Three Steps CEO’s Must Take to Reduce Racial Bias
Here are three simple, but critical steps CEO’s must take to reduce racial-bias within their workplace. Or perhaps more accurately, I should say these are the three steps CEO’s must take to at least start the journey.
These suggestions are born from my own experiences working in large corporates and from my interview with leadership expert, India Martin.
I’m not going to spend time on a long preamble. If you feel after reading this a fuller introduction was needed, let me know and I’ll gladly add one.
With that let us jump in.
Step One – Assume racial-bias is prevalent across your organisation.
If you already know you have a problem, then, by all means, jump to step two. If you aren’t sure, there is ample evidence that racial-bias is widespread.
Unfortunately it is many multiples more likely, that racial-bias is pervasive within your organisation, than not. Even if you genuinely believe that you have cracked the ‘racial-bias’ nut, it’s far safer to assume you haven’t. So set your null hypothesis as racial-bias exists because the downside risk of doing nothing is material.
Step Two – Seek…, and you will find it.
If you are a white chief executive, you can easily lead an organisation without observing or experiencing racial-bias. And that can make it difficult to understand how real and significant the dangers are to your organisation. If your typical day is similar to other CEO’s you are essentially cocooned from the experiences much of your workforce experiences. Your day to day interactions with other senior executives will not be representative of the lived experiences your staff are facing.
And the filtered reports you receive from your HR teams, will never truly represent the emotions that are being felt day in day out.
When for example, your colleagues are rude, dismissive or argumentative, their actions are clear and you have no choice but to decide whether to act or not.
But racial-bias is difficult to observe because more often than not it metastasises across an organisation because of the unconscious decisions people take ’not’ to act.
For example, would you ever notice a trend where white employees, are publicly praised by their white managers more frequently than their black colleagues?
I doubt it, especially when the ‘bias’ is subtle. Perhaps in this case, black staff are still regularly praised, but if you could take a birds eye view, you’d find this still only occurs 20 or 30 percent of the time.
You as the white CEO will never ‘feel’ this impact. Your black colleagues on the other hand most definitely will.
If you want to really understand the perniciousness of racial bias in your organisation, your going to have to get up-close and personal with it.
And that means listening to your black colleagues to learn what they experience day in, day out.
So get out of your office and go and meet and listen with as many black colleagues as you possibly can.
Here are just a few examples of what you are likely going to hear –
- I feel invisible: “when I say something in a meeting little will be said. When my white colleague makes a similar suggestion, there will be claps and back-slaps’.
- I’m not believed: “I’ve told HR that I’ve been subjected to racist abuse, but they know xx well and felt it unlikely she would have behaved in the way I suggested”
- I’m not acknowledged “I’ve worked hard over the last weeks and yet no one has had the curtsey to say thank you.”
- I’m looked-over: “I was not even shortlisted for the promotion. Many on the shortlist have fewer years of experience than I do”.
Whatever you do, don’t try to rationalise the situation. This isn’t a time to make excuses. This isn’t the time to challenge why they haven’t raised this as a problem before. This isn’t the time to try to ’solve’ the specific incident. And this isn’t the time to chastise the managers that are identified as showing signs of bias.
It is simply a time to actively listen, too empathise and to try to imagine how those lived experiences would feel if you were living them. And to set yourself up emotionally to want to start step three.
Step Three – Own the problem.
If you carried out step two correctly, you’ll have found that racial-bias exists at scale and I’m assuming you’ll see that as being detrimental to your organisations prospects. But unlike other ‘problems’, this one can only be solved if it’s driven by you, the CEO. Driving out racial-bias isn’t simple like, say, desiring a culture that embraces ‘agile’. Agile after all is a methodology. It’s a skill that is easy to learn. It’s an approach that’s easy to talk about. There is a mindshift requirement, but your people can make the shift quickly when they ‘experience’ the benefits of the approach. Racial-bias on the other hand is not an experience most white people are even aware of. It’s not an experience we feel. It’s simply the way we act based on our personal lens on life.
Which is what makes it such a challenging problem to solve. In fact, I cannot think of a harder issue to deal with, than reducing racial-bias. Which is why it has to be owned by the Chief Executive Officer of an organisation. A CEO might be able to get away with creating an ‘agile’ organisation, without ever personally experiencing ‘agile’ ways of work.
But to drive out racial-bias CEO’s are going to have to open themselves up to understand their own biases, the history of the respective lived experiences they have had compared to their black colleagues and then learn how to self-identify personal bias. Put another way, CEO’s that want to change their organisations are first going to have to change themselves. Only then, can you understand the magnitude of the task at hand to bring the organisation as a whole on the journey.
And this is absolutely a case where CEO’s are going to have to walk the walk, if they want to build the levels of trust and support for such deep routed change. Fortunately, there are experts, like India Martin, who can help leaders start the journey.
Even the most hopeful understand that eradicating racial-bias is going to take years, potentially decades. This isn’t an excuse however for CEO’s to avoid stepping up to the plate. The benefits of a diverse and inclusive workforce are well proven and movements like #blm are driving tangible shifts in how customers are happy to walk away from organisations that seem ambivalent to promoting equality. Every CEO can make a difference by starting with these three steps.
Step One – Believe that racial-bias is pernicious. It’s the safest hypothesis.
Step Two – Listen to their black colleagues to understand how racial-bias manifests
Step Three – Own the problem by self-solving first.
But sadly, many CEO’s will continue to treat diversity as a line on the HR scorecard, which their HR director should manage. This approach will no doubt generate numbers indicating a diverse workforce. It will never however create an inclusive one. Which is a shame, because it’s the inclusiveness which drives productivity, innovation and ultimately long term profitability.
I strongly advice you listen to my interview with India Martin.
Her passion towards this topic shines through and she explains beautifully what it’s like to be black and how white leaders can approach diversity.
She also highlights many more steps CEO’s could be taking to make sure diversity is genuine and inclusive.