Identity

5 People on How Their Workplaces' Diversity Initiatives Are Actually Going

"The CEO said the organization was indeed diverse, despite having only white women in its leadership positions."
September 15, 2020, 11:00am
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A series in which people across the U.S. offer firsthand perspectives about how social issues impact their real lives.

Protestors have been flooding the streets of major American cities since May in response to police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, as well as the paralysis of Jacob Blake

When they’re not demanding change in the streets, however, non-white people are being faced with challenges in their workplaces. Companies and organizations—like Condé Nast, NARAL, and Glossier, among so many others, across industries —are being called out both internally and publicly about their lack of diversity among their employees and instances of workplace racism.  Many companies facing these issues swore to implement anti-racism work, which, on a corporate level, often takes the form of diversity and inclusion (or D&I) initiatives, which usually involve diagnosing problems within a company or organization as they relate to inequality in the workplace. Once specific problems in that sense are identified, leadership ideally takes steps toward rectifying those problems to create a work environment that is more equitable and inclusive. 

VICE spoke to five employees of color (none of whom work at the places above) about how D&I initiatives, which are ostensibly meant to benefit them and other nonwhite employees and candidates, are actually going a few months after the companies where they work undertook them. 

Names have been changed to protect sources' privacy and professional well-being. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


 Sasha, 20, New York 

I’m a Black sales associate at a popular clothing store chain. Under a post on my company's Instagram account about donating to BLM organizations, a few current and former employees at its retail locations called the company out in the comments about discrimination on the job, race-based wage gaps, and unsafe working conditions. My store location, in particular, was called out the most. 

 On Instagram, the company announced it will update its outward-facing annual reports to include D&I metrics and launch an independent investigation to look into allegations of racism. The company is also making efforts beyond the ones posted publicly: The CEO stepped down, and leadership hired people specifically focused on D&I to HR. Leadership holds weekly calls about updates on the company and other D&I initiatives it's undertaking. They've done group calls, hired legal teams to speak with us if we wanted to, and now have an anonymous call line for employees if they have anything to report. The HR department has also added more benefits for employees, like commuter benefits and volunteer pay. I even got a pay raise.

Since the public call-outs, HR is a lot more receptive to our complaints in general—even those that aren’t about racism. For example, the company now allows us to do curbside pickups instead of in-store shopping after we brought up health concerns. Leadership is making strides in the right direction, and the fact that they're very candid about it is surprising, to be honest. 

Now that stores are open again, I'm optimistic the company will improve, but I don’t know how long I want to stay around for that after seeing how this all went down to begin with. A lot of my co-workers and managers there expressed how messy this whole situation is, and we all want to leave, but can't for financial reasons. 

Mia, 31, New York 

 I work in healthcare IT as a business analyst helping clients learn how to implement and use software for government incentive programs.

 One of my co-workers reached out to HR to see if the company would release a public statement in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's killings—or if, at least, we would see an internal statement from management to the Black employees (of which there are no more than 45, out of maybe 2,000 employees in the U.S.). A senior member of HR replied that there were no plans to do either. 

That didn't sit right with me, so I reached out to the rest of the Black people on staff and put together a letter to send to management and HR  using a template I found on Twitter.

I got a lot of support, but I was also warned that our HR was especially useless and that, by trying to organize this, I would be opening myself up to subtle retaliation. Those co-workers also shared their stories of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, and, in one case, sexual assault—which resulted in the abuser being told not to be in the same building as his accuser, but no other repercussions.

A well-meaning brown co-worker who insisted on giving our management the benefit of the doubt ended up sending our letter to someone in middle management, whom we believe sent it up to the C-suite, so we had to quickly get the letter sent to management. 

We ended up with about 75 signatures. We got a response from the CEO within 24 hours saying that he would respond in more detail to our letter within a week. We heard nothing for seven or eight business days. Finally, the CFO (who is also somehow the head of HR) sent us a very "All Lives Matter"–esque letter that most of us didn't appreciate. In it, they promised the company would match donations to organizations employees chose, but we'd need clearance from HR first, according to the employee handbook. 

The CEO hosted an internal town hall meeting two weeks later. With 13 minutes left, he started talking about the letter we sent him; he went on about how diverse we are as a company. He said nothing about police brutality or the Black people murdered, but insisted that we had to ask what we can do personally, rather than asking what the company can do to help. Ultimately, the company pledged $1 million toward "combating educational inequality" and formed a diversity council made up of four people from HR and six people from the general staff. 

I was not chosen for the diversity council, but it did include two other Black employees—and a white co-worker who is a former cop, as well as another white co-worker who is loudly "All Lives Matter"/"they shouldn't be looting.” 

Leadership hasn’t made the $1 million donation yet, as the diversity council is meant to help with the logistics of the donation, but the group hasn't met beyond the introductory call. Their first meeting is scheduled for September 19—two months after the council's formation. I'm not optimistic about anything changing here. It's clear the owners don't care.

Layla, 31, Maryland

I work in the nonprofit sector as a development specialist. My organization was called out for its racism and lack of diversity after the murder of George Floyd. After his death, the organization took a long time to put out a public-facing statement, and when they did, it was purely performative and hypocritical since a lot of what was shared in it to reflect the organization's values isn't practiced internally. They wrote about helping the most marginalized, but those aren’t who are protected in our workplace. 

The CEO was questioned by junior staff about the lack of diversity in leadership positions during a town hall in July, when the CEO was addressing our commitment to be anti-racist. She didn’t receive the feedback well and got very defensive. She said the organization was indeed diverse, despite having only white women in its leadership positions. 

The CEO also received two letters in early July from two different teams at my organization calling out her, HR, and two VPs for workplace racism and enabling bullying and harassment. Staff provided her with examples of how POC staff (including me, a Middle Eastern woman) are tokenized and experience overt forms of discrimination and microaggressions. Since then, management has addressed some of these concerns by working with external investigators, but we’ve received no updates, and no transparency was provided about the timeline for progress or resolution. 

In July, the organization also formed a hiring committee of staff who examined various consultants (different to those doing the investigations) to help guide the process. The consultants will help the organization determine where weak points are and lead training sessions based on those weaknesses. The consultants they hired in mid-August appear to be very qualified, and I have faith they will do great work investigating where the organization is lacking in D&I, but I don’t have faith that leadership and the board will take the necessary steps to bring meaningful change and implement a new structure and set of practices, which they’ve said they will do by the end of the year. I hope I’m proven wrong, and that this isn't just another performative plan to save face.  

Estelle, 42, Massachusetts

I’ve worked as a custodial employee at a well-known private university since 2006. I'm a leader in our union and often help my co-workers when they have problems with management. In the past, when  a supervisor discriminated against my co-workers, we raised a complaint against him and he was fired. 

In an email on May 30, the president of the university emailed the staff and students to share that he believes in protecting the most vulnerable members of society, among other platitudes, but didn’t offer any concrete ways in which he or other members of the administration would ensure our protection. At the end of June, the dean of one of the graduate programs announced a series of talks about racial justice, which an anti-prison investment group I'm a part of took issue with, since it’s being spearheaded by a professor with a problematic history of anti-Black racism and support of police. 

The real issue for me is the administration's contradictory support of anti-racism work when it invests in prisons. This is an issue that affects me because I am a TPS holder, meaning I have “temporary protected status.” In 2017, this administration decided to end TPS for most receiving the benefit. Now, 400,000 families are at risk of deportation on January 4, 2021—including me. Because the place I work in invests in prisons, they would make money off of my imprisonment and deportation if I lost TPS, since this money also funds detention centers. I hope they change and take real anti-racist action by divesting from prisons and supporting their potentially affected employees. 

 Carter, 32, New York 

I’m a Black man working as a senior operations associate at a startup that does insurance for home purchases and refinances.

Around the time of George Floyd's murder, a number of POC had gone to the CEO and explained some concerns around the company's silence and lack of communication from leadership. The CEO admitted to not being well-educated on the issues, so the leadership team tried to make an effort to prove that they do care about diversity and inclusion to the direct reports and employees underneath him. 

The second time leadership was called out was around Juneteenth. A lot of our business partners and clients decided to honor the day for its importance (or for performative allyship), but my company expected us all at work. After enough pressure, an apology was made, and we were given a make-up day. This only came after enough people came forward to cite how inconsiderate it was that the company didn't mobilize around this in the first place, especially when many others were fast to react. 

 The company’s commitments in regards to D&I after these issues were raised were typical of what you would expect from a high-profile startup. Leadership promised to make donations monthly, but only if it was a match of something we’d donated, and subject to approval, and  no one has clarified how the approval process works. Leadership pretty much talked about it once, then left it alone. I’m not even sure it's still ongoing.

Leadership also started a D&I committee to help create a more inclusive culture. There are people from the HR team and various employees on it, but I haven't seen anyone in our C-suite join. We hardly see any results because of the amount of regular work members on the committee are expected to do: Work comes first, and we're forced to focus on that. 

 I am not optimistic about any of this. It doesn't feel like leaders at the company educated themselves or made good on their words. Managers don’t seem like they care about anything but the bottom line; they're not proactive in communicating with us about anything, like the recent events in Kenosha. The company isn't an inclusive environment, and the lack of proactivity also points to this not being a safe environment—honestly, it's scary in the time of COVID to not feel secure in your job.

Follow Reina Sultan on Twitter.