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Black Workers' Progress in the World of Work

Employers can help Black workers overcome systemic barriers by embracing DE&I

A woman smiling in a black dress.
​Kelisha B. Graves

​Black workers have long experienced higher unemployment rates, lower wages and worse employment prospects than many other groups.

Kelisha B. Graves believes employers can reverse this trend—if they truly want to.

Graves is an educator, author, speaker and educational impact strategist who serves as the chief research, education and programs officer at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.

She spoke with SHRM Online about the importance of Black workers feeling a sense of belonging, the burdens Black women face when trying to progress in their careers, and the need for businesses to truly commit to diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I).

SHRM Online: Despite the overall unemployment rate falling, reports show that the unemployment rate worsened for Black women. Do Black women face any unique barriers to employment that other groups do not?

Graves: Black women face a myriad of employment barriers. The legacy of racial discrimination and the disparate treatment of Black women persists in nearly every segment of our society, including education, health care and employment.

In comparison to other groups, Black women are more likely to be the head of household, serving as the single parent and solely responsible for the daily care of their children. This is an obligation that can take time away from career training, education and networking opportunities.

Often serving as the custodial parent also imposes an outsized economic burden on Black female professionals who assume a disproportionate share of child care, food, housing and medical costs—likewise reducing opportunities to invest in their own career advancement.

Employee benefits such as onsite child care services and flexible work schedules to accommodate single working parents can have a major positive impact on the advancement opportunities for many Black women. However, for those of us who do advance against these fundamental barriers, Black women still tend to experience compensation inequities at the executive level.

SHRM Online: Reaching the executive level has long been a challenge for many Black workers. SHRM research has found that two-thirds of Black HR professionals believe their employers are not providing enough opportunities to help advance their careers. How can companies help Black leaders ascend professionally?

Graves: I'm convinced advancing Black talent essentially comes down to an authentic and sustained commitment at the leadership level—just like any other major corporate initiative we've seen take hold in our economy over the last century.

It's a matter of will and intention. We see so much attention paid toward diversity, with many companies reporting employee demographic statistics. In my experience, organizationwide diversity figures are not necessarily the best indicators of where Black talent can flourish. There are notable examples of companies [that] have room to improve from an overall diversity standpoint but have a strong track record of developing Black executive-level talent.

Let's face it: The C-suite decides who becomes part of the C-suite. And, in some ways, it's much easier to fill more junior roles with diverse talent to create an impression of commitment to diversity. I want more attention paid toward the companies with Black talent flourishing in the senior executive ranks, managing large teams and key functions with direct [profit-and-loss] responsibility. Those are the companies with C-suite leaders displaying the will and intention we need to champion as role models for other companies to follow.

SHRM Online: What is an issue Black workers face that isn't talked about much? 

Graves: I believe Black workers are watching intently to see which companies maintain their commitments to inclusion and diversity as time moves on from George Floyd's murder. Some political leaders against Black progress attack and threaten companies standing tall against racism and injustice.

Walking the walk may not reap rewards in the near-term. I think of companies like Patagonia [that] have been uncompromising in their commitment to environmental and social justice. Over time, they built a very profitable company with incredible retention figures. Employees love working there knowing the company would act and speak truth to power about major issues regardless of who is in the White House.

Companies [that] capitulate and fail to uphold their stated commitments to equity and ethical business practices inevitably experience leadership departures and reduced growth; consumers, investors, vendors and suppliers know they cannot be trusted to lead with integrity through times of struggle.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the redemptive power of suffering for that in which one believes. I'm confident time will reveal those companies [that] truly believe in equity and justice for all will have a better chance at long-term success and attracting Black talent even when doing so is no longer en vogue or convenient.

SHRM Online: In recent years, "belonging" has been added to the DE&I lexicon. How can employers increase a sense of belonging among their Black workers?

Graves: I think we have plenty of acronyms at this point, but belonging has an important place in creating a positive company culture for all employees.

[Using] employee resource groups and other visible DE&I efforts championing diversity are meaningful ways to foster belonging. Extra efforts to mentor and connect on a personal level—even an occasional check-in on how they are progressing in their role—with Black employees also sends a powerful signal of inclusion and can help foster a sense of belonging.

That said, I do think the concept of belonging will define the future of the role of chief diversity officer (CDO), a position often held by Black female executives. It seems like many of these leaders do not feel as if they are truly feeling welcomed and valued in the C-suite. Impact as a leader, particularly in larger organizations, is determined by influence or budgets. And most CDOs seem to have modest budgets.

Then the question becomes whether CDOs can foster relationships of influence with the CEO and other key leaders. As much as the companies talk about the importance of DE&I and organizational culture, it seems like many of the functional leaders of DE&I stand on the periphery of the C-suite and perhaps feel hesitant to risk being further marginalized by challenging their peers to maintain their commitment to invest in recruiting and developing Black talent.

My hope is more CDOs experience success through strong C-suite relationships and show they more than belong—their work can positively impact the experience of Black talent and all employees.


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