Black Professionals Are Everywhere and Nowhere in Companies’ Diversity Statements

 

By Rhonda Stewart—

 

Rhonda Stewart is a long-time friend of Minerva, a former client, and we hope, a future collaborator. She’s also a Black woman who’s been working in communications for 20 years as a journalist, consultant, and senior leader at nonprofits.

Rhonda has interesting perspectives to share and we were particularly impressed by a blog she wrote about corporate statements in response to anti-racist protests across the U.S. This has been on the Minerva team’s minds a lot lately as we consider: What companies and organizations should be speaking out at this time? What can they say that is true to who they are? And most important, what the heck are they going to do after they issue carefully crafted statements?

Rhonda’s got a great take on these questions, particularly the last one. We hope you’ll take the time to read this blog and we thank Rhonda for sharing it; the blog was originally posted here. We encourage you to tap into more of Rhonda’s insights, opinions, and musings on Twitter @rhonda_writes.  

 

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I can’t help but think of a movie that’s sustained me through years working in industries where I was one of the only, and sometimes the only, Black woman on staff: The Godfather. Hot-tempered Sonny Corleone wants to retaliate for an assassination attempt on his father Don Corleone but consigliere Tom Hagen fights for a restrained approach, telling him, “this is business, not personal.”

 

Whether and how to speak out on racism at this moment has become deeply personal for Black professionals. Even though the rules are different for Black women, I can no longer stay silent and must speak out about my experiences and where companies go wrong.

 

Simply expressing an opinion — even one as now commonly held that companies must do better when it comes to Black staff — can get Black women branded as angry or not team players. Yet companies lose important perspectives when we don’t contribute to the conversation.

 

Businesses also face an unprecedented risk when they do speak out. If their actions don’t match their stated values, they’re rightly called out for their glaring hypocrisy.

 

The backlash has been fast and furious as companies from major corporations to small nonprofits issue statements against racism and vague promises to stand by the Black community, while the living, breathing Black people at these organizations can tell a different story.

 

During the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve been inundated with gauzy ads from companies saying they’re “there for us.” The new twist is the diversity statement carefully, agonizingly, painstakingly crafted to look spontaneous and intended to strike just the right tone of sympathy and undefined promise for change.

 

But I was shocked when a friend sent me a statement co-authored by the head of a respected organization where I used to work. In it, this person notes building an inclusive, respectful culture is hard work that begins in our own workplaces. This is the same workplace where a white female employee called a Black receptionist “the help” to her face and said it was a joke. There were lots of “jokes” there. You would have thought it was amateur night at a comedy club.

 

It was a place where racially-insensitive comments went unchallenged in any meaningful way and where the author of this piece — who rarely acknowledged me even to say hello — sometimes mistakenly referred to me by the first name of a Black administrative assistant. A mistake familiar to Black women and an easy one to make, I suppose, given that out of more than 150 people I was one of only three Black women not in administrative roles. One of whom I hired over the objection of my white male boss. I was the only Black woman with the word senior in my title.

 

Black employees are calling out their current and former companies for a range of issues, including lack of representation in decision-making roles, failure to develop and retain Black staff members, mentions of “fit,” as a criterion against hiring Black candidates, and bias that keeps Black candidates out of hiring pools altogether when people who don’t come from diverse backgrounds turn to their networks, which also lack diversity, to source the pipeline. And let’s not forget the ongoing slights, oversights and failures to treat Black employees as experienced professionals who add value beyond being a Black face in a proposal or pitch meeting.

 

Companies, CEOs, and other leaders do need to speak up at a time like this — if they’re prepared to match their words with action and not empty gestures. Failing to speak up can damage a company’s credibility and bottom line. Current and prospective clients may turn away while shareholders can mount lengthy challenges to management.

 

Organizations everywhere are wondering, what do we do?

 

Do the work.

 

Do the work to actively solicit and understand the concerns of Black employees in an atmosphere that’s free of defensiveness or retaliation. Do the work to create concrete and measurable actions for change and make that information publicly available. Do the work to consider hard choices — including reorganizing to make room for new voices — that your company may need to undertake. Only then will Black professionals start to see our experiences reflected in these public statements.

About The Author

Minerva Strategies

Minerva Strategies

The Minerva team has decades of experience working with nonprofits, foundations, and values-driven companies. Minerva also partners with experts—trusted designers, web developers, global communications professionals, and others—who share our excitement for creating positive social change. Through these partnerships, we can build a team that is tailored to your needs. Learn more about who we are or what we do.