The words hit me like a punch to the gut, but they shouldn’t have surprised me.
“Only 57 percent of B Lab’s staff who are people of color feel they can bring their whole selves to work, compared with 96 percent of their white coworkers.”
B Lab, the organization I co-founded in 2006, is the nonprofit behind the global B Corporation movement. B Corporations redefine success in business—they compete to be best for the world and meet the most rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.
Yet, in a 2017 survey of our staff, only 57 percent of B Lab’s staff who are people of color feel they can bring their whole selves to work, compared with 96 percent of their white coworkers.
Houston, we have a problem.
B Lab, an organization of roughly 65 people, is 68 percent white—whiter than the U.S. population, which according to the 2017 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau is 61 percent white, non-Hispanic or Latino. That wasn’t what surprised me. What surprised me was that the staff survey suggested that our culture is more like 98 percent white. More specifically, white middle-to-upper-class culture. Things I hadn’t noticed were negatively impacting our team’s experience at work.
For example, our primary office location is in a largely white affluent suburb of Philadelphia, and that has created an unwelcoming environment for some team members. Other issues seemed to stem from economic and class disparities, as well as the interconnected issue of race: Our expense-reimbursement policy assumes our colleagues have credit cards and is ignorant to the fact that some who do have credit cards might struggle if we reimburse them after they need to pay their monthly bills. (More burdensome for some given research that suggests credit terms are often worse for people of color than for white people.) Personal shares at our weekly staff meeting, intended to build connection and community, often feature photos from a team member’s amazing travel experience or beautiful wedding, which for some had a “must be nice for you” dissonant ring. General office chatter—whether in the kitchen, on Slack, or during GoToMeetings—reflects the life experiences, interests, and digital feeds of our team, and if that team is largely white and privileged, then just being around the office can be a daily reminder of “otherness” and an obstacle for some to bring their whole selves to work every day. One staff member of color shared how difficult it was to be at work all day enduring a deafening silence among their colleagues about a police shooting the day before of an unarmed Black man; the contrast between how the shooting had impacted their personal network and their work network was stark and uncomfortable.
Compounding these issues, B Lab has almost no people of color in leadership, creating a lack of role models for career development and contributing to a sense of isolation. It shouldn’t have been surprising to learn that only 29 percent of people of color at B Lab said that there were role models they could relate to at B Lab, compared with 79 percent of their white peers. Perhaps all of these issues help explain why only 50 percent of people of color at B Lab felt their social interactions at work were “good or great” (vs. “poor or fair”), compared with 92 percent of their white peers.
Looking Deeper: How My Personal Bias Affects Our Culture
Many often intersecting types of bias—including occupational, class, gender, racial, hiring/advancement and customer—can manifest in the workplace. One that has felt most pressing for B Lab, and for me personally, has been our implicit bias in hiring and advancement.
If a non-inclusive culture, and bias, is more likely to persist in a homogenous culture, then a necessary step in building an inclusive culture and eradicating institutional bias includes building a more heterogeneous culture. That means diversifying the team at all levels to ensure that more heterogeneous experiences and perspectives can show up in the everyday interactions that create culture and can add value to solving problems and seizing opportunities that create great organizations.
For those for whom erasing bias isn’t self-sufficient motivation, there is plenty of research that makes a compelling business case for building diverse and inclusive teams and culture. As the report “The Competitive Advantage of Racial Equity” from the consulting firm FSG states, “Research shows that more diverse teams are better able to solve problems and that companies with more diverse workforces have higher revenues, more customers and greater market shares.”
In my experience, building a more diverse and inclusive workplace is often easier said than done. Here’s one reason: We all tend to exist within networks that resemble ourselves.
For example, according to research by PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute), 75 percent of white people do not have a significant relationship with a person or family of color. As a result, building racially heterogeneous teams and cultures requires commitment to get out of our comfortable networks and patterns of behavior.
At B Lab, our biggest obstacle has not been intention, it has been commitment. Like many organizations, for-profit or non-profit, the team at B Lab is running hard all the time. For every team member, there is always way more to do in a day, a week, a month, than they can do. As my partner likes to say, we will always be“over-opportunitied and under-resourced.” In an environment like this, every person’s understandable reflex when filling open positions is to fill them fast and get someone talented and aligned on board ASAP. Faster if possible.
As a result, we too often have valued a speedy hiring decision over a strategic hiring decision. That often means we have filled full-time positions with interns–aka easily accessible, known quantities who have demonstrated they can do the work and are a “good cultural fit.” And they can start tomorrow. At one point, roughly one-third of all B Lab staff were former interns. As in many organizations, interns often come from our personal networks–the schools we attended, a neighbor or colleague’s children, or just local talent. For an organization like B Lab, with primary offices located in a largely white affluent suburb, co-founded by three white people, this means our interns have looked almost entirely like us. And, because we have often promoted from within, this desired internal upward mobility has had the unintended effect of maintaining a homogenous leadership and culture, as former interns rose into management and new interns joined us from the same-old social networks.
The new book Erasing Institutional Bias by Dr. Tiffany Jana and Ashley Diaz Mejias asks us to reflect on how each of us, individually, may contribute to creating or perpetuating institutional bias in our organizations. As I reflected, I realized I have personally exacerbated our difficulties building an inclusive and diverse team by creating and perpetuating a culture that prioritizes speed over strategy. I work fast and long hours, creating expectations for the same, and my creative energy can turn safe-to-try ideas into dangerous-to-implement initiatives that overburden an already overstretched team. My pace, when coupled with my position of power and a lack of adequate self-restraint, has too often pushed us to hire faster, not smarter, as people understandably grasp for the nearest life preserver to carry them through the next set of waves. This is at least one way I need to change my behavior to support the team in achieving our shared objective of building an inclusive, diverse and best-in-class organization. Hiring outside of our existing personal and professional networks will require a sustained effort to identify partners, to explore areas of alignment, and to build trust. That will take time, and I need to change my behavior to create the space to make that possible.
Continuing to Learn—and Apply What Is Learned
There is power in owning and naming the challenges we experience in turning our intentions into actions and our actions into results. This is especially true for white-led businesses and business communities from whom we too often hear either a deafening silence on these issues or a mistaken perspective that institutional bias is a problem for “others” rather than a problem for “us.” Silence and othering of this topic prevents our organizations and our society from reaching our full potential. As Dr. Jana says, “We are all are part of the problem if we are participating in systems without questioning and leveraging our influence.” As I prepared myself to write the foreword for Erasing Institutional Bias, I felt an eerily familiar feeling, a mixture of excitement and anxiety. The feeling just before taking a big risk, turning a private belief into a public commitment and the accountability that creates, leveraging the kind of transparency that creates vulnerability and the potential for transformation.
The quantitative and qualitative results of our staff survey were a cold-shower reminder to look at the data and not to trust blindly in my own personal experience, which may be quite different from the experience of others, including others whom I care about. Despite the pain I felt learning the information in the survey results, I would have been far more devastated had I and our management team remained oblivious any longer. Data—and the deeper understanding it can offer—creates opportunities. This data gave us some information we needed to begin to improve the experiences, and hopefully the success and longevity, of people of color at B Lab.
While we have a long way to go, changes to policies, to our everyday business practices, and to our leadership team are underway. Our staff, leadership and board diversity are all moving in the right direction. Team members are able to work from home two days per week and we’ve created a Center City Philadelphia satellite office. Our reimbursement policy is more clear that advances and corporate cards are available. Most importantly, we’ve approved three new hires focused on equity, diversity and inclusion at B Lab and in the B Corp community; expanded our work on the Inclusive Economy Challenge; created budget for our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which has been operating without one since 2014; approved several employee resource and affinity groups, including one focused on Race, Identity and Belonging; and have begun training and individual coaching on these issues for our entire executive team. These changes, and others, will make us a stronger team, one that makes better decisions and is ready and able to build a stronger, more inclusive global movement of people using business as a force for good.
Erasing Institutional Bias Includes Overthrowing Shareholder Primacy
We can’t stop there. We must look deeper because institutional bias goes beyond the walls of any single organization. Bias can be structural.
One example is the implicit bias inherent in the legal structure of the corporation itself. The legal principle of shareholder primacy states that corporations are obligated to maximize value for shareholders. This creates an economic system built on implicit bias, one full of well-intentioned people who are legally obligated to make decisions designed to benefit only those with the financial capital to own shares. And who owns those shares is illuminating.
Only about 10 percent of Americans own nearly 85 percent of the shares of all the companies traded in the stock market. And nearly 50 percent of Americans do not own a single share of a single company. The measure of success we so often here about, and that is enshrined in law and culture—increasing value for shareholders—does not necessarily or commensurately increase value for society, especially for those historically and currently marginalized.
The path to ownership and thus to influence over corporate behavior is even more difficult for people of color. Given hundreds of years of slavery, racial terror and discrimination, Black Americans have very little financial capital compared to their white fellow citizens (e.g. Black families have $0.05 of wealth for every $1.00 of wealth owned by white families; it’s $0.06 for Latino families), giving them less opportunity to have a say in governing the behavior of corporations. B Corporations address this systemic institutional bias by voluntarily holding themselves to a higher standard of legal accountability, which requires B Corps to consider the impact of their decisions on all of their stakeholders—their workers, their communities, the environment—not just their shareholders.
Although we have a long way to go at B Lab and in building a B Economy to live into our highest aspirations, we have made huge progress from where we started. At this moment in history, we cannot afford to continue ignoring the inequities disproportionately affecting marginalized, vulnerable, and historically underrepresented communities. We can, and must, work individually, organizationally, and collectively as part of a deliberate, coordinated movement to dismantle the systems and structures built by institutional bias and recreate a new normal of a purpose-driven inclusive economy that works for everyone.
By Jay Coen Gilbert, Co-founder of B Lab and the movement of Certified B Corporations.
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