By Anthony Smith-Meyer

This article ends a sequence of three exploring prejudice and discrimination at work. One final piece will look at how some companies are responding now to #BlackLivesMatter (#BLM). 

In our first epistle, we looked at the causes and drivers of exclusive behaviours and why it influences our treatment of others in discriminatory ways. We considered the harm of bias that prejudice causes us as individuals, employees and, more broadly, as members of society. In our second article, we examined the enormity of the challenge facing us as we try to temper our treatment of minorities, be they based on gender, race, culture or sexual orientation. We understood that altering the mindset within an organisation requires dedicated leadership and is a project like no other.

Now we will address the critical conditions needed before we can dare to believe that culture and mindset change is possible. There is no single, step-by-step solution to eliminating prejudice and discrimination; it requires a multi-faceted, holistic approach. Like seeds scattered on infertile soil, none of these will succeed if the base conditions for culture change initiatives are absent. We can try to raise awareness of the topic or educate people on new behaviours to adopt, but without a joint commitment to fairness, transparency and respect, they will fail.

An uncomfortable realisation

#BLM has existed since the acquittal of the killer of Trayvon Martin in 2013. The killing of George Floyd during the reflective days of the Covid-19 Lockdown followed a spate of other shootings involving innocent Black citizens in the USA and has seen the movement come to life in a way that the world has been unwilling to ignore. Thanks to the US President’s campaign rally in Tulsa on 20 June 2020, the world learnt about the 1921 “Tulsa Massacre”, when White mobs ran amok on what was then known as “the Black Wall Street”, killing upwards of 300 people. We also discovered Juneteenth, the annual celebration of the emancipation of slaves celebrated by Americans everywhere; Black Americans that is. For whatever reason, in the wake of climate protests in 2019, the anxiety caused by Covid-19, the appearance of grotesque videos of illegal and cruel killings of Black Americans, the awareness campaign that is #BLM went both viral and global. In Europe, Europeans protesting against US injustice and racism started to look at their own histories – now with statues of slave-traders and colonial masters in England, Belgium and France being removed – even a statue of a Danish missionary, Hans Egede, in Greenland and that of the (in)famous favourite privateer of England’s Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake, are under consideration for removal. People, and that includes employees and consumers, have become painfully aware that there is a shameful legacy that needs confrontation, and a long-standing injustice that needs rectification.

From anxiety to ESG

In a world still suffering from the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008/09, with no fresh political leadership offering meaningful hope of new promise for the future, the political arena has increasingly turned in on itself in the shape of nationalism and xenophobic hostility. The subsequent vacuum of leadership has led people, consumers and other stakeholders to turn their attention to the behaviour of the “other half” of society; or rather the other 1%. Resentful eyes turn towards the holders of disproportionate wealth; to the owners of capital; and to the executives perceived to be earning multiples in their hundreds more than their workers. Out of this malaise, 2019 saw the concept of ESG (Environment, Social, Governance) gaining currency – ideas of stakeholder capitalism, capitalism with a social and environmental conscience, executed in an air of transparency and accountability is slowly overtaking the shareholder capitalism of the 1970s. The mood and the demography of the people, the consumer, has shifted. To ensure long-term survival and success, companies can no longer stand as a casual bystander to social chaos, political failure and injustice. Company boards and executives have to engage with a broader society of citizens, as consumers and employees, or else they will turn their back on them. Companies no longer have the option to disregard the political and social sentiment of the crowd – they have to be seen to engage and to prove that they are sincere in doing so. The old option of maintaining a low profile and remaining silent is no longer an option. 

Do as I say; or do as I do?

Many companies already have Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) policies; some have programmes that involve regular reminders and warnings against discriminatory behaviour. Many companies, however, consider the “job done” once the necessary actions required by the programme are complete. Only a minority actually measure the cultural impact and effectiveness of such programmes. In the face of social media red flags signalling the importance of D&I issues, most companies are now paying a good deal of attention as to what D&I programmes are intended to change. Existing programmes are being revamped, and new ones established.

The traditional approach to programmes, designed to change employee behaviour, is based on command-and-control logic. Adoption of “Zero-tolerance” policies quickly renders discriminatory conduct a vice and the responsibility of the employee; a reason for instant dismissal. One could argue that discrimination is no longer a managerial problem, with any breach subsequently blamed on the proverbial “rotten apple”. Experience and social science, however, teach us that rules and information alone do not motivate changes in behaviour.[ii] Diversity training frequently emphasises legal definitions and limitations on discriminatory behaviour and educates participants in what is politically correct, but training does not change attitudes, per se. Hiring quotas and competence testing are arranged, but too frequently improperly enforced. Performance reviews may be designed to be neutral, but still, as mentioned in earlier articles, the psychology of both the evaluator and the evaluated are frequently negatively impacted by biased perceptions of competence and potential.[iii]

Implement D&I initiatives under the wrong circumstances and mindset, and such measures are ultimately ineffective and fail to motivate any genuine desire to foster change. The exercise merely becomes a blind application of well-meaning procedures applied by managers who do not share the same conviction as that of the person who initiated or designed the programme. Too often, a token representative of the minority identified as being discriminated against will be tasked with the “culture change project”. Appointing the victim to solve the crime is the worst form of delegation.[iv]  The woman or Black manager left as a lone crusader, implementing a programme that promotes the interests of his or her “people”, will only increase the gender or racist-based schism of “us and them” as the “dominant” culture resist the imposition of “foreign” ideas and norms.

It’s a moral fight; a leadership duty

Much of the demand and justification of making serious of D&I within organisations rests on arguments of social justice and stakeholder expectations. However, studies increasingly show that those companies who lead in the successful implementation of inclusive cultures for women and ethnic minorities enjoy a likelihood for financial outperformance of a massive 36% compared to those who make no or little D&I effort.[v]  The importance of bringing about an effective culture change within the organisation is, therefore, difficult to deny. Board directors are now schooled in the discipline of governance, objectives of long-term success, and the strategic importance of culture. It has become the first duty of directors to recruit and empower an executive that shares this conviction, and who is willing to lead this change personally. The C-suite must:

  • Take ownership of the topic of diversity and inclusion.
  • Show leadership in being the principal advocates of change.
  • Have the courage to face the legacy of corporate history, distant and recent, and, sometimes, the personal challenge of accepting responsibility for the organisational treatment of minorities within the organisation.

There is an adage that says, “the fish rots from the head”. It implies that the observed and evidenced mindset and behaviour of the leadership reflects itself in the main body of the organisation. Unless the leadership of the organisation is convinced of the need for change, promotes and internalises that change, then change will not happen.  

Time for some introspection

We cannot truly unburden ourselves of our past bias and prejudice if we convince ourselves that “we” are not the problem. Regretfully, for most of us as individuals and corporates, we have unsavoury legacies that we need to accept ownership of before we can be free of them. The UK pub chain, Greene King, has denounced the slave-owning origins of its founder (1799) and committed to invest “to benefit the BAME community and support our race diversity in the business”. Similar commitments and denouncements have been made by the insurance group, Lloyd’s of London, who, founded in 1688, insured slave ships during the slave trading era.[vi] Like the statues currently causing sufficient offence so as to be vandalised or removed, we need to take a fresh look at the symbols and icons of our firm and branding, even the paintings decorating our corridors of power, to see if they are appropriate to an inclusive culture. The headscarfed image of “Aunt Jemima” on the labels of pancake mixture and syrup owned by Quaker Oats had to go. Does the imagery of our company only laud a privileged and exclusive part of society? Such things undermine the message of inclusion. We have to understand the moral imperative for us to act, for such action to be authentic and credible.

Imperative #1: Inclusive leadership

The absolute need for executive ownership and leadership on a culture change project is accentuated by the plethora of failed efforts evidenced by culture scandals such as Wells Fargo and Barclays, or widespread fraudulent behaviour such as seen in Worldcom, Volkswagen and, more recently, Wirecard.[vii]  Experience and studies show that corporate executives consistently fail to transmit their ethical and moral values to the shop floor.[viii] Once the lofty words contained in speeches are delivered and replicated in the rarified language of corporate policy, the majority of employees return to the performance criteria upon which they are judged or most often queried. Moral issues fade to be replaced by hard financial performance; irrespective of the impact that may have on “softer” objectives. It is common to find that racial and gender bias is less prevalent at senior levels than in middle management and more junior levels, where goals tend to be more performance than behavioural-based, by a factor of 70% to 44%.[ix]  It is essential that the leader not only walks the talk, but also talks while walking if the chances for success are to be enhanced. 

To be a leader of culture change, it requires determination, courage and, not least, integrity. Studies show that there are four organisational factors linked with employees’ strong sense of inclusion.viii

  • Diverse, inclusive leadership evidencing openness to gender, race and LGBT+ presence at senior levels within the organisation, and a managerial culture that empowers employees and builds team cohesion.
  • Meritocracy and measures to increase fairness in consistent performance evaluation procedures and transparent, non-discriminatory outcomes.
  • The presence of in-house sponsors, mentors or coaches who support the individuals potentially challenged or intimidated by any non-inclusive tendencies. 
  • Access to senior leaders who engage with employees and are supportive of individual growth.

Imperative #2: A culture of trust

Once leadership and ownership are assured, the organisation is primed for effective D&I measures. The key to any change programme is to avoid any risk of a “them and us” discussion. “They” must not be seen as “the problem”, just as “us” do not have all of the answers. The precursor to any honest engagement, education, or reconciliation is the existence of a culture of mutual respect; an environment where: 

  • those in a position of privilege empathise with minority colleagues who, all too often, are subjected to unintended micro-aggression; 
  • where everyone feels free to speak up on “sensitive” subjects; 
  • where the fear of retaliation or abuse is absent.[x]  

The development of such a trust culture is the subject of an entirely different series of articles or books, yet it is essential to any thriving, inclusive culture. The minority employee must feel sufficiently safe and secure to express themselves, be themselves and to intervene as the individuals they are. The dominant group employee must see their alternatively-coloured, gay or female colleague in terms of their uniqueness, their competences and their contribution; “who” they are rather than “what” they are. In the creation of a trust environment, many concurrent paths have to be trodden, principally paved with values of mutual respect, empathy and transparency. Encompassing all of these elements is the idea of organisational justice, whereby equal consideration and respect to employees based on behaviour and performance is unquestionably the norm. As with the existence of an ethical culture, or a learning and innovation culture, honesty and trust between colleagues is the bedrock of team spirit, inclusion, open discourse and innovation.

Imperative #3: A living dialogue

As with any ethical debate, there are two significant obstacles to achieving a proper discussion about discriminatory behaviours: these are (i) individual interpretation and (ii) fear of confrontation.[xi] The final piece of the essential building blocks for an inclusive culture, alongside authentic leadership and the conditions for trust, is finding the courage to push a  continuous “living” dialogue amongst all parties involved. This living dialogue must be explicitly centred around:

  • a shared understanding of the objective,
  • clear delineation of supporting values and behaviours,
  • an organisational framework that facilitates and encourages frank and honest debate,
  • a willingness to stand by the consequences and outcomes of the discourse.

The objectives of this dialogue are manifold:

  1. To raise awareness of the nature and impact of prejudice on minority groups; to trigger the curiosity of majority group individuals to explore the realities of minority group life and experience; to enable those in the majority to empathise with, rather than rationalise the differences in experience being lived; and finally suppress stereotyping and generate an acknowledgement of what organisational equity, fairness and justice means.iv
  2. To research, learn and conclude on the causes of alienating experiences, interpretations and behaviour to onboard and integrate new perspectives.iv
  3. To refocus prejudicial stereotypes to understand and see the value of the uniqueness of the individual that they bring with them instead.[xii]
  4. To concentrate minds on shared purpose and values; to bond colleagues in the pursuit of what they share, rather than what separates them.xii

Through the creation of informal workshops, research groups and other opportunities to discover the value and benefits of a diversity of perspectives and joint endeavour, we can shine a light on behaviours that create division and distrust. From this discourse will come the many specific measures that can be instigated to face down micro-aggressive behaviours and build a more inclusive environment.

There is one finishing touch needed for success, however: monitoring for outcomes and the transparent communication of results. When a group identifies an issue, it must be seen to be learnt from and acted on, or the whole process of dialogue will be undermined and disregarded. Questions raised and initiatives started must be revisited and reported on and if necessary, modified to ensure the intended outcomes are indeed achieved. Like the burden of Sisyphus, the task of maintaining a culture that forever renews itself is a never-ending task.

Beyond the firm

We have mentioned before that an organisation cannot truly convince others of its sincerity or authenticity unless it is seen to be consistent in its behaviour and true to its values. Hence, the company that has successfully engineered a culture change within the firm cannot rest on its laurels without simultaneously embedding the same principles in their business with third parties and their interaction with society also.v

The inclusiveness process needs to show all employees that the leadership is serious about the application of its principles and values, not only inside the firm, but also in its conduct of business elsewhere. Verifying the true identity and trustworthiness of suppliers and business partners is part of robust governance, due diligence and compliance procedures. Increasingly, firms are required to check that supply chains do not involve the use of slave labour, conflict minerals, or any involvement with UN-sanctioned countries, etc. Equally, firms that are serious about being authentically true to their inclusion culture should audit and determine the diversity and attitudes of suppliers and distributors. 

The “S” of ESG stands for social impact. To be believed by all the players on the stage upon which the organisation acts, it must also evaluate the social impact it has on issues it pretends to care about. 

  • Are the products and services of the firm properly available and appropriate for minority groups on a non-discriminatory basis? 
  • Is inclusiveness a subject that is a challenge for the communities it serves or benefits from? 
  • If there is a lack of qualified candidates from minority groups to recruit from, can the firm help? 
  • If schooling and education is an issue, what can the company do to support underprivileged schools? 
  • Can the firm make available scholarships and work experience opportunities to students who would otherwise be unable to fund their studies or obtain internships?
  • Can the company act as a role model for Black communities to inspire ambition and a belief that for them too, there can be progress and achievement?

It is easier to ask questions than to determine any quick answers, but solutions are best found on the ground, on the shop floor; not through the tapping of a keyboard in the writing of an article.

Beyond this series of articles, lie a plethora of possible initiatives and actions that can create a path to a diverse and inclusive culture within our organisations; even our society. In our fourth and final article, we shall look at the actions taken by Microsoft and Ernst & Young as they seek to embark on a path of change and inclusion.

Be the change

A change management process is neither simple nor separate from the routine business of the firm. As with ethics, the strategy for ensuring non-discriminatory conduct cannot coexist with a business strategy; it must be embedded within it.


  “The Post-Truth Business”  by Sean Pillot de Chenecey (2019), Kogan Page Publishers

[ii]  ”Why diversity programs fail” by Dobbin and Kalev, July 2016, Harvard Business Review

[iii]  ”Spotlight on building a diverse organisation”; interview of Iris Bohnet by Gardiner Morse, July 2016, Harvard Business Review

[iv]  ”US business must take meaningful action against racism” by Roberts & Washington, June 2020, Harvard Business School

[v]  ”Diversity wins” by Hunt, Prince, Dixon-Fyle & Dolan, May 2020, Mckinsey & Company

[vi]  ”Pub chain and insurance hub ’sorry’ for slave links”, 18 June 2020, BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/business-53087790

[vii]  ”Wirecard: The rise and fall of a German tech icon” by Dan McCrum, 25 June 2020, Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/284fb1ad-ddc0-45df-a075-0709b36868db

[viii] ”Dear white boss …” by Caver and Livers, November 2002, Harvard Business Review

[ix]  ”Understanding organisational barriers to a more inclusive workplace” by Bailinson, Decherd, Ellsworth & Guttman, June 2020, McKinsey & Company

[x]  ”Surviving Organisational Behaviour” by Anthony Smith-Meyer, ©2018, Kindle Publishing

[xi]  ”Ethical Culture: Much ado about nothing?” by Anthony Smith-Meyer, December 2015, the Journal of Business Compliance (issue 06/2015), Baltzer Science Publishers

[xii]  ”Inclusive Leadership: The view from six countries” by Jeanine Prime & Elizabeth Salib, May 2014, Catalyst.org

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