Black Lives Matter: A call to action for HR

Tomorrow's leaders, MBA students at historically Black colleges and universities, want business leaders to hear their vision for an all-inclusive workplace of the future.
By: | January 18, 2021 • 14 min read
(Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

When Black Lives Matter rose to national attention last spring, leadership at the National Academy of Human Resources proposed a project to build a bridge between HR leaders and students at historically Black colleges and universities, particularly three with MBA programs that focus on HR.

Efforts had been underway before the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, but now NAHR President Jill Smart “felt the climate had created an opportunity, and necessity, for these students to talk to—and the white community to hear from—this generation of future Black business leaders,” says consultant and NAHR fellow Ted Childs, a retired diversity executive at IBM who served as coach for the project that emerged.

Related: Diversity and Inclusion from HRE

Starting in September, four students each from Morgan State University, North Carolina A&T State University and Southern University met virtually once or twice a week with Childs and J Tiffany Childs, also an HR professional and her father’s executive assistant. The job for the one undergraduate and 11 MBA students, ages 22-40? To write an article addressing today’s HR leaders about Black Lives Matter, today’s racially charged climate and what needs to be done to create an inclusive workplace for the future.

Ted Childs

“Midway through (the project), I recognized the challenge: my experience attempting to coach (with) a spirit anchored in the integrity of their reality and the 50-year gap between theirs and mine,” Ted Childs wrote in an email last week. “Not a question of right or wrong, but ‘What is possible,’ and finding common ground in our ‘seen reality’—that was HARD. My reality, guided by 75 years of life and growing up in the 1940s–’60s; and theirs, guided by their 21st-century reality, both with a tone of harshness and anchored in the Black experience of each. As I have said publicly and written, I saw Emmett Till’s body in a 1955 casket and read about the circumstances; they saw George Floyd and several others die—on camera. Both harsh, but very different realities.

“Those realities are separated by a calendar that should have led to a different set of social circumstances, and (leaves) a 21st century asking “Why haven’t you fixed this?”

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Fred Foulkes, director of the Human Resources Policy Institute and professor at the Boston University Questrom School of Business, and Madelyn Jennings, retired HR SVP at Gannett Newspapers and advisory board member at Morgan State University School of Journalism, served as project mentors.

“Predict the article will be broadly read,” Jennings wrote after reviewing the final product. “The authors are unique for the magazine, and the suggestions are important.”

Below is the article in full, written by:

  • Kirk D. Carrington II, Shaniqua Knight, Tamika Mason, Cameron Smith of Morgan State University Earl G Graves School of Business & Management
  • Micah Graham, Keyera Paschal, Elliot Royal, Leigh Anne Tamayo of North Carolina A&T University Willie A. Deese College of Business and Economics
  • Samantha Booker, Peter Brooks, Rashad Hicks, Jalen Hudson of Southern University College of Business.

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Jump to HR’s call to action

Introduction

Celebrated novelist and poet James Arthur Baldwin once stated: “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” “Whence you came” is a well-documented journey of inequity that guides our path today. We, young African American HR professionals, cannot ignore its message in charting our own course—or in advising 21st-century leadership.

Prior to the Civil War, approximately 4 million African Americans were a U.S. slave labor force, which equated to a market value of $3.1 billion to $3.6 billion. While 150 years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation, the United States still finds African Americans a valuable part of the labor force, but not in the way one would think. In the year 2020, the American criminal justice prison system held approximately 2.3 million people, with 38.6% of those being African Americans, although African Americans comprise only 13.4% of the American population. Comparatively, in 2016, the United States labor force totaled about 159.2 million people, of which 19.6 million, or 12.3% were Black.

While vividly disproportionate, the statistics are in line with the historical narrative associating “Black lives” with slave labor as permitted in the 13th Amendment, stating “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Consistent with economic history, “Black lives” still are allowed to contribute billions of dollars to the American economy through the production and manufacturing of goods at low labor cost, but not equally as executives and professionals in C-Suite roles. Simply stated, whether as free or paid labor, we can work, but notlead.

Correspondingly, a Harvard Business Review survey found that, on average, Black directors joined their first board sooner than their white counterparts, at age 39.2 versus 42.4; moreover, Black educational attainment was higher and both Blacks and whites dedicated roughly the same amount of time to their board position. However, Black people occupied only 3.2% of senior leadership roles at large companies and just 0.8% of all Fortune 500 CEO positions.

To reiterate the point, note two disparities: 8.6% of our community is selected for Fortune 500 board seats compared to 83.9% of our white peers. It is understanding “from whence (we) came” that enables us not to throw stones but urges us instead to ask, “How can 13% of the population yield 38.6% of our nation’s prisoners but lag by 75.3% in filling its senior corporate leadership positions?” This is a visible disparity, and our personal awareness and business school training tell us this disparity is a cornerstone of the foundational history of Black labor in building the American economy, and that it should be addressed.

Presently, despite equivalent or excelled educational achievement, Blacks are not provided experiences or opportunities comparable to their white counterparts. This disparity is seen in employment considerations and leadership roles at an alarming rate, thereby impacting advancement opportunities that follow development opportunities. Absent the latter, the former will not occur.

Before George Floyd

Notwithstanding, African American intelligence, talent and creativity are not new and are not anomalies. Throughout America’s existence, African Americans have made significant contributions to society, such as the light bulb filament by Lewis Howard Lattimer, the modern-day elevator design by Alexander Miles and the PC by Dr. Mark Dean. Nevertheless, while those contributions have been substantial and continue to influence society, many African Americans have not received proper, if any, recognition or compensation for their contributions.

Equally disturbing is the “new” narrative that the pool of qualified African American talent is shallow. This justification is single-handedly serving as the grounds for the underrepresentation of African Americans in corporate America and the unequal distribution of opportunities that should be driven by ability and not by racial privilege. As a result, hiring decisions are being made based on privilege afforded via birth certificate versus candidate qualifications, assessment factors related to ability or decisions reflective of an unbiased merit-based system.

As an illustration, during the 2017-2018 academic cycle, Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU) produced 5,467 master’s degrees and 1,550 doctoral degrees, the majority earned by African Americans. This statistic does not include African Americans who earned degrees of identical status from Predominantly White Institutions (PWI). So, how is qualified African American talent hard to find? Thus, highlighting that underrepresentation of African Americans in corporate leadership is not due to a lack of qualified talent, but the lack of recognition and the provision of an opportunity.

Now: 2020 and 2021

As a result of experiencing regular bias, the public execution of George Floyd, the devastating murder of Breonna Taylor and the tragic deaths of other African Americans recently in the hands of law enforcement have sparked national and global outrage. These acts of violence have triggered generational traumas that have been passed down over four centuries in myriad ways. While the decades may have changed, the African American experience is one of consistent struggle against dehumanization, underrepresentation and an overwhelming realization of being undervalued despite making significant contributions to society and the world at large. This injustice and inequity are on full display and no longer primarily centered on police brutality. Disproportionate poverty, incarceration rates, unemployment and underrepresentation in corporate leadership roles are all visible and valid.

While the subject of equal opportunity has been an HR focus item since the 1960s, the failure to achieve some semblance of equity has been evident in two areas: (1) the advancement of qualified African Americans to C-suite and board positions; and (2) the low retention rate of qualified African Americans who are hired. Though hiring individuals from diverse backgrounds is a start, more effort is required to sustain an inclusive workplace. The validation of true intent occurs when employee onboarding, development and advancement lead to the equitable advancement of African Americans to senior executive roles.

A prime example of “validation of true intent” is Xerox Holdings Corp.’s efforts in the 1960s and ’70s. According to the MacNeil/Lehrer PBS NewsHour, Xerox had “solved the Black problem” by successfully recruiting, developing, retaining and advancing Black talent, which led to America’s first Black female CEO, Ursula Burns. Although a notable moment in time, the accomplishment was overstated in the larger context and not adequately sustained. While inspiring, with the existing corporate environment consisting of only 0.8% of African American CEOs, a sense of confidence is not justified for African Americans to believe their professional value will be actively sought or that they will be advanced into executive-level positions. Such discouraging percentages still convey that the name “Tamika” or “Malik” on a resume, with credentials from an HBCU, or arriving at an interview with a natural hairstyle in addition to a dark skin tone, will deter prospective employers where we dream of working and competing. It is especially off-putting when corporate executives express difficulty in finding qualified Black talent.

Efforts made by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy’s partnership with the Thurgood Marshall College Fund for its Hennessy Fellows program to develop leaders from HBCUs is a current example of commitment and initiative surrounding the development and advancement of African American talent to C-suite positions, along with the growth of African American business and socioeconomic status.

Most, if not all, Fortune 500 companies have diversity initiatives to combat employee bias. However, many struggle to fulfill expectations. Most of these are failed attempts due to the method of execution. For example, Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are voluntary, employee-led groups within an organization to foster employee engagement and promote diversity. A key challenge is retaining employee participation, and a key example of success is senior leadership engagement, which represents a superb opportunity to work with and get to know ERG members. Their attendance on a regular basis demonstrates the spirit of partnership and an appetite for understanding the issues of different communities.

We all know that, as long as diversity of thought is not shared with one another, we are not progressing. It is simply not enough to have cliques from different groups of employees and call yourself a diverse organization. Our voices have to be HEARD by people who do not look like us. Also, diversity and inclusion is considered to be an “HR” function instead of being considered a cross-departmental function. D&I efforts should be of equal importance across every department of an organization.

Given the changes in demographics and lack of executive-level opportunities for African Americans, we should really examine the whole framework of HR strategy and focus on the hiring process. For example, some companies will hire only graduates from the most elite universities, which are predominantly white. Also, using social media as a source of gaining human capital should be revisited. Yes, it is a market of who you know, not what you know. In fact, 75% of whites polled in one 2014 surveyfrom the Public Religion Research Institute “had no friends outside of their racial group,” per Harvard Review. The trend is not in favor of diversity.

Ultimately, white board members must influence the diversity of the board pipeline and the organization, or else the system of exclusion will continue. In contrast, recruitment efforts must be reexamined with an effective, verifiable strategy being the goal. The implementation of that strategy is the pathway for qualified African American candidates to break through ethnicity-based barriers, while annual DEI reviews with the board should include progress reviews. As the “Catalyst Women on Board” initiative to add women to corporate boards conveyed, real diversity means at least three diverse members on corporate boards and, overall, boards with a racial representation that more proportionately reflects the general U.S. population, and even more importantly, reflects the industry’s marketplace and customers.

21st-century Aspirations

As we have stated, diversity is not a new concept, and neither is the ability to respond to the opportunities it represents. In all environments, “diversity” is critical to the recruitment, development and advancement of diverse talent. Increasingly, the value of diversity is found in displaying moral responsibility, understanding the strategic advantage of varying viewpoints as factors in assuring the long-term survival of a firm. Ultimately, diversity leads to increased productivity, creativity, range of skills, cultural insights and market performance. All of these contribute to better company brand/reputation and better business performance.

Yet, these results cannot be the only motive for a company’s efforts in diversity. Corporate America’s aspiration must be systemic changes that yield improved business performance and a positive societal impact. The reality is that executives promoting workplace diversity cannot be the people who shun the societal debate. They understand the importance and have the skills to positively impact that debate, beyond their organizations, and must recognize that their failure to engage in a deliberate manner is an enabler for bad behavior within our society. More succinctly, we need demonstrated, consistent action from leadership across all areas of our society. Organizations must prepare for future business performance in a society that is experiencing a seismic demographic shift.

Calling upon the efforts of the American business community, we present a narrative that acknowledges the struggles of the past and establishes our vision of an all-inclusive workplace for tomorrow. Toward that goal, we leave you with the following:

Call to Action

  1. In the U. S., people of color, led by Black and Brown individuals, will be 54% of the population by 2050. Africa, over the past century, is moving from 8% of the global population to more than 20%. Considering those facts, Black must be viewed as a critical component of the global talent and customer landscape—NOW.
  2. In the process of recruitment, view the HBCU community as both an investment opportunity and a talent source with an undergraduate and graduate focus on STEM and business.
  3. The retention and advancement of this talent must be a priority. Three tools for recruitment and advancement: Re-examine how candidate qualifications are judged using assessment factors related to ability in the honorable pursuit of an unbiased merit-based system; increase the use of minority managers in the interview process and on review panels filling all management positions.
  4. Organize advertising and procurement strategies to demonstrate respect for the demographic shift, and clarify the message that you see us as part of your business landscape. Marketing efforts such as Lincoln Financial’s “Responsibility of Love” advertising campaign, Dove Soap’s product line to Black men and women, Cadillac’s ad campaigns directed at the Black community, Boston Scientific’s relationship with the Association of Black Cardiologists and countless others demonstrate recognition of Black lives as consumers. The outstanding challenge, however, is for corporations to translate this recognition into employment and advancement opportunities for this demographic.
  5. The social challenges facing the Black community must be seen as investment opportunities to address issues mutually benefiting the community and the long-term strategic interests of business—great places to live, produce talent and customers. The mindset to do so is a specific call to action, but given the current climate, two examples deserve focus:

1. Start talent development in Pre-K, which provides multiple opportunities to influence lives. Wherever a child can be touched on their educational journey, please use your people, product and financial resources to do so.

2. Get involved in this key challenge facing the Black community: relations with the police. This friction, like the social disruption of the ’60s, threatens the health of a community, and addressing this challenge must include a partnership with business to have a chance to be successful.

6. Finally, select a diverse team of leaders to review all policies looking for any nuance or interpretation that might inhibit any of the above challenges or any other aspect of diversity performance and/or employee relations. This review can include the creation of policies and supportive diversity efforts that reflect our ever-changing global society. However, it must be understood that such reviews require an acknowledgment that bias and privilege exist, and a mandate for senior leadership to address and correct inequities.

Closing

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We understand the words of Mr. Baldwin. We know of “whence (we) came,” and the generations on whose shoulders we stand. We are 21st-century HBCU MBA students who value diversity, who seek coaching from our functional leaders in all aspects of our profession, including the pursuit of a new employee/employer compact, and who represent a generation of future leaders who we believe have the required maturity, energy and desire to engage in that discussion.

Elizabeth Clarke is executive editor of Human Resource Executive. She earned a journalism degree from the University of Florida and then spent more than 25 years as a reporter and editor in South Florida before joining HRE. Elizabeth lives with her family in Palm Beach County. She can be reached at eclarke@lrp.com.

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