Three Strategies C-Suite Executives Can Use TODAY To Defeat Racial Discrimination
While terms like diversity, inclusion, and equity have generated a lot of buzz within America’s cultural space for years, the tragic death of George Floyd has underscored the fact that when it comes to matters of racial justice in these United States, there is still much work to be done. One arena which begs greater attention is corporate America. Despite the passage of landmark civil rights legislation, notable advances by people of color in important fields like education, medicine, technology, and government, and major demographic shifts which promise to advance the cause of a more heterogeneous society, experts say that US corporate boards and executive suites are still overwhelmingly white and male (approximately 85%). In fact, according to an article published by the Harvard Business Review last fall, there were only three black CEOs within the ranks of the prestigious Fortune 500.
Corporate Discrimination: A Pressing Ethical Dilemma
Though the lack of racial diversity among America’s corporate leaders is unfortunate from a business perspective — studies show that organizations with diverse leadership teams outperform those characterized by high levels of homogeneity — it is even more troubling from an ethics perspective. Indeed, in a multiracial nation which is expected to become even more diverse over the next 30 years, the stark underrepresentation of people of color within the executive business ranks suggests that corporate America’s purported commitment to inclusion — a commitment which carries with it a price tag of approximately $8 billion per annum — amounts to little more than lip service.
The Ingrained Tendency to Exclude: Exposing the Hidden Roots of Injustice
In 2018, Professor Craig E. Johnson penned Meeting the Ethical Challenges of Leadership: Casting Light or Shadow. Through the text, Johnson not only suggested solutions to the myriad ethical dilemmas which beset organizational leaders — he also dissected some of the subtle cognitive, emotional, and behavioral tendencies which support them. The tendency toward moral exclusion is one which seems particularly relevant within contemporary corporate America.
“In moral exclusion,” wrote Johnson, “group members draw a mental circle. Those inside the circle (the moral community or scope of justice) are treated with respect, are considered deserving of sacrifice from other members, and get their fair share of resources. If those within the circle are harmed, other group members come to their rescue. Those outside of the circle, on the other hand, are seen as undeserving or expendable. As a result, ‘harming them appears acceptable, appropriate, or just.’ Mild forms of exclusion are part of daily life and include, for example, making sexist comments, applying double standards when judging the behavior of different groups, and making unflattering comparisons to appear superior to others. (Mild exclusion can also include ignoring or allowing such behaviors.).” I suspect that feeding choice leadership development and promotion opportunities to those within the circle — while depriving outgroup members of the same — would fall under the broad rubric of moral exclusion.
Stemming the Tide of Racial Discrimination in America’s Corporations: Hope Springs Eternal
In spite of the bleak statistics, leadership theorists like Dr. Robert Livingston insist that workplace injustice can be addressed effectively. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that organizations are relatively small and often grant their leaders considerable control over the cultures which govern the day-to-day lives of their members. Indeed, according to Livingston, this makes organizations — including corporations — “ideal places to develop policies and practices that promote racial equity.” Even so, Livingston cautions leaders about the dangers of oversimplifying the problem, as well as its solutions. Rather than slapping band-aids on deep wounds, Livingston asserts that organizations — and perhaps more accurately, the leaders which run them — must fully sign on to the noble (and somewhat daunting) task of properly diagnosing and treating the root causes of racially-motivated injustice.
Leading Beyond the Illusion: Three Strategies Critical to Change
Despite widespread disagreement regarding the proper way to address systemic racism — including debates about whether the phenomenon even exists — many mainstream experts agree that strong leadership is one of the most important factors affecting program outcomes. In alignment with the mainstream view, I propose three real-world strategies — which all assume strong, competent leadership — as a way forward in the all-important struggle to expunge the cancer of bigotry from American business.
Strategy Number 1 — Get Consensus.
Dr. Livingston’s years of experience consulting with Fortune 500 companies, non-profits, federal agencies, and local governments have convinced him that successful diversity campaigns must begin with an accurate diagnosis of the problem, and substantive stakeholder agreement around its particulars. According to Livingston, “If many of your employees do not believe that racism against people of color exists in the organization, or if feedback is rising through various communication channels shows that Whites feel that they are the real victims of discrimination, then diversity initiatives will be perceived as the problem, not the solution…So, the first step is getting everyone on the same page as to what the reality is and why it is a problem for the organization.”
Strategy Number 2 — Get Committed.
America’s struggle with racial injustice is centuries old — and it won’t be solved overnight. In describing the level of commitment required to realize lasting change, Dr. Livingston had this to say: “I’ve devoted much of my academic career to the study of diversity, leadership, and social justice, and…organizations have called me in because they are in crisis and suffering — and they just want a quick fix to stop the pain. But that’s akin to asking a physician to write a prescription without first understanding the patient’s underlying health condition. Enduring, long-term solutions usually require more than just a pill. Organizations and societies alike must resist the impulse to seek immediate relief for symptoms, and instead focus on the disease. Otherwise, they run the risk of a recurring ailment.”
Strategy Number 3 — Get Courageous.
According to Professor Johnson, “leaders act as ethics officers for their organizations” by fostering ethical organizational climates. One way they do so is by creating “zero-tolerance policies that prohibit antisocial actions.” Antisocial actions include incivility, aggression, sexual harassment, and, you guessed it — discrimination. Obviously, that is not all. If a zero-tolerance policy is to succeed, the leader sponsoring it must also commit the requisite resources to ensure continuous and effective monitoring of employee behavior, along with swift, consistent enforcement.
Diversifying America’s Corporate Landscape One Organization at a Time
In 1990, Robert Fulghum wrote “All I Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.” Lesson 1 was “Share everything.” Lesson 2 was “Play fair.” Lesson 3 was “Don’t hit people.” Recent events suggest that not everyone in our nation actually learned those foundational, kindergarten lessons. To those of you who did — and to those who possess a heartfelt desire to help create lasting solutions to the problem of corporate injustice — I leave with you one final quote from Dr. Livingston: “Corporate leaders may not be able to change the world, but they can certainly change their world.” In our personal spheres of influence, every day, and in every way, we are all leading someone.
Professor Johnson asserts that effective, ethical leadership requires at least three ingredients: the recognition of an ethical problem, the identification of an ethical solution, and the decision to act. As you consider the unique opportunities presented to you each day to be a lasting force for good in your world, may the God of all grace be with you.
Fulghum, R.L. (1988). All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things. Random House.
Johnson, C. E. (2018). Meeting the ethical challenges of leadership: Casting light or shadow (Fifth ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE.
Keleher, T., Leiderman, S., Meehan, D., Perry, E., Potapchuk, M., Powell, J.A., & Yu, H.C. (2010, July). Leadership & Race: How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice. MPAssociates.
Kilian, C. M. (2009, August). Corporate Leadership: Building Diversity into the Pipeline. American Psychological Association.
Livingston, R. (2020, September/October). How to Promote Racial Equity in the Workplace. Harvard Business Review.
Morgan Roberts, L., & Mayo, A.J. (2019, November 20). Toward a Racially Just Workplace. Time.
Newkirk, P. (2019, October 10). Diversity Has Become a Booming Business. So What Are the Results? Time.