September 2, 2020

Looking to do right by your Black employees? Start by renegotiating the terms of your ERGs for Black talent

In early June, I wrote to diversity professionals and others advancing workplace inclusion about corporate statements responding to the killing of George Floyd. I did this to discourage companies from releasing PR-type statements that were heavy on buzzwords, light on substance, and unlikely to disrupt racial injustice occurring within their reach. Instead, I wanted corporate leaders to examine practices within their organizations that adversely impact Black talent and use statements to convey how they would dismantle the internal structures and systems that allow these injustices to perpetuate in the workplace.

Fast forward several weeks. Corporate statements have been released. Financial commitments to racial justice organizations have been made. And companies are looking to provide diversity training. Yet, workplace systems and structures that perpetuate race-based bias and disadvantage Black talent in hiring, pay, bonuses, work assignment, promotions, retention, and other areas remain intact. Historically, these are challenges that declarations of commitments to diversity, donations, and even unconscious bias training have failed to remedy in the absence of a comprehensive strategic plan, inclusive of accountability provisions, to eliminate race-based bias.

Familiar talking points like “change takes time,” “this is hard work,” and “we all have bias” do little to relieve the sense of urgency and desire among Black talent for a level playing field in the workplace. They remain stuck trying to perform their job duties while navigating structures and systems that are designed and effective in working against them.

The ERG Dilemma

Eager to find their way in an organization, many Black employees turn to employee resource groups (ERGs) to feel community and social acceptance and opportunities to develop and demonstrate leadership skills. For employees whose identity aligns with decision-makers, belonging and access to professional opportunities are often entitlements that occur within the typical work environment. Many Black employees also engage with ERGs to plan activities that help reduce the race-based bias that corporate leaders permit under their supervision or are even responsible for perpetuating the workplace. The desire for equity in the workplace is so great that ERG members execute the work while maintaining 9–5 work responsibilities with no additional compensation — even though they are often paid less than coworkers who don’t experience the burden of race-based bias.

Renegotiating the Terms of ERGs

Is a strategy that relies on Black folks for free labor the best way to remedy race-based bias in the workplace? CEOs and other executives who want to do right by Black employees should renegotiate the terms of ERGs to support Black talent. This refreshed approach should empower Black talent to navigate and overcome workplace barriers such as those described in the Leaky Tech Pipeline that interfere with their success. I think of this reframing as “Employee Reparations Groups,” but I suspect that “Employee Retention Groups” or “Employee Empowerment Groups” may be easier for others to embrace.

What should be included in an ERG’s renegotiated terms to sustain Black talent until leadership can remove race-based bias from the workplace? Members know their own needs and will offer the best insight. But here are a few suggestions to get started:

  1. Remove the expectations of members to remedy race-based injustice perpetrated by employees in the position of privilege. Addressing equity issues in the workplace should be the responsibility of corporate leaders with guidance and support from D&I specialists, not those on the receiving end of injustice. Invite ERG members to help identify needs without making this a requirement. If you don’t have an internal D&I team to support corporate leaders, turn to consultants until you can get a permanent team in place and connect with networks like Diversity Advocates for peer support. This approach opens up opportunities for Black talent to invest more time in workplace activities that align with their job responsibilities, and that is typically recognized and rewarded by leadership.
  2. Expand professional development opportunities for members. Many Black employees miss out on growth opportunities that come with the mentorship, sponsorship, prime job assignments, or exposure enjoyed by colleagues with more privilege. But you can still provide professional development options to ERG members as you work to make your work environment more equitable. This could involve connecting ERG members with your most senior executives to lay the path for individual mentorship and sponsorship. It could also include providing a budget for each member to work 1:1 with a career coach and then offering additional support as identified by the coach and the staff member.
  3. Offer each member a salary review. The pay gap is real. Far too often, Black talent is paid less than their coworkers. This is a basic wrong that must be made right. Make necessary adjustments to ensure fair pay and then use this information to develop safeguards to ensure fair compensation for new Black talent recruited into your organization.
  4. Propose a custom referral bonus initiative. The Tech Leavers Study reports that referral bonuses focusing on underrepresented populations are among the few stand-alone tactics that can advance diversity in the workplace. An initiative designed specifically for Black ERGs can help broaden your talent pool and better position Black talent to access the financial rewards that come with referrals. If designed strategically and intentionally, this approach can directly address Black employees’ hiring and retention — a goal shared by companies and Black ERG members alike.
  5. Facilitate access to your board of directors. Many companies are looking to improve board diversity. But even the most diverse boards are limited if they don’t have an understanding of how Black employees and other underrepresented populations are experiencing your workplace. You can address this by 1) lifting any restrictions about board members engaging with members of the workforce, 2) arranging periodic listening sessions between ERG leadership and your board of directors, and 3) providing opportunities for ERG members to offer input onboard staffing decisions.
  6. Provide a tax refund. Every time a Black employee is on the receiving end of race-based bias, a microaggression, or a stereotype, they pay the Black tax that comes with an environment that has weak systems or accountability to prevent this behavior. It’s time for a refund. Brainstorm with your ERG leaders about options to acknowledge the Black tax burden while you work on mechanisms to eliminate these occurrences from the workplace. This might involve covering the cost of an experience to recover and rejuvenate or additional PTO to use as mental health days.
  7. Set ERGs up for success. ERGs can add tremendous value to Black employees and to your broader organization. But companies must provide the support needed for them to be successful. This means taking steps such as 1) designing, implementing, and enforcing a corporate policy that allows ERG leaders to allocate a percentage of their working hours to support their ERGs, 2) acknowledging the contributions of ERG leaders and members in promotion cycles and throughout the organization at large, 3) ensuring that compensation of ERG members reflect the unique contributions that they make toward building a strong workplace culture, 4) leveraging your community of ERGs focused on women, LGBTQ+, disability, veterans, and others to welcome and support Black talent with intersecting identities, and 5) engaging your most senior executives in the work of the ERG to foster relationships with members and identify promising matches for future executive sponsor opportunities.

Without a doubt, some people will interpret these suggestions as giving Black talent an unfair advantage. This conclusion underscores the need to implement such actions because it highlights how race-based bias is so deeply embedded in the workforce that it appears normal and appropriate. Renegotiating the terms of an ERG is not about giving Black people an unfair advantage. It’s about acknowledging that workplace environments in which race-based bias occurs are harmful to Black people. And it’s about protecting Black talent from further damage as you try to fix institutional systems and structures that allow race-based injustice to occur.

This may seem like a lot. I know — this is much more intensive than cutting a check, issuing a statement, or sitting through an unconscious bias training. But being on the receiving end of race-based injustice as part of your everyday life, including your work life, is also a lot to handle. If you’re a CEO or other corporate leader, the reality of racial justice is within your control — at least in the workplace. Your actions or complacency will have an immediate impact on your existing workforce today, and a cascading effect on the workforce that you leave to your successors.

Making systematic change is a long process. But taking the first step toward this change doesn’t have to be. If you’re a corporate leader, start by having a conversation with the executive team of your ERG that addresses the needs of Black talent. If an ERG doesn’t exist, reach out to Black staff and be transparent about your needs. Ask what you should do to empower them with resources to face and overcome barriers in the workplace that are fueled by race-based injustices. Renegotiate the terms of ERG so that they can experience the professional benefits enjoyed by employees in positions of privilege. Provide such provisions for Black staff if you have no ERG. Then finish the job by exercising the leadership wisdom and authority that is within your control to repair the systems and structures that have allowed for race-based injustice to persist in the workplace. You can do this — but only if you make racial equity a professional priority and follow-through with action.

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Cynthia Overton

Director of Tech Workplace Initiatives at the Kapor Center. Join our communities to advance inclusion in tech — Diversity Advocates and Our Collective!