Do Black People Matter in the 21st Century Business Organization?

March 16th, 2010

Not long ago, I read an excellent article in the Fall  2009 issue of the magazine Strategy+Business on the challenges of global talent management, given the variety of economic, social, and demographic changes we are encountering.  Diversity was an important part of this discussion as the writers explored the dynamic shifts in what talented people wanted in their work lives and where those talented people could be found.

What was interesting was that race was not a part of the discussion in the issue at all.  Certainly nationality was, as was gender.  And the term “people of color” was used in describing a best practice undertaken by Johnson and Johnson.  But nothing else referred to race.  Now, I could chalk this up to pervasive and persistent bias and racism.  After all, none of the authors (to my knowledge) were black so it’s not surprising that race might be downplayed as an important factor in the talent diversity discussion.  But then my wandering mind began to entertain an alternative hypothesis: what if race—specifically the presence or absence of black people in organizations—was simply no longer a priority in the 21st century discussion on global talent development?   What if black people were really only tangential to the path that effective 21st century firms needed to traverse?

I guess that’s possible, but I don’t think it’s likely.  First, in the talent hungry U.S., 11% of the population matters.  The sheer number of skilled individuals in the U.S. workforce who identify themselves as black represents a substantial benefit to any company that can harness that talent.  Though constantly underappreciated, the talent within the black community is vital to U.S. economic viability moving forward.

But that’s only half the story.

Creating racial diversity in organizations is how,  we, in United States organizations,  get to learn how to overcome the bias toward marginalizing employees with whom we are unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or even, unpalatable.  Every organization everywhere in the country wastes money and talent every single day of the year. That happens because there are always people who are marginalized, people who don’t fit the normal image of a productive member of the organization.  One of the great capabilities of successful 21st century organizations (and communities, and societies) will be the ability to learn from the perspectives of these different people.  Not ostracize them. Not tolerate them. Rather, seek them out and learn from them.   I don’t know why one particular difference dynamic like racial difference becomes focal in a given society at a given time.  Certainly there are social, historical, political and economic factors that converge to privilege that dynamic.  But the important thing is to pay attention to the difference and learn all we can about how engaging it can help the organization be better.

Coda:  When I began writing this essay, I was reflecting on the plight of indigenous people in the U.S.  I was contemplating using Native Americans as examples of a people who, by virtue of the oppression and racism visited upon them by the European and U.S. dominance over their nations, had been rendered irrelevant in the conversation about talent.  After all, there really are not enough of them to make a difference, right?

I was about to be trapped in the very hole I’m writing about.  Assuming that because a group of people aren’t present in large numbers that they are not relevant to what we need to understand to be an effective organization, leader, or manager of talent.  The value isn’t only in the numbers and the statistics.  It’s in the lessons learned from the engagement.  I know that stuff is harder to measure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important.

4 Responses to “Do Black People Matter in the 21st Century Business Organization?”

  1. Holden Lee says:

    Is there a centralized data analysis that shows the percentage of population vs. percentage of workforce in various categories? Given, say, 4 broad categories of academia, government, corporate, small business/self-employed… it would be interesting to see that blacks make up x % of the population but makes up a % in academia, b % in govt, c % in corporate, and d % in small businesses… and then repeat it for the other factors, e.g. ethnicity, gender, geography, level of education, etc. I see this stuff in piecemeal all over the place, but it’d be nice to aggregate and summarize, if possible.

  2. Kit Tennis says:

    Hey Martin-

    You raise a very interesting question that is growing in salience as the field of “leveraging diversity” grows increasingly toward the generic and away from the specific. Of course managers would like to think that “valuing people and their diversity” can mean simply being open to personality differences and generally looking to discover the unique talents of employees. Those are good, no doubt about it. At the same time, they are not sufficient to facilitate successful competitive recruitment, development and retention of employees of different races. A plethora of data demonstrate that, for instance, Black candidates and employees are, on average, acutely aware of the racial makeup of firms and how those firms support employees of color. Thus, generic diversity awareness doesn’t cut it in a highly competitive market.

    Perhaps more to the point, employees and managers who have little or no insight into the lives, experiences, and perspectives of colleagues of different races or nationalities are pretty unlikely to skillfully anticipate how to best draw out their skills, how to empathize with their responses to situations, how to develop the kinds of friendships that form the core of high performing teams. In that kind of setting, talented people are underutilized, often inadvertently disrespected, and tend to look for somewhere else to contribute their genius. Maybe that particular aspect of the talent management equation isn’t in vogue these days, particularly since there is a certain softness in the employment market at the moment. Since management is still overwhelmingly white in the U.S., for instance, that may make it easier to avoid doing the more challenging work of learning to really connect across race. Of course, some (myself included) would say that this is the perfect time to gain the competitive edge that will soon be vitally important by developing widespread cross-cultural competence, as well as promoting a general culture of inclusiveness.

    I’d love to see some quantitative research that goes beyond the current “diversity focus is associated with increased stock price” and looks deeper into the real nature of the diversity and inclusion work in companies, so that we could see (demonstrate, really) the importance of focused cross-cultural skill development on recruitment, retention, development and company performance. Got any Ph.D. candidates looking for a thesis topic?

  3. Martin Davidson says:

    Holden: Currently, there are a few repositories for diversity statistics, such as Diversity Central and the Census Bureau. In the larger scheme, I’m always mindful about the purpose of tracking those stats. It is almost always useful to track representation this way, but just because the population percentage is X does not mean that you should necessarily expect or desire X% in a given profession or organization.

  4. Martin Davidson says:

    Kit: I think you are on point. Organizations and leaders continue to miss the point of the tangible costs of not cultivating workforces that are not diverse by race, gender, etc.–those costs are really VERY significant. The problem with generic diversity work (and I’m not completely sure what that really looks like) is that it does little to build the organizational capability to really engage and leverage difference; that only happens when the organization tackles the core social identity differences emergent within the societal context (e.g., black/white race and gender in the U.S. or in South Africa, ethnicity and gender in China, or caste and gender in India).

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