Closing The Gap

Corporate America's diversity and inclusion efforts are still failing black employees, new report says

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Roughly one in three black professionals aspire to hold an executive position at work, and nearly two in three consider themselves to be "very ambitious" when it comes to their career, according to a recently released report from the Center for Talent Innovation titled "Being Black in Corporate America."

Yet, despite this ambition and drive, black professionals today hold just 3.2% of executive and senior manager positions and less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEO spots.

"It's embarrassing because there are thousands of [black] people who are just as qualified or more qualified than I am who deserve the opportunity, but haven't been given the opportunity," Kenneth Chenault, former chairman and CEO of American Express, says in the report.

American Express chairman and CEO Kenneth Chenault
Getty Images

Chenault, who stepped down from his executive role in 2018, was appointed the CEO of American Express in 2001. With his departure, there are now just four African-Americans who hold CEO titles at Fortune 500 companies, and all of them are men.

The report, which is sponsored by several companies including Johnson & Johnson, Morgan Stanley and The Walt Disney Company, explores why there is such a scarcity of black professionals at the top. Currently, according to the report, 10% of college degree holders in the United States are black. The report says based off this rate of degree completion, there should be 50 black CEOs at the top of Fortune 500 companies.

What employers can do to bridge the leadership gap

To offer a solution to this gap, researchers say employers must first do an audit on the culture of their company "to get an accurate picture of their workforce's understanding of systemic racism, privilege and black identity."

According to the data, black professionals are four times as likely as white professionals to experience prejudice at work. In many cases, this behavior is displayed in the form of microaggressions that include comments or actions that dismiss or downplay a person's experience.

The report finds these microaggressions continue even as black professionals take on more responsibility, gain leadership positions and climb the ranks in their career. In fact, for some professionals, they increase as they become the only black executive at work. Researchers of the report note: "Many times, black professionals are perceived as less capable, leading colleagues to automatically assume those who have reached leadership ranks are more junior in the organization, or to comment, 'You're so articulate.'"

Tired businessman working late on laptop while sitting at illuminated desk in office
Luis Alvarez | DigitalVision | Getty Images

In addition to dealing with microaggressions, many black professionals say they also feel their ideas are less supported than those of their white colleagues, and they feel they have less access to growth opportunities. According to the data, fewer than one in three black full-time professionals say they have access to senior leaders, compared to close to half of white professionals.

As stated in the report: "No wonder, then, that black professionals are frustrated with advancement — they don't have the same opportunity as their white counterparts to forge relationships with key decision makers." As a result, black employees are 30% more likely than white employees to leave their company.

Broad diversity and inclusion initiatives aren't enough

Additionally, the report points out that while many companies have implemented diversity and inclusion strategies, most of these strategies tend to erase black experiences. "In HR and [Diversity & Inclusion strategies], black professionals are frequently conflated with all people of color or are depicted as a monolithic group," the researchers write. "These approaches flatten nuances across gender, ethnicity, generation, LGBTQ identity, region and beyond."

Pooja Jain-Link, who serves as a lead researcher on the report, says these reasons highlight the need for employers to audit their workplace in order to have a "detailed picture of [their] own company culture."

"Add a few questions to an employee engagement survey, host focus groups, conduct interviews, and bring those findings back to your leaders," she said at a New York City launch event for the study.

Afterward, Jain-Link says, employers need to "awaken" their broader employee base with this knowledge so they can get closer to enforcing real change. This includes, she says, having honest conversations at work to encourage all employees to think about and reflect on their own privilege and the ways in which they can commit to speaking up.

"Once individual team members commit to digging deep on their own role in systemic prejudice, bringing co-workers together across race for meaningful dialogues can further develop empathy and can help move the workforce towards active allyship," researchers of the report write.

After employers audit and awaken their workplace, Jain-Link says they then need to "act" by implementing solutions that will create a more welcoming work environment for black employees. Some of these solutions, according to the report, can include equal sponsorship opportunities for black professionals, culture-specific guides for managers on fostering an inclusive environment and a zero tolerance policy for microaggressions that holds individuals accountable for their actions in the same way "they'd be held accountable for overt discrimination."

"Starting with the findings from the culture audit," the report says, "and leveraging the awakening you have achieved in the organization, bring all employees together to build solutions and commitments specific to your environment in order to create a sense of belonging, trust with colleagues, and a culture of respect for black professionals."

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