From Heart to Head, Corporations Can Step Up Against Systemic Racism 

Karl Simpson, CEO, Liftstream

The raw, painful emotions emanating from Minneapolis, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by police, have prompted millions of people to stand up in defiance of racism and inequality.

The passionate reaction is right, and long overdue. George Floyd was just the latest in a terrible list of victims of police brutality.

What’s most important is how activists have made clear, and forced the world to listen, to the fact that police brutality is just one of many manifestations of systemic racism that infects so many aspects of the modern world.

The business community has gotten the message. The first step was decrying the grievous act of murder. But very quickly, businesses have been forced to re-think many longstanding systems that serve to perpetuate inequality in so many ways, which usually aren’t caught on cell phone video. Hiring, retention, and promotion are obvious places where companies have control, and a chance to make good on many stated commitments to creating diverse, equitable and inclusive places of work.

Finding your voice in such times can be hard. As a white man in his forties, building leadership teams and consulting on diversity for predominantly white corporate clients in the US and Europe, I am commonly perceived as part of the inequality problem. The fear of vilification for misspeaking, appearing tone-deaf, or doing something perceived as ill-timed in the moment, can be a sufficient deterrent to action.

Instead of accepting this implicit blame and keeping quiet, I have, since 2004, chosen to put my energy towards developing solutions to the problem. I’ve researched and advocated for improved racial and gender diversity at life science companies at the board level, in the C-suite, and throughout these organizations. I’ve aligned myself with policy and lawmakers and shaped cross-industry actions. Equipped with data, evidence and expertise, I have worked with our clients across the life sciences sector to put together plans, with measurable benchmarks, to introduce diversity and inclusion. 

This experience has taught me to run towards these situations, not away. I have repeatedly had to find my voice and challenge behavior intended to discriminate.  

As a white man, people often reveal to you their racist and sexist views. Whether it is a biotech CEO who plainly refuses to countenance the recruitment of Muslim immigrants, or a male VC who once suggested that “women should be hired where they’ll do the least damage” — you have to confront these attitudes.

By speaking out, I hope to use any advantage that I have to tackle the specific challenges afflicting black people and minorities in our workplaces, as well as encourage others like me to do the same.

White people need to speak up, and be specific about the changes that need to occur, and the things we can do, to create a more equitable world.

The words we use matter. When the atmosphere is this febrile, the comments need to be particularly thoughtful and sensitive, but above all, genuine. Staying silent has implications too, as silence can be deafening, particularly in the ears of those people most expecting us to say something. If you are a company leader and have nothing to say, think about the message that sends.

When events pique our emotions, they guide our actions and our language. But for these passionate words to endure, they must be anchored in intellectual rigor, and a determination to see action follow. Like in any intense situation, the best leaders know how to listen carefully, and act decisively, with poise under pressure.

Company leaders today need to become champions of change.

In tackling gender equality as that movement has gathered momentum in the past few years, men have been crucial champions. Since men hold most of the positions of power, it simply requires men to get on board if we’re going to see real change.

When my company held its first diversity conference in Boston during 2015, of the 200+ executives in the room, only around 10 delegates were men. When we came back the next year, this was nearer 33%. By 2019, men were almost half of the attendees.

This was accomplished largely because we chose to cast a forward-looking narrative that focused on working as a community to address a business problem and that we wanted men included. More widely, women have recognized that to advance their cause, they require those in power to join their fight, which means easing up on the blame and shame game.

Beyond understanding the correlation between diversity and its effects on financial performance, talent acquisition and retention; innovation, access to capital; reduced risk and so much more, men have been motivated to improve the environment for their daughters, partners and friends. Enlightened men now see this as the right thing to do and have dropped many of the legacy values that perpetuated sexism. As gender diversity has taken root, they have witnessed the many advantages besides having truly talented colleagues.

Today though, two in five biotech boards are all-male, showing there is still a long way to go.

For racial equality to achieve the same amplification in the business setting, it too must recruit champions who’ll feel able to speak out and influence. One positive signal of the recent deluge of leader’s statements is that there now appear to be many more people, of all races, who want to be actors in the change process.

A talent imperative

But as corporate leaders join the chorus of the well-intentioned, with a new resolve to level the field, there is a truth to confront.

There’s a lot of work to do.

The life sciences sector has been delinquent in introducing broad diversity and increasing the participation of black and African American people. Sure, progress has been made, particularly on gender, but this has been incremental and slow. This inertia continues to disadvantage racial and ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ, and others. The industry is simply not including many incredible people – and that is a dereliction of leadership responsibility.

Designing for outcomes

The racial dimension of the inequality problem in life sciences is complex, and its complexity has sometimes led to unhelpful simplification. When analyzing the talent pipeline, it reveals that black and African American employees, on aggregate, occupy a very different place in the pipeline than say people of Indian or Asian desent. Dissect that further and you’ll find variations across functions too. Therefore, prescribing solutions addressing broad classifications, such as “people of color,” can be ineffectual.

Should the representation of black employees need improving, the solution must target the explicit requirements of this group.

For example, a notable issue in growing a diverse workforce is ensuring that contributor-level employees make the transition to management.

Here are a few questions to ask:

  • If black employees are fulfilling early-career roles, how does a company set up the system such that they continue to be fully represented at that next level and don’t lose out relative to their white colleagues?
  • From the moment a black employee enters the company, how is the company allocating project work that will continually stretch and challenge that employee, heightening their chance of advancing?
  • What is the organization doing to build their network and ensure they are having impact within it?
  • What decision frameworks is the company employing to ensure that black employees are delegated decision authority, and that this is not concentrated in places where they’re not represented?

Similarly, the “double jeopardy” of intersectionality demands exploration. Each organization must understand the change it wants to affect and the outcome it seeks. To do that, it must identify the particular problems affecting each racial group and use evidence-based approaches to address the representation at each level of the corporate ladder. There is a balance for leaders to strike between discussion and action.

Although, leaders would be advised not to be too contemplative.

It doesn’t require a lot of in-depth thought or committee meetings to decide to pull the plug on the Aunt Jemima brand. Or if you’re Microsoft and Amazon, you don’t need to think very hard about stopping sales of facial recognition technology to police departments. Big pharma companies, for their part, shouldn’t need a lot of convincing to re-double efforts to recruit representative populations into their clinical trials, ever mindful of the trust they need to foster with these communities.

Many valid recommendations have been in public circulation for years, and they could be swiftly implemented as a visible sign of meaningful improvement. Inaction on some obvious steps to advance racial equity in corporations – such as the board of directors defining a clear diversity policy in their governance charter or publicly stating goals and targets for diversity – is bound to attract scrutiny from those asking what’s taking so long.

Impatience is growing.

Fix the system

When a manufacturing plant has a contamination problem, or there is a logistics issue in the supply chain, businesses typically act swiftly to implement new processes and systems that rectify the problem.

But when companies see a need to change the recruiting, retention, promotion and management of the human beings that work in a business, there’s not the same urgency to act.

The academic research, the experts, and even collective wisdom have pointed out that the systems and processes used to identify, hire, develop and retain talent are producing outcomes which repeatedly and negatively impact black people, and other people representative of diversity.

For example, if you’re a college admissions department, and you know that your university says it wants a diverse student body, but it continues to use standardized tests that favor students who can pay for expensive test prep classes, and who have been raised in school systems designed to prepare them to ace the test, then why stubbornly stick to the standardized tests for evaluating applications?

This was true until recent days, when universities around the US, after years of pressure from activists, finally said it was time to get rid of the standardized tests and find other ways to evaluate promising students.

Systems like this exist everywhere in our world, often operating below the radar of most people. Yet instead of dismantling the failed systems and replacing them with others capable of delivering more balanced representation across racial and ethnic groups, companies continue to merely tweak existing structures.

Companies commonly default to redefining company values, writing policies and handbooks, or switching emphasis to talent identification. Some will put emphasis on restructuring the interview process based on a hypothetical model of fairness, or they’ll add minorities to the team of interviewers, or they’ll scrutinize the supply chain. None of these things are likely to shift the dial.

The substantive overhaul required to correct systemic faults is then declined in favor of introducing actions designed to change individual behaviors.

It is not my wish to discourage supporting individuals, because that too is part of the solution. But no amount of training, mentoring, coaching or sponsorship is going to re-balance the opportunity scale for people of color if the underlying system is unchanged.

And fixing the system does not mean fighting inequality with other kinds of inequality. The desire for accelerated progress can lead us to seductive practices, many of which eventually disadvantage other people.

If a business wants more black employees, drawing up hiring shortlists of only black candidates, or handing out promotions to only black employees, directly discriminates against and is harmful to others. While this contortion of processes may bring short-term results, it stores up considerable problems for the future, is damaging to company culture, and should be avoided.

Better Measurement

Many CEO statements about racial inequality are prefaced with some general metric about the percentage of minorities they employ. I understand why leaders do this, but they should resist. Presenting aggregated workforce composition data often belies the real situation, and creates the perception that a company is doing better on diversity and equality than it actually is.

Alternatively, CEOs should offer accurate data that show where they employ black people in the company, at what level, and in which function. Reveal data highlighting how black and African American people are moving up through the company relative to the employee base. And report on how many racial minority candidates are being interviewed, hired and rejected in recruiting processes.

Data is needed to confirm that racial minorities are included in the decision-making fabric of the company and to introduce accountability. 

The time for data transparency has unquestionably arrived. Although complicated, it can and should be done.

Legitimate Intent

When racial minorities enter a hiring process, often their lived experience is divergent from that of a comparable white candidate.

Ultimately, many minority candidates that aspire to great jobs are met with rejection, like so many times before.

This repeated rejection compounds over time and begins to infect the way minorities see the process and alters their personal actions. The sense of not belonging, of being an outsider, of being invisible, becomes a determinant of whether they continue to engage in such competition for opportunities, knowing that being their best is unlikely to change the outcome. Where race intersects with other social categorizations, then this perception of unequal treatment is even more profound.

As a remedy, it is sorely tempting to encourage more racial minorities to put their hands up and their resumes forward to compete for positions. Cramming the funnel with candidates, unless they have a legitimate and equal chance of being hired, perpetuates false hope and exacerbates their compounded perception of bias when rejected. Instead, companies must test and trial the recruitment process to make it just and fair, as well as create that vital sense of belonging. It must deliver feedback constructively and systematically, as to negate any personal discrimination.

We have reached a moment of potentially momentous change. It’s a terrible shame it took a horrific police murder on video to compel people to get off the sidelines. But there’s a clear opportunity now to enact change and tackle the pernicious racism and inequality that weakens our organizations. History fuels our skepticism, but the millions of people marching the streets, for weeks on end, in sustained opposition to this insidious malady fills me with hope.

And it is the actions of individuals, en masse, working for change; speaking out, displaying their humanity; that will lead us to an equitable future.



Karl Simpson is CEO of Liftstream, an executive search and leadership consulting practice that exclusively serves clients in the life sciences industry by supporting board and executive appointments, and consulting on diversity and governance. He is also co-founder of BioDirector, a diverse international network of board directors which is improving corporate governance and diversity in the boardrooms of innovative healthcare companies. 

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