The Advice I Give My White CEO Friends On How to Do Better

The day after Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, I received a frantic text, and then call, from a white male friend who is the CEO of a very successful incubator. A lifelong New Yorker who was on a path to “wokeness”, he was deeply worried about the election of Trump and what this would mean to causes he was slowly coming to understand like equity and inclusion. After five minutes of complaining, I asked him to stop.

My friend was born with the ultimate birthright- a rich, white, male in America. And like Prince Harry trying to leave the royal family, he benefits from this birthright, whether he wants it or not, every time he walks out the door held by his black doorman. I explained to him that he had access to people, sat at tables, lunched on yachts, that someone like me- a black woman leading a small social enterprise, would never have access to.

He has power and lots of it. I suggested (read: told) him to use it for good.

As the CEO of two successful startups and now a third, my DMs are on fire with messages from white CEO colleagues, who are trying to figure out how to make their companies “less racist”.

Look, as the CEO of a company during this time of great uncertainty, you now have the political and economic will to use your power to change the system. Sure, creating initiatives like a Chief Diversity Officer position (who reports directly to CEO/COO and has a fully funded budget) and company-based apprenticeship programs that create pathways to full employment for people of color, are important and well documented best practices. Employee resource groups create safe spaces for diverse employees to discuss internal corporate challenges without the glare of white colleagues.

However, is this enough? What more can be done (and there’s a lot more that can and should be done). Here’s some thoughts on what else you can do as a white leader within your company:

  1. Check Yourself

You can’t build an anti-racist organization if you’re racist. Period. If you were born as a white person in the United States, unless you’ve done some pretty deep internal work, you are most likely racist, even if it’s just a “little bit”. You have benefited- whether willingly or not, whether a little or a lot- from a society created to benefit people like you. Feeling offended right now? Then even more evidence that you need to do some internal work. The best leaders have a high level of self awareness, including full acknowledgement of their weaknesses. As a leader, your internal bias/racism is a weakness.

Note: Luckily, there’s plenty of resources to help you work through your racism, starting with this reading list from the editors of the Harvard Business Review.

2. Compensate your POC Employees for “Sharing” their Experiences. Resist the urge to ask your black employees if you’re racist (you don’t want to really know the true answer). Be aware that when you ask an employee to “share” their thoughts on deeply traumatizing issues such as racism (or sexism, classism, etc), you are asking them to relive their trauma. Because of the power imbalance, they may not feel like they can say “no” to the request, but also may feel like they can’t share the truth. If you do find an employee willing to share, compensate them for this additional work.

Note: There’s a whole body of research that ties diversity to revenue and this data can be used to create a baseline for incorporating the “diversity consulting” work that your POC employees do into a bonus structure. So, let’s say that research says diversity contributes 19% to a company’s bottom line in your industry, add an additional 19% to the bonus of the employee who shared their experience. Think of it this way — you’re paying them to share their intellectual property to help make your company better.

3. Create a space for white employees to manage and own their biases and racism.

Returning to work, post racist incidents, is one of the most dreaded moments for POC employees. Why? Because they will be spending their day managing and supporting the emotions of their white colleagues

Note: By creating space for White employees to work through their emotions and biases among themselves and not placing the burden on your POC employees to do this work for them, you’re challenging you’re white employees to do their own self-examination and to find solutions to their own problem(s). Trust that your Black and Latinx employees are very okay with white employees dealing with their internal biases and racism on their own.

4. Directly tie manager evaluation and compensation to their ability to recruit- and more importantly- retain POC, especially Black employees.

Do you have a process in place that assesses recruitment and retention of POC as a key metric in performance evaluations? If you have a manager who can’t seem to recruit, or even more telling, keep POC staff, you have a very real problem that deserves deeper examination.

Note: Many organizations have started to experiment tying recruitment and retention of POC employees to compensation, with some pretty interesting results. At Microsoft, African American/Black employees earn $1.005 for every $1.00 earned by their white colleagues (note only 4% of MS employees are Black). (source: Microsoft Diversity and Inclusion Report, 2019)

Institute a name-blind/school-blind application process. Purchase HR software that anonymizes resumes, but make sure it’s not just names, but schools as well. If your name is Jake Olson, but you went to Morehouse, most hiring managers will assume you’re Black. Determine threshold (s) to trigger further review of a manager’s hiring practices. For example, if their rejection rate for Black candidates exceeds “xx”%, then that triggers deeper review by HR. Also, center the final interview around why the company should not hire a candidate, requiring a specific reason to dismiss a candidate and create hiring practices and policies that forbid managers from using phrases like “culture fit” and “I’ve got a feeling”.

Note: Getting specific with feedback during the interview process isn’t hard. At digitalundivided, we developed a culture of agile development, meaning we were constantly doing slight course corrections based on new information. Being agile was a key part of our internal culture. For people used to a more structured, corporate environment, the agile environment can seem unstable. So when we interviewed people for whom it became clear that an agile environment was going to be a challenge, we didn’t use loaded terms like “culture fit”, but said specifically this person would have a challenge working in an agile environment, based on “xyz” response to a specific question.

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