What you probably didn’t know about racism in the workplace

Hosted by Sabine Vollmer

Many businesses have issued public statements saying they won’t stand for racism. Is that enough to ensure an organization does not discriminate?

No, says Stephanie Creary, an identity and diversity scholar and professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The culture of a workplace, be that in a company or an accounting firm, determines how employees and customers are treated, Creary said. To assess how racism is a factor requires open, frank conversations and leaders willing to listen and learn what they probably didn’t know.

What you’ll learn from this episode:

  • Starting conversations about racism with Black Lives Matter and police violence may not be the most effective thing to do.
  • An expert or coach can facilitate conversations about racism, help people work with their emotions, and create learning environments.
  • It’s necessary to customize diversity and inclusion training based on the roles and positions people hold in the organization.
  • Programs that succeed in recruiting and mentoring Black employees involve everybody in the organization.

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Sabine Vollmer, a
JofA senior editor, at Sabine.Vollmer@aicpa-cima.com.


Sabine Vollmer: Here’s a scenario that some of our members might encounter: I’m a partner in a small accounting firm in Boise, Idaho. Everybody in the office is white. Eighty-nine percent of the city’s population is white [83% non-Hispanic white and 6% Hispanic white]. Why should I start talking about racism in the workplace?

Stephanie Creary: I find this to be such a fascinating question. I think partially because when I hear you ask this question my first reaction is: Why is 100% of the people who work in the office white and why is 89% of the city’s population white? So that’s what I question first. Never mind the, “Why should we start talking about racism in the workplace?” I’m wondering why that became the norm, particularly for that organization and in that town.

I say that because I actually think that’s the conversation that a firm like the one that you suggested in Boise, Idaho, could be having about race first. I think part of this — in the day where we are now — is around challenging some of the norms and the assumptions around who is here, and who gets to be here, and why this is the way that it is.

I will also say, let’s talk about that 11%. So, the 11% that is non-white in the town. The reality is that if it’s 100% in the office and 11% in the town, that’s telling you that 11% of the population is not reflected in your employee population. So that’s the second question I would ask.

So, I wouldn’t say that maybe the most effective place for you to start a conversation would be about Black individuals and police violence. But I think you can start having a conversation around the demographic composition of your organization and your town and what might be some of the reasons for that and potentially also the barriers for other groups being included in your environment.

Vollmer: Obviously, this is a hypothetical scenario. When I was writing it, I was wondering whether people in that scenario actually asked themselves that question, “Why should I start talking about racism in the workplace?” Is that realistic?

Creary: Yes, this is a very realistic question. I think people when they hear race and racism, they look in their immediate surroundings and it’s with the acknowledgment sometimes that maybe I don’t see the issue in front of me because there isn’t a Black or Brown person raising the issue. I think if you’re only around white faces, it becomes easy to think of race and racism through that lens.

What we really know about race and racism, it’s about structural barriers and inequality. That might explain why the individuals who are here are at the table. I would just relegate it to the long-standing issue around gender inequality that we have when we talk around who advances to senior leadership, for example.

Historically, most of the people who have been in senior management in any firm are white and they are male, and they’re not sitting around asking themselves, “Why are there no women here?” until the first woman gets on the team and says, “Why are there no women here?”

So, in order to be forward-thinking — whether we’re talking about gender or we’re talking about race — it really is an appropriate dialogue for any organization that is homogeneous to be having, particularly in this day and age.

Vollmer: So, basically, what you’re saying is that if I have a particular privilege or a particular entitlement, as long as that privilege or entitlement is not challenged, I don’t even know it exists?

Creary: Exactly. I think it’s easy to not question why all of the people around you are here, because you’re probably feeling, as we all do, that it has something to do with your own capacity, your own effort. But we all know and research suggests, including my own research, that as much as we like to believe in systems of meritocracy, that no matter how hard we all work, we all have the capacity to reach the same level in any aspect of life, that is absolutely not true and there’s a lot of research that suggests that the ways in which people get access to any opportunity is via referral, right?

So, the organization may be 100% white because 100% white people referred 100% white people to the organization. The town may be 89% white because the people who have lived there historically have been white and the people who recommend that you live there are white.

So, these are the things we need to start to think about when we’re trying to understand demographic representation.

Vollmer: A lot of companies have issued statements, as almost an outpouring all of a sudden. Particularly by companies who are very aware that a large percentage of their customer base might be non-white. Let’s say my company has issued a carefully worded statement to tell employees and customers, “We won’t stand for racism.” I think it would be a good idea to encourage employees to start talking about racism, but what’s the best way to do this? What resources should we use?

Creary: Yeah, this is a fantastic question. I think it is fantastic that so many companies have made a commitment in writing to opening the door to have a conversation around a topic that in the United States we have decided was taboo. So, these public declarations become very important for the individuals internally who have been trying for a long time before these statements were put out to get more traction on topics around diversity and race. And certainly externally, because customers who want to know that the organizations and the corporations they support value them as customers.

That said, the reality is these are not easy conversations, right? For so many reasons, having a conversation about race can be a negative experience for people if it’s not done in a structured, facilitated way.

I would say, when I have seen these in action, inviting several people who are representative of the employee population — I don’t just mean Black and Brown people, I also mean white people as well, and senior people, and junior people — to talk about their experiences. Ask them about what's the dominant emotion they’ve been feeling right now. Ask them around how that has manifested in their ability or inability to get work done.

The sharing of personal experiences, again with the guided facilitation of an expert who can help to shepherd that along, is certainly the best way to start.

Vollmer: Would it be correct to say what you’re aiming at in these conversations is to bridge differences? To build coalitions? To help people understand each other in a structured setting?

Creary: Yeah, I would say that is always for me the primary goal. But what I’m understanding is that in organizations today, especially corporations, this has been a “We do not talk about this” topic. So, I think what we’re trying to do in the immediate term is give people voice and give them permission to talk about their issue. And to feel a certain amount of relief for those who have felt silenced. I think for those who are scared to talk about this because they’re afraid of being called “racist,” to give them the opportunity just to hear a little bit more.

I think when it’s facilitated, learning can happen because it’s not just about judgments, evaluation, and accusing people of being bad people. I think it can create learning. Then, we can get those outcomes that you were talking about: better quality relationships, people’s ability to connect.

Vollmer: How much education do you have to do — education that is not necessarily related to on-the-job skills training, but just background information on history, on culture, that might not have been provided to people, particularly white people in the U.S., in schools, in college? There’s a big lack of information.

Creary: When you think about who are the Black people that we’ve heard about in history? I’m just talking about Black people for now. We’re not even talking about people who are Hispanic or Latino, who comprise a large portion of our United States population. We know that there was somebody called Harriet Tubman and we know that there was something about the Underground Railroad. Some people actually think it was a railroad, right? We know there was somebody called Martin Luther King. Do we know Malcolm X? There are these figures who have contributed so much to our society. We even have holidays named after them, and we don’t have all that information.

Never mind people like Ida B. Wells who was instrumental in helping to secure the right to vote for people of color and women and Black women in the United States. There is a whole history that is absent.

My recommendation is that — I always call it the “new” but it’s not that new — the National Museum of African American History and Culture in [Washington], D.C., has curated all of this history that so many of us don’t know. In the interim, I do want to say they have a great resource online where people can learn more about race. Just like many other cultural institutions that have had to close their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve opened their resources for people to learn more. It’s the Museum of African American History’s resources on race.

That said, we can spend a lot of time just teaching people our history, which includes the experiences and the contributions of Black people, and still not resolve the issues around structural inequity that exist in corporations today.

At the same time we’re trying to educate and get people up to speed — and certainly, like I said, cultural institutions like the Museum of African American History are much farther ahead than corporations in this space — we need to be thinking about the structures that we’ve created in our organizations that have created dynamics such that people who are Black and Brown haven’t been able to be as successful as their white peers.

Vollmer: What kind of training and education do white employees and executives in my firm need to better understand the impact of racism and unconscious biases on their Black colleagues?

Creary: Where I think we run the risk, sometimes, with training is we think about these as the one-size-fits-all training that we’re going to ship out to everybody regardless of their position in the organization. I would beg to differ and suggest there’s one thing that senior managers who are creating strategy and creating the structures and who are mobilizing resources need to know, and there’s something different that people who are midlevel management need to know, and there is something different that people who are individual contributors need to know.

So, I’m just going to take, for example, middle managers, because as I talk to leaders in my own research — diversity leaders who have been doing this work for a long time — I myself have been doing research on the topic of diversity and inclusion practices for the last 14 years. The one concern that has not gone away is that people who are in midlevel management positions don’t exactly understand their role in a conversation around diversity and inclusion initiatives.

So as we’re talking about what the training should be, I think the training should fit the middle manager role. What do middle managers do? They hire people, they evaluate people, they create teams, and they push forward products and services. So, any training around what they should do should be built upon what their jobs are. How do I hire? How do I reduce bias in the hiring process? How do I reduce bias in the evaluation process? How do I evaluate people more fairly? How do I make sure that people on my team — no matter their background — have equal opportunity to contribute?

These are the customized trainings that need to be done based on the roles and the positions that people occupy in organizations.

Vollmer: Can you give me an example of a proper training session or topic for a middle manager versus somebody in leadership versus somebody in entry level?

Creary: Yeah. So let’s talk about — the thing we’ve done a lot of research on in academics that certainly has been done by a lot of consulting firms and private organizations is about the hiring process, because so much work has been done around how do you make sure that you get people in the door. Even though that’s not where the only problem is, it seems to be — I would say — a safe place for many organizations to start.

So, what does that conversation look like from the perspective of a middle manager who’s often the hiring manager? There’s some great research — Iris Bohnet, who is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, has a great Harvard Business Review article that talks about structured interview process. Let’s say we’ve already gotten people passed the résumé screening and we decided that we have a certain number of employees who, hopefully, are representative demographically, a diverse set of candidates for a position. How do we make sure that once we bring them in, they are all given a fair assessment of their capacities and their ability to contribute to our company?

Well, she said, start by making sure that you’re asking people all the same questions. Such a simple solution, right? But the reality is that’s not what happens, right? We connect with people, we figure out we went to the same school, we lived on the same block, we speak the same language, we both went to Italy. Then what happens is our assessment of that person’s capabilities is no longer based on what our needs are as a firm or what my needs are on my team. It’s based on how much I like them. That is a harder bridge to cross — the liking bridge — when two people are demographically different. All the research says that’s the case.

So, that’s what I would say for middle managers. Beginning to think more clearly around how they choose people for their teams and making sure that they’re using the same criteria and the same standards for everybody they’re looking at.

As far as senior managers are concerned, and senior leadership, not only do they have to say this is important — that we have a fair and less-biased process — they also have to hold everyone accountable to doing this work. It’s one thing for me to say “Middle managers, read this HBR. You should engage in better work.” It’s another thing for the senior managers to say, “And as part of your performance evaluation, middle managers, we’re going to see how well you are doing on this front.” So that accountability becomes so important.

I think as far as front-line employees are concerned, I had mentioned the word “referral” earlier when I was talking about our person from Boise. So much of what companies do — because they’re trying to get “the best talent” is they incentivize in some way, shape, or form, their employees to refer their friends to the company. So, while this sounds like a good idea, what research suggests is that this referral process often yields more white and more male candidates for positions. I would encourage contributors in organizations who are incentivized to broaden the net, to think more deliberately about the women they know, about the Black and Brown people they know, and refer them because the research is saying that’s not what we’re doing. The research is saying that we’re referring white and male candidates to the organization.

Vollmer: The next question I had is another hypothetical scenario: We want to do the right thing as a company but we’re worried that we will embarrass ourselves. What should we be aware of to avoid mistakes and what are things we definitely shouldn’t do?

Creary: So, when I hear you say the word “embarrass,” what I hear is fear. Fear is really the operative emotion that we’re working with right now. It’s the reason why many companies have not gone down this path before. So, I want to acknowledge that this is scary for everyone. None of us really know how this will pan out. The good news is, there are a lot of people and organizations out there that are unafraid. That have been doing work in this space around racial equity and racism for a very long time and they are good. So, I think of the National Urban League as an organization that for decades has been partnering with all sorts of organizations, including corporate organizations, to help them be more just, to be more equitable.

I would say the fear is that we don’t have the resources to do it ourselves. And I would argue that you don't have to, nor do you want to do this yourself. Lean on people who have expertise. I mentioned the National Urban League. You can also look at the NAACP. You can also look at academics like myself who are comfortable and confident and know how to be good coaches to you as you do this work.

That, I have found, helps leaders to feel less afraid when they don’t feel like they have to go it alone.

Vollmer: Let’s say all this work is being done. You’re raising the awareness of racism and unconscious bias amongst the white leadership and the white employees. How do you tie that, then, into recruitment and mentoring programs for non-white or Black employees?

Creary: It’s not always just the white employees who are concerned about recruiting, developing, and mentoring Black employees. It actually is other Black leaders as well because what has happened for them is that they’ve been accused of favoritism whenever they’ve been working with another Black individual, when they’ve nominated.

That’s quite silly knowing that if I just told you that oftentimes who’s recruited into the organization, who’s referred, is a white male and we’re not talking about favoritism in that respect, why are we talking about favoritism when it’s a Black person referring another Black person? So, I wanted to acknowledge that first, because my advice as a whole is around negating and just sort of counteracting that this is not fair to others if we nominate someone who has brown skin. Because that’s when this conversation comes up around favoritism, is when the other person, the person who’s being nominated, is Brown.

I say that because sometimes people perceive a lack of fairness when there are programs specifically designed for Black employees. People will say “That’s reverse discrimination,” so on and so forth. But the reality is, the reason why these programs are important is because the existing programs we have are not addressing their needs. If the existing programs that we had addressed the needs that they had, we wouldn’t need specific programs. But until we can create a fair and equitable system that addresses the specific needs that Black and Brown people have in organizations, we have to create these specialized programs.

I will say to that end, what tends to be most effective is when these programs are created that — usually they convene Black and Brown people to give them information that they might not already gain from the normal processes in the organization — it's very important that white employees are present as panelists, as sponsors, as allies. So, where the content may be about the Black and Brown experience in the workplace, the attendees are not just Black and Brown; they’re also white as well. I think that helps to provide a carry-over of these lessons that are being often cultivated in these very small spaces to people who are managers who have the capacity to change these experiences and the climate on their own teams.

Vollmer: Are there any particular diversity and inclusion programs or initiatives, which do exist at many companies and many organizations, that are particularly good at creating a more fair playing field?

Creary: The way that you end structural racism is you actually change the culture.

So, whereas it’s important to help people learn how to navigate — and I’m all for these programs; I think they're important — it’s a dual process. It’s also around rethinking the way that work is done here If there is one thing that you learn by going — so you’re a Black employee and go to one of these events, one of these trainings, or one of these development opportunities — you learn that in this culture, there is a certain way in which you have to carry yourself. You have to speak with a certain tone, you have to dress a certain way, you have to wear your hair in a certain style. That’s the picture of success. OK.

The reality is, that is not the picture of success. That is actually what that company and that culture has decided who you need to be. Certainly, we have laws now that are suggesting that hairstyles — you cannot discriminate against people based on their hairstyles. So, whereas in the short-term Black and Brown people should know that this is what the cultural value is, in the longer term the company needs to rethink whether that’s really important, because last I checked, the way that you wear your hair or the color of your suit has nothing to do with your ability to sell products or attract clients.

Vollmer: So, what you’re saying is, basically, you need to tackle the culture before you can successfully tackle the programs?

Creary: Exactly. But we can’t wait to change the culture and the structure before we help people. You see what I’m saying? So, it's sort of, in the meantime, we need to think of these — these are temporary solutions that are much needed in the here and now, but they can't be the only answer. It can’t be the only answer to fix the person, because it’s really not about the Black or Brown person and their capacities. It’s about the expectations and the rules that need to be questioned because they’re not fair and they create disadvantage for people who come from a different circumstance.

Vollmer: Thank you, Stephanie.