As the world approaches the second anniversary of the 2020 racial reckoning, the work of many DEI professionals centers around company follow-through. Many workers now face the truth about whether their employers are committed to fanning June 2020's fiery passion or whether they'll let that flame extinguish. James D. White, former CEO of Jamba Juice, told HR Dive he believes human resources plays a crucial role in this work.
Instead of HR's traditional function as a guardian of company interests and mitigator of risks, White suggested that HR pros focus more on nurturing the talent within their organizations. White, who recently co-authored the book "Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Corporate Culture in a Race-Conscious World" with his daughter Krista, spoke to HR Dive about actionable ways to put their DEI desires into practice.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
HR Dive: Over the past two years, where are some shifts that you're encouraged to see, regarding DEI?
JAMES D. WHITE: The place I would start is the impact of global racial reckoning. Two major changes that I think dramatically impacted [DEI attitudes]: The work around the unfortunate murder of George Floyd, where hundreds of companies spoke out about anti-racist policies and cultures. And in all of it, I think the conversation changed.
I think there was some positive momentum around actions, including commitment to invest in local communities that traditionally have been under-resourced and under-represented within some of the corporations. I think there's also progress that has happened both in the board room and in the C-suite around adding more diversity.
In turn, what are some areas that you feel like need improvement when it comes to anti-racism in corporate America?
JAMES: The biggest area for improvement – and we hope our book will be a catalyst for this conversation – is the gap between the words and the action.
There were hundreds of companies that made statements. If we go back and look at the statements from two years ago and compare those to the real actions that happen inside these companies, I think we find a pretty wide gap.
Leaders really need to be prioritizing this work, integrating this work into the strategies and values of their company. And like everything else in business, anything that matters in business, we measure and keep score. And we also incentivize people to make progress around that board.
What you've described sounds like external-facing performative allyship, rather than taking care of those inside of companies. Is that right?
JAMES: The challenge is the work is hard; it requires focus and diligence. It requires a commitment. One of the points we make in the book is: this is work that the CEO cannot delegate.
This work has to be connected to the strategy of the company; has to be integrated into the values; integrated into all the policies that touch people. If you think about the hiring, onboarding practices, compensation, policies and practices, how we promote people, how we provide incremental assignments to people, all those policies need to be touched.
To be sustainable, the best companies lay out a multi-year strategy to make improvements and they measure them over time.
You mentioned hiring, onboarding, compensation and promotion. What other moves can HR pros can make towards a more equitable workplace?
JAMES: HR plays a really critical role in the way we think about this work. We think some of the HR leadership needs to be reimagined: We've got to be less focused on mitigating risks and more focused on unlocking the full potential of all the talent in the organization.
If you build a more inclusive culture, where people feel like they belong, you're going to have retention. The other operational component is that middle management we believe is the place where you build sustainability and around this work. The HR professionals, getting training programs and education programs, and tools and policies into the hands of middle management is one of the places that we would anchor the focus of driving this kind of change inside a company.
And finally, what's one thing that HR teams can do today to champion anti-racism?
JAMES: Just being human would be the first point that I'd make.
I think if we bring humanity into the corporation and into the policies, and create more spaces for more different kinds of people — I think that will be essential. One of the things we talked about in the book is the importance of building the capacity for empathy. And we talked about it from the vantage point of building empathy into the organization. From a leadership perspective, we use that to drive action. HR plays a role in creating space for different voices, creating policies and systems and structures, that we can bring more diverse voices to the table inside of a company.
KRISTA WHITE: HR has an opportunity to impact policy. One example I would use in terms of HR policies is ensuring that they are inclusive to the LGBTQ community. So little things, like making sure that there's pronouns in your email signatures or bigger things like ensuring partner rights / parental leave for any gender, things like that. Those are things that HR can advocate for.
JAMES: We're doing a project right now for a major corporation. And they use tiger teams around their DEI work. We would talk about them as active learning teams in the book — where they bring a cross section of employees that are passionate around this work. And they have a 60- or 90-day sprint to try to drive different levels of understanding and education into the company. They can have multiple people across the enterprise, who can engage around this important work inside the corporation.
When we think about the Great Resignation, we think the future won't require anti-racist leadership and empathy, and more inclusive leadership. If we look into the future, you're going to find the best leaders are going to really bring these capabilities to the floor as a critical part of how they operate as leaders… and I think you're gonna see companies that have fully embraced this, they're gonna be far better at retaining and attracting the best employees from the widest and most diverse set of populations.
KRISTA: I think we're seeing a new labor movement. I would like to see more of a focus on workers rights at every level. One thing we've talked about in the book is the way that frontline workers were disregarded during the pandemic. And I think that has really accelerated the way people look at their experience of work, and are demanding more now from their employer.