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Black Employees in Leadership Roles Are at Risk for Falling Off the New Glass Cliff: The Black Bluff

Akilah Cadet

Akilah CadetJuly 15, 2020

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As a professional diversity consultant, I can say for certain that diversity, equity, and inclusion have very recently become sexy words in the workplace. Following the May 25th murder of George Floyd and resulting public reckoning with systemic racism present in this country, companies want to be anti-racist and take measured steps make that desire a reality. I’ve seen a recent push by companies to hire employees who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), especially Black people, into leadership roles. (At least, at companies that are not currently subject to hiring freezes in light of the economic impact of the pandemic).

And to be sure, a lot of work needs to be done: Just 1 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are Black, and, as of 2018, only 3.3 percent of Black employees were executives or senior leaders, according to the US Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, CNN Business reports. But, Black employees who are hired into leadership roles right now are put at risk for falling off the Black bluff, a new version of the glass cliff, which refers to women being hired into leadership roles in situations where they’re likely to fail.

That is, Black employees are now being hired into leadership positions at companies that aren’t actively anti-racist and committed to cultivating a sense of belonging among all employees. Because these employees are set up to fail as a result of working amid systems that are not equipped to effectively support them, they’re at risk for falling victim to the Black bluff.

Black employees hired into leadership positions at companies that aren’t actively anti-racist and committed to cultivating a sense of belonging are put at risk for falling victim to the Black bluff, the new glass cliff.

You see, being an effective anti-racist company goes far beyond pushing for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. For example, some companies have participated in the Pull Up or Shut Up Challenge by being transparent about how many Black employees and leaders they employ, which contributes to improved diversity of staff. But this is hardly enough.

It’s often the case, as is true with the Pull Up or Shut Up Challenge, that diversity is the only component being shared and/or addressed, leaving equity (ensuring equal treatment or opportunity for everyone in the workplace) and inclusion (allowing for opportunities to be part of the culture and/or decision-making) are largely overlooked. So, what companies really need to do in order to stop this pattern and start making meaningful change is shift the language from “DEI”—diversity, equity inclusion—altogether to “anti-racist and belonging.”

Belonging is being able to show up to work as oneself. It is when an employee feels valued, appreciated, and can share feedback. Belonging is when every employee at every level is held to the same regard. Without belonging being a reality at every level of the company, the Black bluff compromises the forward mobility and success of Black employees in leadership positions.

To cultivate this sense of belonging, all companies need to have an on-staff Chief of People and Culture (CPC). This is a leader who oversees learning and development, human resources, and traditional diversity efforts.

Why companies need to move away from DEI initiatives alone and employ a dedicated leader who assures an anti-racist workplace of belonging

DEI tends to be an underfunded department that might include a staff of one or a leader with a tacked-on title. This isn’t to say that the individuals who are doing the diversity work in these roles aren’t brilliant or motivated. Rather, it just means they are not funded in such a way that allows room for making change and upholding an anti-racist workplace. DEI budgets reportedly range between $10,000 and $215 million, depending on the size of the company, and most funds are spent toward administrative costs and training, without addressing the expectations of workplace culture—and that’s a problem.

Furthermore, it’s been my experience that most people who lead these departments are BIPOC women, which shows that the company believes the only value from BIPOC women leaders is in the DEI space. And DEI-specific titles aside, many companies are complicit in a pattern of wanting to hire “plus-one” leaders— meaning Black-plus, LGBTQ+-plus, Latinx-plus, mother-plus, or any other marginalized group in combination with another—in order to appear as if leadership can have one person represent every part of diversity. The tokenizing mix of “efficient intersectionality” sought in leaders and normalized funding limitations for DEI departments do nothing to cultivate an anti-racist work culture. Rather, they’re the perfect storm for the Black bluff to stop Black leaders from reaching success.

The Chief of People and Culture can help by setting and managing expectations for an anti-racist workplace. This is crucial because doing so removes the responsibility from underrepresented Black employees and leaders to bear the burden of setting that tone. When a company is homogenous, the ideas and experiences of smaller, marginalized communities in the room will be an afterthought, if considered at all. In practice, this forces Black leaders to decide whether they’re willing to assimilate to the white-dominant culture or take on the often invisible extra work of being a DEI advocate, thus highlighting that for Black leaders, accomplishment comes at a cost.

Ultimately, when DEI efforts are an afterthought, microaggressions create systemic and institutional racism in the workplace. As a result, BIPOC employees are oppressed, making any DEI effort essentially erased.

How a Chief of People and Culture creates belonging and provides safety from the Black bluff

Moving toward an anti-racist culture requires companies and leaders to be proactive instead of reactive to protect against the threat of the Black bluff. And the goal of the Chief of People and Culture is to guide this initiative using DEI practices and data, but not separate them from the culture or expectations of every employee. This means examining the entire process of the employee life cycle: Start with the job description, interview process, and equitable hiring practices. Once the employee is onboarded, determine their learning pathway to support anti-racist expectations for the next 30 to 90 days. Assure there are opportunities for professional development, promotions, equitable annual performance evaluations, and self care and wellness.

Most importantly, the CPC sets the tone for realistic goals, objectives, policies, and plans. This includes removing the “diversity of thought” approach, which, in execution, often involves subjectively including “different points of view” from the token members of marginalized communities. Instead, the CPC relies on real data (demographics, pay equity, exit interviews), transparency, and accountability for all levels of staff. A study of 700 companies found that when managers were held to specific goals around race or gender, there was an improvement in racial and gender diversity.

Clearly, companies need to move beyond mere diversity goals and toward meaningful internal and external organizational change. More Black people, especially women, need to be in C-suite positions to move workplaces to an anti-racist environment that celebrates belonging. But in order to support these Black leaders and protect against Black bluff, having a CPC executive—not just a DEI plan—is crucial. Because only when every employee feels they belong, has the opportunity to grow, is valued, and is celebrated equally in the workplace will it be clear that systemic anti-racism has become the professional norm.

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