Barriers for Black Professionals

Global HR

​Nate Battle long felt he was hitting his head against a glass ceiling.

As one of the few Black professionals working at a
Fortune 500 pharmaceutical and life sciences company in Boca Raton, Fla., the senior director was repeatedly denied the opportunity to be considered for a vice president’s role. He was shut down—although he asked his manager numerous times what he needed to do to advance.

“Despite being highly regarded as an authentic, highly competent, people-focused leader among my teams and peers, key individuals in executive leadership roles perceived my strengths as a threat,” says Battle, 56, who left two years ago to start his own mental health and well-being coaching business.

Battle’s experience isn’t unique. Corporate America’s current efforts to increase diversity are failing, according to a 2019 study by Coqual (formerly the Center for Talent Innovation) in New York City.

Protests over George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police last year called attention to systemic racism. Some corporate executives have publicly condemned racism and promised to do better.

But for change to happen, they’ll have to look to their own internal processes, experts say. Black individuals make up 13 percent of the U.S. population but account for only 8 percent of employees in professional roles. Black professionals hold only 3.2 percent of all executive or senior leadership roles and less than 1 percent of all
Fortune 500 CEO positions.

Black professionals may be represented in corporate offices, but they’re not being welcomed and included, the study found. As a result, companies are at risk of losing them, along with their significant talents and valuable perspective that companies need to help innovate and serve an increasingly diverse customer base.

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“Many college-educated Black Americans are entering corporate America with dreams, ready to do great things, but they’re confronted with an unwelcoming culture,” says Julia Taylor Kennedy, Coqual’s executive vice president.

While corporate America offers the promise of a stable income, benefits and opportunities to travel, many Black professionals aren’t getting a sense of belonging, trust and respect, according to Coqual’s report,

Being Black in Corporate America
. Their feelings of isolation and exclusion have been further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced many office workers to work from home.

Meanwhile, Battle and others worry that Black professionals are more likely to experience layoffs during the crisis than their white counterparts. Even in a strong economy, Black workers with college degrees are more likely to be unemployed than white workers with a similar education, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

“Economic downturns provide prime opportunities for unethical managers to discriminate against employees and unfairly jettison those they identify as ‘undesirable’ based on their personal feelings rather than on the employee’s performance,” Battle says.

The Mental Toll

Corporate leaders often aren’t aware of the challenges Black employees face, says Howard J. Ross, founder and chief learning officer of Cook Ross, a consultancy in Silver Spring, Md., that helps companies create inclusive leadership and culture.

And many white employees don’t realize that the experience of Black professionals is significantly different from their own, says Ross, author of
Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2014).

While 65 percent of Black professionals said Black employees have to work harder to advance, only 16 percent of white professionals agreed with that statement, the Coqual study found.

In addition, Black professionals are more likely to encounter racial prejudice and microaggressions than any other racial or ethnic group. Forty-three percent of Black executives have had colleagues use racially insensitive language in their presence. Microaggressions include having a colleague touch their hair without permission, being mischaracterized as “angry,” and being excluded from growth opportunities or one-on-one meetings with leadership.

“If I had a dollar for every time I heard, ‘You’re articulate for a Black guy,’ I could retire,” Battle says.

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After the video of Floyd’s death aired in late May, the number of Black individuals experiencing anxiety or depressive disorders rose to 41 percent nationally from 36 percent—an increase of 1.4 million people, according to a joint U.S. Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics survey.

It falls on corporate leaders to use their influence to model appropriate behaviors and language that should be used to discuss race, Ross says. Yet many white corporate leaders aren’t always comfortable speaking out about race. They fear they won’t seem authentic.

If corporate leaders and white colleagues aren’t willing to talk about or understand the painful emotions brought about by videos of police brutality and racial discrimination, Black employees will become disengaged, Kennedy says.

“We are afraid of talking about race,” she says. “Because we can’t talk about it, we can’t learn about it.”

For instance, white managers don’t realize how common it is for Black professionals to experience microaggressions, Kennedy says. They’re often surprised to hear that some of their own actions, such as telling a Black co-worker that she is exceptional or articulate, can be offensive.

“If you aren’t experiencing these microaggressions, you wouldn’t think about them,” says Yaro Fong-Olivares, director of corporate education at the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. “In order to fully feel like one belongs, we must be able to share microaggressions with all colleagues, including our managers, as they happen, without fear of losing relationship capital or being further alienated,” she says.

Before the pandemic, some companies were helping employees gain a greater understanding of microaggressions by randomly pairing employees who normally wouldn’t interact or speak with each other for 15-minute conversations about their challenges, frustrations and goals at work to foster increased trust and collaboration, says Vaneeta Sandhu, head of emotional fitness at Coa, a mental health startup based in San Francisco, who has focused on mental health and diversity issues.

“It allows folks to better understand each other’s perspectives and become more aware of the ways we’re behaving or verbalizing things that might not be inclusive of other individuals,” Sandhu says.

Opening Up

After several racially charged shootings in 2016, Tim Ryan, the U.S. chairman and senior partner of global accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), held a series of companywide conversations about race to help his employees better understand each other’s experiences.

“You may not be an African-American or a Latino, but, in order for you to understand that person’s journey, you have to gain empathy to yield authenticity,” says Blair Taylor, a partner in PwC’s Workforce of the Future practice area, who has worked on PwC’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

“If you spend time with people who are not like you, you start to understand that they are more like you than you realize, and you start picking up stories that you can tell in your own voice,” says Taylor, who works in the firm’s Seattle office.

As a result, Ryan co-founded CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, a group of more than 1,500 CEOs across 85 industries who have pledged to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace through dialogue and unconscious-bias training. The group’s signatories increased by 40 percent in just five months last year following nationwide protests against systemic racism. The companies share their practices through the website CEOAction.com. The group also recently created CEO Action for Racial Equity, a two-year fellowship program aimed at advancing racial equity through corporate engagement strategies and public-policy reforms.

Diversity Program Deficiencies

Corporate leaders often believe their diversity efforts are helping to recruit and retain Black professionals to a greater extent than they really are. That’s because Black individuals often get lumped in with white women and other people of color when companies report their diversity statistics.

To get a true picture of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, companies need to disaggregate the data, says Crystal Ashby, interim president and CEO of The Executive Leadership Council in Washington, D.C.

“When you make this blanket statement that diversity efforts are increased, you’re hiding the true story, and the true story is not favorable for Black professionals,” she says. 

The only way for senior leaders to effect change is to place those clearly qualified Black professionals into senior roles so that the pipeline is developed, she says. For example, Black professionals rarely get profit-and-loss experience, but that’s often a requirement for a CEO or chief financial officer position. It’s important to create development opportunities for Black professionals so that when their names come up for promotions, everyone at the table can say they’re ready, she adds.

Company leaders often mistakenly believe that diversity and inclusion efforts that have traditionally helped white women in the workplace will also help Black professionals. But another Coqual report,
Wonder Women in STEM and the Companies that Champion Them, has shown they aren’t as effective, Kennedy says.

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Employee resource groups correlate to 57 percent higher rates of advancement and retention for white women, but don’t boost advancement and retention for Black women, according to the report. Employee resource groups often focus on fostering women’s confidence, but Black women already have a high level of confidence that they can succeed, Kennedy says. Instead, Black women say they could use help with learning how to get their colleagues and managers to recognize the work they’re doing, she notes.

Similarly, the study found that creating safe spaces to network externally with other Black professionals is more beneficial than participating in an internal employee resource group, Kennedy says. Companies can create that opportunity by providing funds for Black men to join organizations such as The Executive Leadership Council in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that offers programs addressing specific challenges faced by Black professionals.

Battling Bias

Corporate diversity efforts also fail when companies opt for a quick fix.

Unconscious bias creeps into every workplace decision related to interviewing, hiring, retaining, rewarding and promoting talent. Yet companies too often try to address it in one or two hours of training.

While that might be enough time for teaching new policies and sharing information, it’s probably not enough for diversity training that attempts to change attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, says Eden King, associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology at Rice University in Houston, and one of the authors of “Examining Why and for Whom Reflection Diversity Training Works,” a study published in
Personnel Assessment and Decisions.

One way to guard against bias in hiring and promotions is to be transparent about what will be assessed, what criteria the decision-maker will use to evaluate candidates and who will be making the hiring decision, says Sandhu. “When people understand the rules of the game, it is much easier for them to play,” she explains.

Candidates are often asked vague questions that allow for bias, such as “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “What’s your biggest strength and weakness?”

Often, the person conducting the interview will select the candidate who offers the response she believes is the best answer rather than evaluating how the candidate will perform with the team, she says. A better way to assess candidates is to establish measurable criteria such as whether the candidate has ever facilitated team meetings or prepared talking points for leadership.

Identifying who is making the hiring decisions adds another level of transparency. It’s a good idea to pause halfway through the interview process to look for patterns in who has been interviewed and who has moved to the next step in the process, Sandhu says. For example, if only white males are moving forward in the process, it would be worth exploring whether there is a problem with the way the criteria are worded or how the candidates are being recruited, she notes.

“When companies practice inclusive initiatives, all employees’ productivity and commitment go up,” Sandhu says.

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area.


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SHRM provides advice and resources to help employers promote diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I).

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