation? Maybe we should invite our colleague such and such to join this conversation so that we have a more diverse perspective. It’s really about helping to amplify Black voices and putting us in position to speak for ourselves. And you don’t have to be a manager to do that. You can do that by using your white privilege for good.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Your coauthor on the recent HBR article, made the point that no one gets a boost from advocating for diversity, but white men, at least don’t get penalized for it. So, I think it’s important to recognize how important it is to be an ally in that way. So we do seem to be at this point where everyone is getting political and that is bleeding into the workplace. What can and should employees be doing to hold their organizations accountable for the kind of progress that we’re talking about without getting themselves fired?

ELLA WASHINGTON: What I would, what I would question, why is the assumption that they would do, speaking up would get them fired? I think we have to challenge even those norms and those kind of cultural assumptions that we’ve been making. Employees that want to create change, the organization’s most valuable asset we know from an organizational behavior standpoint is its employee. It’s its most valuable human capital. So it is incumbent on the organization to listen to their employees, particularly as they band together as allies for these needs of change. And so, I would even challenge that notion that an employee, what can they do and not be afraid to get fired? Maybe sometimes that’s what it takes. Maybe it takes kind of backing the organization into a corner, but I guarantee you if enough employees are speaking out against the organization being silent, or not taking up action, it won’t be the employees that are faced with the change, it will be the organization that’s forced to change.

ALISON BEARD: So, I want to end hopefully on a positive note. As you mentioned, this has happened before so many times in the United States. Racism has been around since the country began. Racist incidents continue to play out in the news. Why is this moment different?

ELLA WASHINGTON: The whole world is paying attention in this moment. Nothing in this moment is business as usual. I think Covid-19 has slowed us down to a halt almost, in many cases. And so, people are paying attention in a way that they weren’t before. It’s like a collective watchful eye on what’s happening. And maybe for the first time as a nation we are understanding that racism and inequality against black Americans are not a black problem, it’s everyone’s problem.

And so, because of that I think this moment is different and I hope that it will create a change that’s lasting for generations to come. I mean I’m so encouraged as I hear from my students that are even pushing back on some of the stronger company messages and saying, well they’re not strong enough and their action is not enough. And so what I hear those things from the next generation of the workforce and the next generation of leaders, I’m very encouraged that this moment will not go unnoticed in history.

ALISON BEARD: I hope so too. That’s Ella Washington, Professor at Georgetown University. Her coaching consulting practice is Elevate and you can find her article “U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism” on

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.