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08/12/2021

Advancing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Through Corporate Social Justice

DiversityBy Damon Carter

The ongoing protests against unjust policing of Blacks and Hispanics in various communities, along with the numerous acts of violence impacting the LGBTQ and Asian-Pacific Islander communities, continue to bring increased awareness to the cumulative impacts of systemic racism in our society. Consequently, both large and small companies across the United States must play an active role in driving transformational shifts in their respective workplace cultures, which will collectively help dismantle systemic racism in our society. Therefore, business leaders must learn to fully embrace diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) in a holistic and sustainable way through the implementation of corporate social justice initiatives.  

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Corporate Social Justice is a framework regulated by the trust between a company and its employees, customers, shareholders, and the broader community it touches, with the goal of explicitly doing good by all of them.” 

Effectively applying this strategic approach over time can be a key differentiator for business leaders as it relates to successfully advancing DE&I strategy in an impactful way for their respective organizations. Therefore, all leaders committed to driving meaningful changes must execute some key strategic actions.

Step 1: Lead With Purpose and Conviction

Leaders must consider initially taking the following steps as they start their own unique journey to successfully cultivating a fair, equitable and just workplace culture for people of color, including:

  • Acknowledge the problem exists: It’s impossible to effectively address a problem without first acknowledging the problem exists. Given today’s prevailing social justice issues, silence from companies could be easily interpreted by employees as indifference or acceptance of the status quo. Instead, business leaders must first acknowledge systemic racism exists in society and clearly communicate their desire to be a part of the solution moving forward. 
  • Reflect and discuss: Business leaders should create a safe space for their respective leadership teams to collectively reflect and confidentially discuss to what extent implicit biases have negatively affected the company’s workplace culture.
  • Make a genuine commitment to being better: Business leaders must make a firm commitment to mitigating the negative impacts of all forms of social injustice in the workplace for people of color and cultivate a workplace culture that consistently promotes equality for all.

Furthermore, business leaders must actively lead with conviction by reimagining a workplace culture that consistently demonstrates equality, equity and justice for all employees, at all times.

Step 2: Build Genuine Connections

Business leaders must work to thoroughly understand the specific elements of the existing workplace culture that have contributed to the present state of inequality for all marginalized groups of employees. This includes obtaining a clear understanding of key diversity metrics to begin identifying areas of strength across the organization as well as opportunities for improvement. Furthermore, obtaining a deep understanding of the current state of the work environment requires leaders to thoughtfully engage, listen and learn from all employees adversely impacted by disparate treatment in the workplace. Leaders should take the following actions to do so:

  • Develop an informed perspective: Before engaging employees to discuss how to establish a fair and equitable workplace culture, business leaders should conduct their own preliminary research to better understand the unique experiences of people of color. Proactively educating themselves about key aspects of people of color in the workplace will go a long way toward building personal credibility with all marginalized groups and will have a profound impact on business leaders' ability to make genuine connections. Several examples include concepts such as unconscious bias, white privilege, microaggressions and code switching.
  • Listen to understand: Business leaders must be open to having challenging conversations with people of color regarding their experiences at work. Most importantly, leaders must reassure people of color that their perspectives matter to the organization and that their feedback will directly influence the fostering of a fair and equitable work environment. Additionally, leaders should remember to express gratitude to all participants for their vulnerability and commit to following up regarding next steps in the process.
  • Create a “speak-up culture”: Business leaders must employ various inclusive leadership practices to cultivate a workplace environment where all employees feel valued and respected on a daily basis. According to research conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, key characteristics of a “speak-up culture” include the following:
    • Ensure that everyone gets heard.
    • Make it safe to propose novel ideas.
    • Give actionable feedback.
    • Take advice and implement feedback.
    • Empower decision making among team members.
    • Share credit for team success.

Furthermore, leaders must be committed to establishing genuine connections over time, rooted in mutual respect and trust, with any employees who have historically been made to feel ignored and disconnected. According to Michael Slepian, associate professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School, “Learning about individuals’ unique strengths and unique experiences, and showing recognition for these, is what leads employees to feel valued and respected. … This is what enables going beyond surface-level inclusion in favor of real, individual-based inclusion.”

Step 3: Take Deliberate Strategic Actions

Next, business leaders must thoughtfully apply targeted strategic actions that will begin to actively address prevailing inequalities for people of color in the workplace. Ideally, leaders should utilize familiar management practices, with proven tools and resources, to effectively develop and implement an effective DE&I strategy. Additionally, leaders must create a comprehensive action plan to improve the organization’s current state by identifying specific diverse talent strategies that target each stage of the employee life cycle. Several examples include:

  • Recruitment: Build strategic partnerships with a variety of diverse professional organizations to regularly source and hire people of color with desired skill sets.
  • Development: Create targeted professional development strategies for people of color and encourage networking opportunities, both internally and externally.
  • Advancement: Ensure people of color are included in annual succession planning efforts.
  • Retention: Institute exit interviews, stay interviews and/or focus group sessions.

Step 4: Activate New Community Engagements

Lastly, companies must partner with other companies and not-for-profit organizations to help address relevant social justice initiatives in their local community. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at the Tuck School of Business, proposes that organizations should first consider the following questions:

  1. Does the issue align with your company’s strategy?
  2. Can you meaningfully influence the issue?
  3. Will your constituencies agree with speaking out?

It is important for the leadership team to communicate the overall purpose of the social justice initiatives to all employees and clearly explain how they align with the company’s core values. They should also invite employees to get actively involved in supporting the new community engagement and directly work with the board of directors to strategically support it, as well. Furthermore, establishing strategic partnerships with other companies and community organizations helps create new learning opportunities for employees and increases exposure to diverse perspectives.

CATIC’s Commitment to Corporate Social Justice

In June 2020, Connecticut Attorneys Title Insurance Company (CATIC) publicly demonstrated support for those working to change society for the better and condemned all forms of social injustice due to systemic racism. Additionally, CATIC committed to doing its part to help build better communities through fair and equitable treatment for all. Subsequently, the senior leadership team began developing a dynamic corporate social justice initiative to start actively addressing various housing disparities historically experienced by people of color. The senior leadership team committed to taking the following initial strategic actions:

  • Aligned the goals and objectives of the new corporate social justice reform strategy with the company’s strategic business plan to keep it a top priority.
  • Openly communicated to all employees the company’s commitment to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in a meaningful way in the future.
  • Launched an employee-led project team to focus on improving the historically low percentage of minority home ownership across the country, which includes establishing new strategic partnerships with various community organizations and key stakeholders in the homebuying ecosystem.
  • Obtained full commitment from the board of directors to activate a new committee dedicated to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for both the board and the company.
  • Expanded the scope of the CATIC Foundation, the company’s philanthropic organization, to strategically support social justice initiatives through socially responsible investments and charitable donations to not-for-profit organizations committed to improving fair housing standards.
  • Committed to creating new learning opportunities regarding diversity, equity and inclusion for employees and agents through the CATIC Academy, the company’s new learning and development platform.

Starting Your Journey

Every company needs to determine how to best proceed with cultivating a fair and equitable workplace culture in their own way. It starts by taking one deliberate step at a time. Leaders must also acknowledge that taking such actions will be daunting, intimidating and controversial, at times, for various reasons. Therefore, it is imperative for leaders to embrace the idea of “being comfortable with being uncomfortable” because that is where real breakthroughs occur along this transformational journey. Successfully doing so will require a bold commitment by leaders to always being their authentic selves at work and in their local communities. As Langston Hughes once said, “I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”

Damon Carter, who has over 20 years of diverse HR experience across multiple industries, is senior vice president and chief human resources officer for CATIC. He serves on the board of directors and is also president of the CATIC Foundation. Carter can be reached at dcarter@catic.com or via LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/damonacarter.

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