Dismantling Systemic Racism in Organizations

Moni Robinson , Rina Souppa


June 1, 2021

White and black hands smashing the word

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is quickly becoming a more common discussion topic among business leadership. This is for good reason—in addition to the ethical imperatives, growing evidence shows companies with diverse demographics have better business outcomes.

Innovation drives great products and services, and diverse teams are better positioned to welcome new ideas. Additionally, diversity in gender, ethnicity and age mitigate risk by virtue of perspective. There are also pressures and incentives from outside of the organization. A recent survey by communications firm Markstein found that 70% of consumers want to see some evidence that the brands they support are actively addressing social and environmental issues.

While more companies are talking about D&I or DE&I, it is common for many to focus only on diversity and put inclusion on the back-burner. A recent BCG study of more than 16,500 people worldwide revealed that, while 97% acknowledged their company had a diversity policy, only 25% felt they benefited from it personally. It is not enough to have a diverse workforce; employees must feel that their input is truly valued. As a result, training employees to confront and help dismantle systemic or institutional racism—which refers to the policies and practices that embed racial inequity and discrimination in an organization—can also be a powerful tool for improvement.

When employees feel they are treated equitably and are not forced to play defense against discriminatory behaviors large or small, they are better able to reach peak performance, engagement and work quality. Companies lose some of their best talent due to a lack of inclusion, and an exodus of employees risks the company’s reputation and stability as it can deter customers, strain partnerships, and discourage the best candidates from seeking jobs at the company.

To build and execute more meaningful diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, consider the following:

Specificity is Key

Broad diversity and inclusion initiatives tend to avoid specific problems. Using the umbrella term DE&I allows company leadership to bypass addressing the issue of systemic racism. Some people think the subject is not significant, yet still find it too uncomfortable to talk about. The result is that behavior does not change, employees continue to bear the burdens of systemic racism and the company remains exposed to the associated risks. Facing the issue head-on is the only way to create real change.

Inclusion from End to End

Employees know when diversity-related training is perfunctory, and they can tell when best practices do not gain momentum within the company. Many courses are little more than a lecture followed by a few multiple-choice questions and some discussion. Worse, they are often created by groups that fail to seek input from the very people they are attempting to support. The result is training that does little to create actual change within the organization.

The most effective programs are built in partnership with organizations that represent the marginalized groups addressed in the training. Authenticity in antiracism training comes from highlighting real-world experiences and being transparent about harmful workplace dynamics that create unnecessary hurdles for people of color. That means inviting people of color to the table to speak freely about their concerns and have a significant role throughout the program’s development.    

A single training course is not the solution. There has to be an ongoing programmatic commitment to raising awareness, as well as building necessary vocabularies to communicate and skills to identify inequitable practices and reconstruct equitable ones. That means checking in a lot, defining and confronting your own success criteria, and being willing to make adjustments when something is not working.

Data provides the ability to quantify the risks associated with having an environment that lacks diversity, equity and inclusion. Conduct statistical analysis of your company. Review tenure, pace to promotion, compensation, performance and representation in your organization and compare these against its accomplishments and setbacks. 

The Importance of Language

The first step in a company-wide shift toward meaningful inclusion is providing leadership with vocabulary regarding behaviors like microaggressions. Without vocabulary, it is impossible to truly understand how such behaviors—no matter how insignificant they may appear to some—create a hostile environment for workers of color. This is done by tasking the entire company with self-reflection and then helping everyone articulate those thoughts by encouraging mindful language.

Once leadership is able to speak about racism concisely and honestly, they can better identify the ways noninclusive behavior affects employees and magnifies risk. Start by focusing attention where employees express the most angst and evaluate these behaviors against your company’s highest risks. Defining unspoken biases empowers leaders to shift company culture toward inclusivity in an active manner rather than just on paper.

Efforts to create an antiracist environment include challenging and countering racism, disparities, preconceptions and discrimination based on race. Learn and understand the jargon of racism to shape your organization’s antiracism conversations. Take the opportunity to understand and discuss how language can consciously or unconsciously perpetuate racism, and encourage impacted employees to express how certain terms and statements affect them. Document common themes and vernaculars to further define the terms your workforce agrees are biased.

Focusing on Equity

One of the most critical conceptual changes to make is introducing “equity” to the DE&I equation. It is one thing to hire more diverse teams and make an effort to include people of color, but it is another to ensure they are being treated equitably rather than as a demographic checkbox. Equity can improve the organization’s performance and culture by providing employees with support and resources to perform to their best ability.

Leaders must take a hard look at the concept of equity and determine what it means in action, from day-to-day exchanges to overarching policies and procedures. Give your employees a voice via employee resource groups, involve minority employees in the recruiting and onboarding processes, and provide opportunities for minority employees to engage and foster relationships with senior leaders. Listen and take action to create decision-making opportunities for minorities in your organization.

Any initiative to mitigate systemic racism and broaden inclusivity will come with a learning curve. For a program to be successful, individuals at all levels of the company have to be willing to keep learning and asking questions, even when it becomes uncomfortable. Providing training and space to have internal DE&I conversations is the first step to changing company culture and building a stronger organization.

Moni Robinson is chief operating officer for the National Association of Black Compliance & Risk Management Professionals.

Rina Souppa is senior director of product management and design for SAI Global.