Last June, Deana Jean received a strange request on LinkedIn: A software company wanted her to lead a diversity, equity and inclusion program for their executive suite.
Ms. Jean does not do D.E.I. work. Nor does her LinkedIn profile suggest as much. Her background is in educational technology sales and leadership coaching.
She is, by the way, Black. After a short back-and-forth with the company, Ms. Jean, who is based in New York, learned that she’d been recommended by a former colleague — a person she barely knew. She declined the contract, but asked if the company needed a sales consultant.
“After that, there was no response,” she said. “There’s never a response. On one side, they’re looking at me as a Black woman, which means I’m automatically equipped to deliver diversity, equity and inclusion. But then on the other side, that is the only thing you see me as able to do.”
For many Black professionals, the experience of being asked — or even required — to lead or participate in a company’s diversity and inclusion work simply because of their race is an uncomfortable ritual. Ms. Jean said she has been in such situations before, often because she has been the only Black person in the room.
As the corporate world continues its attempt to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement, such requests threaten to undermine the inclusion efforts they’re supposed to promote. Bosses, managers and colleagues — well-intentioned or otherwise — often fail to recognize the emotional and professional stakes of giving Black employees D.E.I. tasks, like reviewing or writing company statements, leading anti-racism meetings or heading employee resource groups, especially when it’s not their area of expertise.
Many companies seek out consulting firms that specialize in D.E.I., including Awaken, the Dignitas Agency and Inclusion Strategy Solutions. Michelle Kim, the chief executive of Awaken, based in Oakland, Calif., said her company has been so inundated with requests that she created a database of Black-owned agencies to manage the overflow. The firms sometimes field requests for help from salaried Black workers whose employers have asked them to review race-related issues on their own.
“To assume that every Black person has the skills and desire and knowledge for this work is tokenization,” Ms. Kim said.
Paula Edgar, a partner at Inclusion Strategy Solutions, agreed. “I find it ironic because companies outsource expertise for everything else,” she said. “You’re not going to say, ‘We have an accounting need, does anyone know math?’”
For years, diversity, equity and inclusion issues have often been treated as a sideline or add-on in corporate America. During the first two months of the coronavirus pandemic, D.E.I.-related job offerings declined at twice the rate as overall job postings, according to a report in mid-July from Glassdoor. Many new businesses don’t make those issues a priority, only taking them up when the companies reach a certain size. By that point, racism and discrimination can already be baked in.
“Diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism should be embedded into the DNA of organizations in a fully realized way,” said Kim Crowder, a consultant based in Indianapolis, who specializes in such issues. But companies tend “to stuff D.E.I. into the corner and hand it over to HR or level it to employee resource groups.”
Often, employers don’t know the difference between diversity, equity and inclusion. “The No. 1 question everyone is asking right now is, ‘How do we hire more people of color?’ or ‘How do we have more Black candidates in our pipeline?’” Ms. Kim said. That only addresses diversity; it ignores equity, equally distributing resources based on the specific needs of underrepresented groups; and inclusion, having real decision-making power. “We need to be specific about naming the problem we’re trying to solve and prescribing the right medicine,” Ms. Kim said. “That’s anti-racism training.”
Some D.E.I. consultants I spoke with said, essentially, more power to those Black employees who are happy to take on such assignments from their employers. But without proper boundaries, they said, people risk being taken advantage of.
Ms. Edgar laid out a list of questions for Black workers to consider before taking on those responsibilities: “What percentage of your time will be taken for this? How much will this benefit you — are you making the culture better, or will you have access to leadership to help your trajectory? Is there any compensation — vacation time, increase in pay or a bonus structure? Specifically for lawyers, is there credit to your required billable hours?”
Black employees must also consider whether they have the right emotional reserves, she added. “All eyes and expectations will be on you,” she said. And that could have lasting consequences.
Ms. Crowder used to work for a local government agency. Once, she said, she was asked to hire a replacement for one of her team members. But when Ms. Crowder tried to get her choice — a Black woman — the same salary as the woman’s white predecessor, she was questioned repeatedly about the candidate’s credentials and eventually, Ms. Crowder was sidelined. It wasn’t a unique experience, she said.
“When I tried to speak about my own experiences around racism within organizations, I was shunned and turned into an outcast,” Ms. Crowder said. “I was bullied out of the workplace and didn’t receive fair treatment, nor support or acknowledgment for my ideas and hard work.”
She said she decided to specialize in D.E.I. consulting. “I feel strongly that current employees should avoid and not be asked to become the ‘expert’ on diversity, equity and inclusion within their organizations,” Ms. Crowder said. “They are often not protected and don’t have the power to make changes.”
Untrained employees may also be unprepared to shoulder the emotional weight of the work. “I’m literally a therapist. They dump everything on,” said Jennifer Payne, a communications strategist whose company, Social Sovereign, is consulting on D.E.I. for companies in Michigan and Los Angeles. “I don’t have all the answers, and sometimes it is very emotionally draining. We’re in the midst of a pandemic, an economic crisis, a racial injustice movement. And at same time, everybody wants to ask questions about what is it like to be Black.”
Stacy Parson, a partner at Dignitas, which is based in Boise, Idaho, said Black employees need a chance to heal before they’re asked to help bring about change. “Answering those questions comes at a cost,” she said. “We’re talking about trauma. If we can recognize that witnessing a man getting killed on TV for no good reason is traumatic for Black people, then it’s traumatic for them to revisit it.”
So many companies have issued statements in support of Black Lives Matter that it’s easy for managers to believe that everyone on staff will be receptive to diversity efforts. That’s not the case. This summer, Ms. Payne said, employees of all races have asked her: “Are we supposed to be having these conversations in the workplace? I thought these topics were off limits, like religion and politics.”
That makes it easy for Black employees leading the diversity and inclusion efforts to end up on the receiving end of their colleagues’ confusion and frustration. Even their anger. “When you start digging into political differences, like Black Lives Matter versus All Lives Matter, this can be an ugly discussion,” said Lindsey D.G. Dates, a partner in the Chicago office of Barnes & Thornburg, who has been asked to lead on diversity and inclusion efforts at the law firm. “So the risk that you run by having these discussions so publicly, is that you can be ostracized by colleagues, intentionally or unintentionally.”
Mr. Dates said he had taken on the work despite those risks. “I do not come to these conversations enthusiastically,” he said. “With that said, I do believe I have an obligation to advocate for people like me.”
Qhaurium Douglas, a lawyer and consultant in Oklahoma City, said she gave a categorical “no” when a colleague asked her to lead an educational workshop on the Black Lives Matter protests. She said she had seen other employees at her firm post articles on Twitter about the criminal records of police brutality victims. “As if that was a justification for a death sentence,” Ms. Douglas said.
She understood that her co-workers were uninformed, but she said she suspected they didn’t want to learn. “The willful ignorance was blatant,” she said.
Further, she worried that the conversation would devolve into a political debate, which she was not emotionally prepared to handle. “I didn’t want to contribute to that me vs. you dynamic,” she said. “Black Lives Matter is not a statement for you to disagree with or feel bad about or have to defend.”
Like Ms. Jean, Mr. Dates was approached on LinkedIn to give a talk about diversity and inclusion despite having no training in the field. The request came from a professional organization for in-house counsels, who had seen a post he’d written about systemic racism. He gave a lot of thought about whether to accept, and ultimately said yes.
But he decided to approach the presentation as a litigator. “In many ways, I was freer to make points that a diversity and inclusion professional cannot make,” he said. “It’s not their job to ostracize people but to bring people to the table.” Mr. Dates said he had a different objective: to kick out the table’s legs.
He approached the group as if he were building a legal case before a jury. Brick by brick, he said, he led them to the conclusion that American law firms are bastions for segregation and would remain so until more Black lawyers became capital partners. He wasn’t subtle; he named the hypothetical law firm in his talk Jim and Crow LLP. “I got a lot of surprised looks. A lot of stunned faces,” he said. But he said he believed his argument left an impression.
Mr. Dates said that diversity and inclusion professionals play an important role. His law firm is unusual in that one of its partners is an expert in the field. Her encouragement, he said, is why he decided to join a new committee addressing equity and inclusion at the firm.
“It’s uncomfortable to have these difficult conversations when you have not done the hard work of building relationships with the people you want to talk to,” he said. “But so many firms leave their Black lawyers in utter isolation to the point that it’s embarrassing for them to reach out to them for their own self- interested purposes.”