America’s Executives Are Out of Touch with the Lived Reality of Race in the Workplace
Three years after the collective wake-up call wrought by the murder of George Floyd, new Edelman data reveals that, while concerns about racism are rising, trust in business to assuage them is not.
The data shows a major disconnect between the views of executives – who say they’re doing well on racism – and the perceptions of rank-and-file staff.
For business to change its posture, leaders must realize that a non-diverse workforce cannot credibly create products and services for a diverse world.
For the fourth year in a row, Edelman, the company of which I am CEO of the U.S. region, has released data on the state of trust in business as it pertains to racial injustice – a special report affiliated with our flagship Trust Barometer research. I am guessing the results of our latest survey will elicit one of four reactions: 1. Tell me something I don't know. 2. I felt like this was the case, and it’s affirming to know what I feel is real. 3. This is shocking and terrible. 4. It doesn’t matter because nothing will change.
Three years after the collective wake-up call wrought by the murder of George Floyd and others, the data reveals that, while concerns about racism are rising, trust in business to assuage them is not:
Americans are increasingly concerned about racial equity. Sixty-nine percent of Americans are concerned about racial injustice, up 8 points from 2022. Notably, concern from Republicans increased 9 points and those 55+ increased 14 points in the last year.
No institution, save the employer, is trusted on this issue. Business, government, nonprofits, and the media are all distrusted when it comes to addressing racial injustice. A bright spot in trusted institutions is "my employer,” who 72 percent trust to act on the issue.
Corporate leaders believe there has been meaningful progress on racial equity in the workplace; their employees do not. Sixty percent of executives believe their companies have made major strides in addressing racism within their organizations; only 18 percent of rank-and-file employees agree.
Rank-and-file employees are more likely to say that diversity is good for business than their leaders. Less than one-third of executives say that diversity enhances innovation or helps build trust with customers. Their rank-and-file staff is more likely to say that diversity adds value to both.
Executives claim racism is an individual problem, not a systemic one. About two-thirds of executives say that the biggest challenge to be solved is the racist attitudes of individuals, rather than systems that are racist.
As painful as I find the data, I am convinced we must keep asking the questions and compiling the results. Unless we can agree on a starting point, we certainly cannot arrive at an endpoint.
The data matters because of the wide range of emotions people feel on this issue – from defeat and defensiveness to outright disagreement on whether the issue even exists. The language we use to describe it and the steps we think we should take to solve it also vary. As painful as I find the data, I am convinced we must keep asking the questions and compiling the results. Unless we can agree on a starting point, we certainly cannot arrive at an endpoint.
I cannot in good faith counsel others unless I am looking in the mirror to get my own house in order. While Edelman has made immense strides in building a more representative workforce, my everyday reality includes some version of the following:
Conversations with executives who tell me they are making up for a lack of knowledge about the Black consumer audience by consulting outside parties. (I find myself reminding them that diverse teams would make this unnecessary.)
Encouragement to qualify my call for representation as also looking for the most qualified candidate. My reply: Qualifications are assumed table stakes. This is a given.
New business pitches or portfolio introductions that include perennial, passionate insistence on the value of DEI. When I ask teams what percentage of senior staff is representative, the deflation is palpable.
The research also found that 61 percent of executives are uncomfortable talking about race because they’re afraid they might say something racist. I’ve seen firsthand where fear of being labeled “racist,” “homophobic,” or sexist” prevents constructive conversation. I also know racism, homophobia, and sexism exist.
I often find myself wondering if perhaps Corporate America has convinced itself that racism is no longer a problem. Many companies seem to believe that “there’s no way we could be racist.” We had a Black president in the US. We have a Black, female vice president. Maybe their CEO is Black (this one hits close to home). Racism simply cannot thrive if these things are true, right?
Our data shows that racism is still alive, and I’m afraid to say, thriving. Our recommendations for change within companies and in the country call for more accountability, shared understanding, and the empowerment of peer voices. But I believe business will only usher in real change when two things happen. First, when leaders realize that a non-diverse workforce cannot credibly create products and services for a diverse world. And second, when leaders no longer believe that their personal and professional standing is threatened by setting the table in a representative way. This will help us reach that agreed-upon starting point across institutions to begin dismantling 400 years of injustice – and it will also help business leaders connect with consumers, engage employees, and improve their bottom line.