Since graduating from college in 2013, I’ve experienced some form of tokenism in the workplace with nearly every employer I’ve had. For a while, it was challenging. Over time, it became tiring. And now, it is poisonous.
In the last couple of years, I have found myself in the human resources and talent programming space. And honestly, I feel fortunate to work somewhere where many of our leaders care about their people and developing meaningful programs and partnerships to advance everyone in the company. But I am also apart of many young professional organizations, and in between the happy hour banter we chat about what we’re experiencing as professionals ourselves, the campaigns we fight hard to champion (and often lose), and the bottlenecks that have been issues long before we entered the job force. And what’s funny, from tech to healthcare to teaching, is that we all seem to have the same stories or struggles when it comes to diversity and inclusion. The following is an open letter to companies who think putting people of color on their landing page is enough.
It’s time to update the company website with updated statements and fresh landing pages, and someone on your team just had an idea: Mmm, we’ve heard that we need more diversity and representation in the website photos. We’ll just get the intern and the woman in…what department is she in again? Yeah, her! This will be great.
We all head into the conference room, completely avoiding the elephant in the room. The two people of color in the room make eye contact, exchange smirks and knowing nods, and code-switch to thank you “SO MUCH for this opportunity to represent the company and attract fresh talent!” Everyone is told to smile; the camera flashes. The photographer’s arms lower to look at the picture, as do our plastered grins. We go back to our desks, likely to never truly foster the camaraderie we’re desperate to portray in our external communication materials. You’ve nailed it: diversity.
But what does that word really mean to you? Is it seeing more Black and brown people in your offices? Or is it seeing fewer Black and brown people complaining to HR? Is it seeing a woman on your executive board? Or is it a word you know you should say and should encourage, but in actuality, it’s really a word that makes you tremble because the thought of approaching such an important yet sensitive, especially in our political climate, is intimidating? You don’t want to offend anyone, and you certainly don’t want to be called racist.
In a society where being “woke” and relatable can garner you millions of followers, and “being canceled” can cost you nearly all of them overnight, it seems creators, companies, and their competitors are looking to appear accepting, inclusive, empowering, and well, like a United Colors of Benetton ad. Contrary to some internet skeptics, I don’t think the pandered advertisements and air-filled diversity programs promoted on your careers page are always out of malice or ill-intent. (Though, I’m not sure I can ever comprehend what Pepsi was thinking in 2017.) I believe you set out to “get it right” when it comes to diversity and inclusion. I believe you think it is important to highlight it in your workplace. But the problem is, you don’t know what it is, what it means to you or your employees, or what you truly believe in. For most, it reveals itself to be merely an idea or another product to develop and perfect for your consumers. You put more women and people of color on your website, but you’re not consciously creating opportunities for advancement within the company for them. You’re celebrating Pride month on your social media feeds, but you haven’t sat in a Pride affinity group meeting to hear the issues your employees are facing internally. You’re posting photos from your community outreach event, but your job descriptions still read “must have a degree from an Ivy League school.” These flat-lined projects and their subsequent backlash are a symptom of accepted ignorance and tone-deaf strategists in leadership positions.
So what should you do instead? A good starting point is to first understand that acceptance, diversity, and inclusion aren’t just cute ideas or “nice to haves” for underrepresented groups. Diversity shouldn’t be treated as an add-on with your business combo meal. For those groups, this is life, this is survival. Where our white peers had the advantage of privilege, we are working with a Black tax. Black workers are penalized for negotiating, for example. We receive more scrutiny than our white colleagues, which means we must work twice as hard for the same pay. Until all of this is truly understood and accepted, your company will always lack authenticity in your diversity efforts. Do not continue to approach the topic as a checkbox to tick. Engage with curiosity, encourage all voices in the room to speak up, and reflect wholeheartedly what employees are saying. And, as difficult as it may be, ask yourself if there’s any way you may be perpetuating these problems with your own unconscious racial bias.
It’s paramount to deepen your philosophy surrounding diversity and inclusion, and why it really matters. I’m not talking statistics or tactics, I’m talking: have you figured out your mission? Why do you care, really? Here’s a hint, “we would like to see more Black and brown people” isn’t quite it. At least, that shouldn’t be just it. It’s important to acknowledge the power, innovation, and experience diversity brings to a company and its employees. It also empowers employees, fosters a safe working environment, and advances future talent. (And hell, I hope it’s because you sincerely want to contribute to a cultural shift where it’s not just those born into a specific class or with a specific skin tone that get to keep making life better for their peers). And if it’s the bottom line that moves you, and it usually is, according to McKinsey, “Companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.” So there’s that.
And please do not stop once you have a Black CEO or female CFO or launch an LBGTQ+ affinity group. Again, you shouldn’t be chasing quotas or numbers — you should be chasing holistic change and a cultural shift where class, gender, sexual orientation, and race are no longer obstacles or bottlenecks to success. Don’t change your company logo to a rainbow design in June if you haven’t first examined and updated how your procedures, policies, and resources help empower marginalized communities.
There’s a bounty of critical thinking and tough questions to ask yourself, especially if you’re a manager or executive: What are you doing on the inside to advance and empower the underrepresented groups within your company? What measures are you taking to educate your leaders, managers, and all employees of the workplace on microaggressions, unconscious bias, and other diversity training? Are you keeping your leaders accountable? Do you understand why this matters? Are your leaders using their status or privilege to speak for those in lower-level positions?
And pro-tip: Do not just burden The Friendly Token Employee to figure this out for you. We are not mascots, nor do we speak for our entire race. My Blackness is not your achievement. These conversations are uncomfortable and emotionally draining for us, and if you’re part of the problem, you should be part of discovering a solution.
As someone working in human resources and talent programming, I understand how business pressures can be prioritized over its people. How culture and inclusion can begin to look like “nice to haves” rather than what is expected. And as someone who has a direct line to our company’s employment lawyer, I’ve dropped the same nervous beads of sweat, making sure every last word is in compliance. But as a Black woman in business, I also know the chilling isolation that comes with tokenism in the workplace, and it’s a loneliness we have the power to banish. Once you do that, then you’re getting somewhere.
Jazmine Reed-Clark is a true crime and self-improvement junkie working in HR, and a millennial who (finally) knows the difference between a stock and a bond. She thinks.