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Leon Kaye headshot

How Companies Can Be Allies on Race Issues

By Leon Kaye

Since the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement aimed to raise awareness about the systemic racism and violence the African-American community has endured for centuries in the U.S. Critics of the movement often reply that “all lives matter” and that the focus on deaths of African-Americans at the hands of police officers ends up encouraging violence.

Law enforcement violence against African-Americans is nothing new – but the proliferation of social media and cell phone cameras has finally made this problem a subject of daily conversation -- and daily tension for those following the headlines.

Tensions over the BLM movement and police violence, along with other racial issues, can manifest themselves in the workplace. At a time when some industries, including the technology sector in Silicon Valley and beyond, face criticism for a lack of diversity, the very discussion about BLM and the topic of race in general can at a minimum make employees uncomfortable: whether they are black, white, or any other race or ethnicity.

So, how can a company demonstrate that it is an ally of the BLM movement, or any group that considers itself underrepresented or the object of bias in the workplace? Is striving to be an “ally” even enough? And how can a company ensure such a conversation can make everyone at the office comfortable and feel open about discussing these issues, including, of course, white people?

To that end, TriplePundit spoke with Cecily Joseph, vice president of corporate responsibility and chief diversity officer of the technology company Symantec, which is based in Mountain View, California.

What it takes to be an ally

Joseph argues that those who suggest being an “ally” is more of a passive response need to take a look at history over the past 60 years. “In the broader context of racial equity as a whole, if we didn’t have allies during the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, if the African-American community did not have non-black people aligned with that cause back then, we would not as a society have been able to move forward," she told 3p.

Recent history also proves allies to be important for LGBT citizens as they sought equal treatment in the workplace and, then, marriage equality. “The strongest allies of the LGBT community are their parents,” Joseph said. “They may not be gay, but they were very active and lent support to their kids. So, I think to be an ‘ally’ is important, and it does have a role.”

The key, Joseph explained, is to put the word “active” in front of the word ally. And to be an active ally is particularly important for citizens who are in the position to move the needle and foster progress on issues related to racial equality.

Joseph noted that, as is the case with any company, hers is not perfect. As is the case with many businesses, and the individuals who work within them, Symantec is on what Joseph described as a “journey.” To move in a direction that fosters an inclusive and fair workplace, Joseph described a four-step process that she said is helping her company make progress.

Start from the beginning

First, make it clear that your company is not only actively recruiting, but is also striving to ensure a welcoming environment so it is possible to retain employees of all walks of life. And making that data publicly available lets both employees and potential employees know how the company is performing when it comes to diversity. True, the risk is that companies can be exposed to criticism over the numbers and percentages – but such moves also demonstrate transparency and commitment.

Next, ensure your employees are actively involved in company decisions. On that point, Symantec launched what it calls “employee resource groups” (ERGs): grassroots networks of employees who share a common experience, culture or characteristics and seek a common forum in which they can connect. But these groups should be far more than “networking” units with a LinkedIn group or MeetUp page. Companies should involve these groups with a bevy of decisions. Symantec ERGs serve as an advisory board on a wide span of issues, including diversity recruitment and philanthropic grants or investments.

Third, a long-term vision is needed to ensure the company can continue to make progress far into the future. Joseph described this tactic as developing a “pipeline.” For a technology company, investments in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in underserved communities are a start. Partnerships with schools, or funding programs that could encourage citizens to seek a career at your company – or, even more crucial, the wider industry at large – offer a company opportunities to show it is a genuine change agent in the communities in which it operates.

Finally, companies can use their brand equity to promote equality on a national and even an international level. We saw this last year in the U.S. in the months before the Supreme Court decision that legalized gay marriage. In fact, the Huffington Post counted 379 ally companies to be exact, with an A-to-Z roster that spanned from Alcoa to Zynga.

Having a company speak loud and clear on race, diversity and inclusion does not ensure buy-in from everyone, as Starbucks learned from its “Race Together” campaign last year. But leading a discussion in your own company can contribute to the broader conversation, and even help society move forward.

Acknowledge that bias exists, and work on it

A company can have a plan and policies in place, but daily interactions between employees may be different. And the bottom line is that tensions in the workplace that emanate from race are often the result of unconscious bias. As a recent segment on National Public Radio outlined, racial bias is hardly a police problem: It is everywhere, and for many kids it starts in preschool. The nut for companies to crack is to acknowledge that many of the biases we have as individuals are unconscious. Nevertheless, companies need to invest in bias training so the problem can be addressed in the workplace.

This is not about telling people they are biased or even racist, Joseph insisted. “We all have bias," she acknowledged. "So, in order to improve a work culture, the objective is not to tell people that they are racist. It’s to help people understand and learn how to objectively make good business decisions.”

Companies must put the right processes in place to allow more objective and less subjective decisions. This is especially important during the hiring process, when qualifications should be the focus while ensuring that bias does not affect the eventual decision of who should fill a position. And developing a fair set of questions for interviews is just the start. “We’ve all been influenced by our upbringing and what we see in the media,” Joseph concluded, “but let’s not allow bias to have an impact on our most important business decisions.”

Image credit: Tony Webster/Flickr

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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