Recognizing and rooting out racism: Advice for leaders

Hosted by Neil Amato

Laura Morgan Roberts, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, is an editor of the recent book Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience. She has studied race in the workplace extensively.

With attention on racial disparities sparked by killings and then protests, the time is right for organizations to hear her message. Morgan Roberts shares insight on why some organizations and leaders resort to silence instead of speaking about racism, why it’s easier to talk about diversity and inclusion than about race, the qualities of an effective public statement, and what follow-through after the statement looks like.

What you’ll learn from this episode and where to find it:

  • 1:19: Why “focused attention” on race following the civil rights movement of the 20th century shifted in the workplace.
  • 3:01: Why events such as the killing of George Floyd are prompting people to reflect that they were “overly optimistic” about racial progress.
  • 6:55: The timing of a recent Harvard Business Review article and the “wave of public statements” in the wake of nationwide protests.
  • 8:21: Background on the essays that make up Morgan Roberts’s recent book.
  • 12:03: Why discussion about race is seen as a “downer” in the corporate world, while discussion about diversity and inclusion is “happy talk.”
  • 13:07: “Four things that people want to feel about themselves in the context of work.”
  • 15:35: What a public statement should include and why it must be specific.
  • 17:43: What stakeholders are seeking from an organization after its public statement.
  • 18:45: Advice for managers wondering, “What can I do?” to address racism on their teams.
  • 21:10: What it looks and feels like to be an ally for someone confronting racism.
  • 23:35: Why companies and people in power sometimes resort to “This is too hard; I’ll just stay silent” instead of speaking openly about racism.
  • 30:28: Why having a chief diversity officer is a good idea for companies of a certain size and why designating well-intentioned volunteers isn’t the way to go.
  • 32:05: Why some organizations have eliminated chief diversity officer positions.
  • 32:27: Why race should not be framed “as a problem to be solved.”

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this podcast or to suggest an idea for another podcast, contact Neil Amato, a
JofA senior editor, at


Neil Amato: Thank you for your time on this important topic and welcome to the podcast.

Laura Morgan Roberts: Thank you for having me.

Amato: How does this moment in time feel different to you and what opportunities are you seeing?

Morgan Roberts: That’s a great question. I study race in the workplace through a historical and contemporary perspective. And so I’ve spent the past four or five years really examining how we think about and deal with race in the workplace now, compared to what we have done over the past 50 years during the civil rights movement of the late 1950s through the early 1970s. There’s been a trajectory of focused attention, concern, active change in that aftermath of the 20th century civil rights movement, to then sort of a shift of less focus explicitly on race, more focus on other dimensions of diversity and inclusion and how they affect workplace experiences.

You know, even an increased level of discomfort over time with just talking about race and the fact that race is still relevant in organizations.

So here we are now in 2020, and it’s like all eyes on the race conversation, and it’s not just about something that happened in the past as racism manifested long ago, but it’s about acknowledging and recognizing what’s happening in our present. And then within our organizational environment, our work environments, we are being called to question how racism is experienced out in the streets per se or in the parks, in the neighborhoods, but also how race is experienced in organizations. And through that process, what I’m seeing and hearing are people acknowledging how much they didn’t know, how much they hadn’t noticed. Perhaps they were overly optimistic or idealistic and just truly wanting to believe that as a society we had moved beyond some of the most painful experiences of oppression that citizens and visitors have faced, you know, on U.S. soil and all over the world. Because that pain often tracks to race and racism and injustices and discrimination that goes with that.

So there’s a widespread acknowledgment now that these types of actions and behaviors are painful, but also that in for many people in their innocent or idealistic desire to not have to deal with race, the problems haven’t disappeared. You know, they’re still here and so now leaders are, oh well, everyone, not just leaders, but members throughout organizations at all levels are trying to figure out, “What can we do to address these issues and these challenges to create more inclusive organizations, more fair organizations, more just organizations, and more just societies as well?”

Amato: And so you recently co-wrote an article for Harvard Business Review, the headline “U.S. Businesses Must Take a Meaningful Stand Against Racism.” What was your target audience and some of the main messages you wanted to convey to businesses?

Morgan Roberts: Well, I think our message was layered. There was one thread in the article that was a call to consciousness and again saying racism isn’t just something that happened way back then or way out there, but it’s something that is still continuing to happen and it’s about the everyday experiences, the hurt, the pain, the injustices, and the micro-aggressions that many people would have never noticed at all are still taking place. Or, when they were brought to people’s attention, people often dismissed them. You know, “Oh, you’re just being so sensitive. I don’t think that’s what they meant. They’re not a bad person.”

You know, and so there was something, something shocking in the public conscience about witnessing the brutality of a murder of a black man at the hands of a person whose role and responsibility is to keep the community safe. You know, that was just gripping.

And so one message in the layered meanings of taking a meaningful stand is just to say, “Look, it’s time to draw the line. You know we can’t keep doing this banter back and forth about whether or not racism really happens or if it’s really impactful or people did something to bring it upon themselves or if people are just being overly sensitive.” We’ve got to draw the line to acknowledge and recognize that there are certain forms of harm and violence that are permeating our communities and our organizations. And if they go unchecked, then they’ll continue to perpetuate themselves and so then in our silence we may become complicit or we may become a part of the problem.

So when we said, “taking the meaningful action,” we were also hooking into what we noticed in the three- or four-day period once the racial protests began around George Floyd’s death and the death of so many others. Business leaders felt they had to say something. University leaders felt they had to say something. Social justice leaders felt they had to say something. So we see these waves of public statements coming out, right, that are filled with acknowledgements and values-based statements, and many of those there were also some embedded promises, implicit or explicit that it was time to lead change, to lead toward a more positive future.

So our article was directed toward the individuals who say, “I want to do something to help. What can I do?” And we found that there are millions and millions of people who are in that space. They actually want to do something to help, but they don’t know where to start.

Amato: Now you are an [editor] of a new book, Race, Work, and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience. The Amazon summary says, “Compilation of essays.” What overall story do those essays tell?

Morgan Roberts: So putting this book together was a bit of an experiment in and of itself, OK? Because we had the opportunity to publish research on race, work, and leadership, and my co-editors and I then paused to say, “Why how do we want to craft this book?” Do we want to write a book with our own data, through our own voices? We certainly have enough to say we could fill up a book, you know? But what would be the most interesting learning opportunity for all of us? And we said, “Let’s invite our colleagues from all over to submit some of their research.”

What I should share with you is that it’s very difficult to get research on black samples and the black experience published in some mainstream outlets. That includes the academic journals. That includes the popular journals and practitioner-oriented journals, and it also includes books. So you have a lot of scholars who have been conducting this research and have a wealth of knowledge, but they didn’t have the outlet or the platform to share the work that they have been conducting for years.

So we invited them into community. We had a series of academic symposiums to develop and refine all of the research. Then they submitted their chapters.

Well, lo and behold, we found in our independent ventures we were telling a lot of the same stories, but we just hadn’t put them all together so that they were shared in a reinforcing way. Because it’s easy to dismiss, “Oh, so African Americans in financial services struggle with feeling like they can advance in the workplace. They feel underrepresented.” “Oh, leaders in higher education feel that their authority is contested or that people push back when they’re trying to assert themselves as leaders.” But then when we saw, “Oh, wait, but that’s happening in health care as well, but it’s happening in the legal sphere.”

So because we looked across sectors and we looked across disciplines, we looked across career stages, we found that race is still very prominent. It still shapes the kinds of experiences and opportunities that people have. Most of the black professionals who are featured in our research are seeking ways to contribute maximally from a position of strength to their organizations. They feel that their organizations are short-changing them and short-changing themselves because they, the black employees, and themselves, the organizations, because they’re missing these opportunities to help their talented black employees to grow, develop, and contribute at work.

Amato: Below the book summary on the Amazon site, in the part labeled, “Customers who viewed this also viewed this…” You know the thing to get you to buy more, but the first book there was White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Do you think that hesitance applies to the corporate world?

Morgan Roberts: Yes, the silence absolutely applies to the corporate world. One research dataset showed that while people were comfortable talking about diversity and inclusion, they were not comfortable talking about race. So there is a difference. [Stefanie L.] Johnson and [David R.] Hekman often, actually started referring to the diversity and inclusion discussion as “happy talk,” because it made people feel excited and enthusiastic about the possibilities for more collaboration, more innovation, accessing more resources.

Whereas the race conversation is often experience as somewhat of a downer, because it involves confronting a long-standing history of disparity and discrimination. So that’s one aspect of the silence. Another aspect of the silence is related to the White Fragility work, it’s the fear that if one starts to evaluate here’s our own practices and behavior and finds any evidence or trace of racism, they will undermine their sense of being a good person.

So one of my areas of research is on cultivating and sustaining positive identities at work. And in that we find there are four things that people want to feel about themselves in the context work that helps them to be more effective, more resourceful, and more grounded in the work that they do. They want to feel that their growing, so they’re evolving or adapting in some way, or they are at least helping and contributing to someone else’s growth.

They want to feel that they are integrating, they’re authentic, they’ve got a measure of integrity where they’re bringing about these different dimensions and facets of themselves, but in a way that helps them to be more unique and authentic and innovative and distinctive at work. They want to feel virtuous. Virtuous with a capital V, and this is where we get the pushback when we start talking about How to Be an Antiracist in Ibram Kendi’s words. He’s got another bestselling book along with White Fragility. Dolly Chugh, who is a professor at NYU, also has a bestselling book, The Person You Mean to Be. And they are talking about how conversations about race can undermine our ability to see ourselves as good people, as virtuous people and that’s very threatening and very disruptive so people will try to avoid that altogether.

And then the fourth is E, we want to elevate our sense of self-worth. So we want to feel that we’re positively and favorably regarded in the eyes of others and that we have that level of love and affirmation and validation for ourselves. So you can see how that might be interconnected, right? If you don’t feel like you’re growing, if you don’t feel like you have a sense of integrity or integration, if you don’t feel that you’re virtuous, or if people are questioning that, then all of that undermines your feeling of self-worth or self-esteem. So we stay silent in organizations.

You’ll see many of the companies’ statement that have been released over the past week where the leaders have to begin with a corporate apology for their silence, for their longstanding silence, or their longstanding inaction.

Amato: Regarding those corporate statements, what makes a good statement and does a statement lose value if it’s distributed and then the organization doesn’t really follow up with any actions?

Morgan Roberts: Yeah, well, you know the statement is a public promise. So you’re upping the ante here, you’re making a commitment that you are going to devote your valued resources to addressing this big issue. It means that diversity and inclusion will no longer be a nice-to-have for you and neither will racial justice and equity, but you’re saying that they are now essential practices for our business to operate in the ways that we feel they need to operate based on the values that we are you know putting forth, OK? So if we’re not doing that, we’re out of alignment with our core values. Whoa, now the leader is going to be held and the organization is going to be held to that standard in the eye of all of their stakeholders.

So when people come in and do an audit of the organization, they’re not just auditing their financial practices, they’re auditing their alignment with these espoused values and their commitments. So if you say, “Black Lives Matter,” and you stand with all your black employees, and that’s some of the language that people are using, that’s a compelling statement. It’s genuine, it’s sincere, and it’s not vague in talking about, “We want to be a place where everyone feels welcome and everyone belongs,” but you’re very focused and targeted in saying there is an issue, there is an issue that we understand disproportionately impacts and, in fact, targets black people, and we’re going to name it as such and work to address that specific issue.

So you’re upping the ante, right? You’re making this public promise. It has resonance because it is targeted, it is specific. When the leader acknowledges that they have fallen short in some ways in the past or they haven’t paid enough attention to this or maybe even acknowledge that they’ve been a part of the problem, then that makes the statement more authentic. But on the flip side, what people are looking for down the road is some evidence that this commitment is going to be followed up with the true investment of the time, the resources, and the expertise to make it happen.

This is not the time to offer a statement, a public statement, but then just put the responsibility for initiating the change on some volunteers within your organization who are already struggling with and have been struggling with the weight and the trauma of racism for many, many years. You know, it’s time to approach this strategically and wholeheartedly in the same way that one would approach any other organizational change initiative.

Amato: A lot of the stuff that we’ve focused on in this conversation has been on, you know, company leaders, companies as a whole. Is there anything specific, that “Hey, I’m a manager of a team of six or 10 or 20, what can I do?”, that kind of advice?

Morgan Roberts: Listen and learn. You know, this is the moment for you to pause and try to understand more about the experiences of people who may be very different from you, who may have a history that is quite different than yours, who may have viewpoints that are quite different than yours. And when you hear them speak or you read about those experiences, you may feel a bit concerned or convicted or begin to wonder and question if some of the behaviors that are being portrayed in this news article or this story or your co-worker’s explanation, you know, they might reflect on you. “Are these things that I have done in the past? Oh, my goodness, what does that say about me?”

So the temptation in that moment is to jump into a defensive mode. And the hard work is to pause, continue listening, and try to take it in. You know, understanding that the stories people are telling are stories to help you understand the structure of race and how it operates systematically through a pattern of interactions and experiences.

It’s not about going around trying to pick out the bad apples from the tree and dispose of them. It’s trying to examine the quality of the soil that is affecting all of the fruit in the tree. And you’ve got people talking across each other then. You know, when one group of people are talking about racism and how it shows up in the organization, they’re trying to let you know ways in which the soil may be toxic. But your energy and intention as a team leader may be looking to your right, looking to your left, worrying that maybe your job will be on the line or your reputation might be on the line. And so you’re trying to make sure they don’t think you’re a bad apple and then trying to figure out if who the other bad apples may be.

And so we miss the opportunity for learning. So if this is really the moment, a moment to listen and learn. Then people have questions these days around allyship, and what does that look like, what does that feel like? Allyship in this moment and time is someone who’s willing to take the heat. When I say “take the heat,” I mean anticipate that when you call out racism, the person on the other end or the people on the other end are often going to feel threatened and convicted. So they are going to come back with some kind of reaction, where, you know the saying, “Don’t shoot the messenger,” you know it might come back in that way or there may be retaliation down the road.

That’s what we’ve heard over the years up until this moment in time over the years that people of color who have tried to point out racism in their own organizations are met with silence in the moment, but then curiously down the road their performance evaluations are compromised. They are managed out of the company, or people start to question whether or not they’re truly leadership potential, so their careers plateau or they leave voluntarily.

You know, there is a point and counterpoint dynamic to addressing and confronting race and racism. When you want to stand as an ally and try to promote positive change, part of that work is in anticipating and trying to buffer against what the contrary response might be.

Amato: Condemnation publicly of what is said or left unsaid, it can be swift and significant in this social media age. So how should business leaders navigate that?

Morgan Roberts: First I was thinking the public statements of condemning racism. But then you’re speaking to the blowback, right?, that you’re as a leader is going to get the feedback.

Amato: Right, the blowback of what they’re saying or what they’re leaving out, yes.

Morgan Roberts: Yeah. That people are going to tell you, “You didn’t do it right,” and you’re saying, “But we tried. We’ve worked so hard on this statement and now you’re coming back and telling us we didn’t do it right.” Or, “We worked so hard on that fireside chat or to create the forum, and we’ve never done anything like that before” and now all of a sudden all of you can focus on here is what I didn’t say or what I did wrong.” And then people want to throw their hands up and walk away and say, “Oh forget it, it’s too hard. People are now attacking me and I’m a good person” — remember? — “and I’m just trying to do something good and positive, but you know this is too hard, so I guess I’ll just stay silent.”

And that’s what I’ve heard from many powerful white men is that the stance they have adopted over time is that silence is safer for them in these moments. Because when they speak, whether it’s a broad corporate statement or a one-on-one conversation, they’re likely to get feedback that something that they said or did was experienced as devaluing or diminishing the person that they thought they were trying to help, right?

It’s like not only was that not helpful, you kind of made it worse. And then people are like, “Oh, well, shoot, I will learn from that, and I’m just not going to talk at all.” So we stagnate.

So, yeah, with social media that kind of blowback gets amplified, and I think any leader should be prepared to engage in a series of conversations whenever they make a values-based statement. You know, to expect that if they put that out there, then they’re also holding themselves up to an audit, a cultural audit to determine whether their espoused values, whether it’s economic or justice or environmental justice or racial justice or LGBTQ justice and inclusion. You know, when you say, “Everyone matters,” and then you engage in exclusionary practices, there are a number of channels for people to be able to question you on those behaviors now. So you have to be prepared for that and to learn from those moments, too.

Say, “Oh, wow, I guess that … Well, next time I’ll try to do better.” You know, “Now I’ve learned that my intention doesn’t always align with my impact, but next time I’ll do better.”

Amato: So you’re an expert in organizational behavior. Moving forward on this issue, what are some of the levers that might cause a shift in overall corporate behavior in the areas of racial justice, diversity, and inclusion?

Morgan Roberts: Some of the levers are structural, some of the levers are cultural. By structure, I mean like the fundamental building blocks of the organization. I mean questions around representation. I mean performance management policies and practices. I mean, are we focusing on hiring a more racially diverse workforce? Are we putting in place the programs and the incentives that are required to help develop and advance racial diversity within our leadership? Are we committed to increasing racial diversity in our board, so that when board members hold us accountable for our quarterly returns, they’re also asking some of these questions around what we’re doing to follow up on or align with the values that we’ve put forth.

So all of those formal policies and procedures need to be in place, because absent those, people are just making it up as they go, based on what they think is right and what they think is ethical and what they think is necessary.

So if we’re just left to our own devices to focus on the areas that we think should be targets, our blind spots around race are going to undermine the effectiveness of whatever we, you know, are improvising or designing on the fly.

So the firm has to be systematic in their policies and their practices. What that looks like for each firm, it depends on the firm, it depends on the nature of the business, it depends on the target that the firm sets. So I wouldn’t go so far as to try to give a very detailed account of what every firm should have in place or organization for that matter, nonprofit, well, it just depends. But the principle has to be there that if you value it, you’re going to put the systems and structures in place to make it happen.

The second element of moving change is cultural. That goes back to the value systems. So in environments where there is a higher level of psychological safety, people are more comfortable learning from mistakes. They don’t feel that mistakes are career ending and career damaging. We’re learning now that our organizations have not been psychologically safe for people who don’t feel like they belong to the most powerful group in that organization or don’t fit the prototype of the leader in that organization, right?

So here’s the good news, though. When you change the culture in a way that increases psychological safety, it benefits everyone. It’s not just about trying to make a safer environment so that it will help to benefit and include those on the margins. This actually leads to more positive performance outcomes for everyone. Amy Edmondson’s program of research has demonstrated that quite convincingly.

The other aspect is agility and innovation. Those cultural features are essential. Organizations who want to transform themselves to be more just and to be more inclusive also have to embrace agility and innovation, because the pat answer or response that “We’ve always done it that way,” is going to keep us going through the same cycle 50 years from now that lots of senior citizens are having a déjà vu in this very moment and saying, “Gosh, you know, we were having these same conversations 50 years ago.”

So it can’t be business as usual. We have to push ourselves in that box of innovation and agility, to shift and adapt, and develop new routines that are more inclusive and more just.

Amato: Should companies of a certain size have a chief diversity officer?

Morgan Roberts: If diversity is a priority, then someone needs to lead the initiative. Otherwise, everything around diversity and inclusion is going to be driven by a band of good-intentioned volunteers who are doing this work above and beyond whatever they have on their plate for their day job. And if they’re a person of color, they already feel they have to prove themselves or work twice as hard to get the same credit and recognition.

We hear black leaders talk about how they’re often designated as a cultural ambassador within their organization, and this becomes an extra role and extra set of responsibilities, which is wonderful if it’s acknowledged and rewarded. But when it’s not acknowledged, when it’s not rewarded, and in some cases, there may even be a penalty, because that individual is then viewed as an agitator and people are uncomfortable with the role that that person is playing. They feel they have to pick diversity champion or my own career success and advancement.

The chief diversity officer then becomes a thought leader in this space, a chief strategist who’s working directly with the highest levels of leadership in the organization, but they also then help to alleviate some of that burden and responsibility for the people who are already on the margins to have to lead the charge on their own shoulders in their volunteer effort to promote more inclusion.

So, yes, I do. Incidentally, several firms over the past decade have eliminated the positions of chief diversity officer, I think declaring victory prematurely. And we’re seeing that now.

Amato: Laura, thank you for your time today. In closing, anything you’d like to add to sum this up?

Morgan Roberts: What I would love for people to take away from these conversations is a deeper understanding of the permanence of race-related challenges and issues that have beleaguered organizations for decades and decades and decades and centuries before organizations were formalized in the ways that they are now, but not to frame race as a problem to be solved. Race is an artifact of people’s lived experiences. People have a strong sense of racial identity in many cases, and they don’t want to be viewed as the problem any more than they want to be viewed as the token, you know, or the person who’s only being brought in the room because we individually or collectively are trying to atone for some things that we did wrong or we haven’t done in the past.

You know, each individual wants the opportunity to grow and develop into their full potential and to bring the various aspects of who they are, be it their childhood origins or their skillset or disciplinary background or their area of functional expertise. They just want to be able to bring that into the work that they do and have it affirmed and validated.

So I just want to make sure that as we’re moving forward in this work and promoting more justice-oriented initiatives that we keep sight of that aspect of the racial experience as well. You know that there is a great deal of possibility and a lot for us to gain in community together.

Amato: Thank you so much.

Morgan Roberts: Thank you.