Code Blue: Racial Justice in the Corporate Workplace

Contributor: Z. Colette Edwards, WG’84, MD’85
To learn more about Colette, click here.


8 minutes, 46 seconds….the time it took for the life of George Floyd, an African American man in Minneapolis, to drain from his body under the knee of a white police officer on his neck. It happened in full and brazen view for the entire world to see and clearly without fear of retribution.

Racial injustice happens both on our streets for public viewing as well as behind closed doors – in workplaces, healthcare settings, and the legal system, to name a few. It’s time to take real action. This is a Code Blue emergency!

Code Blue

A Code Blue in a hospital setting means a medical emergency, usually related to a patient in cardiac or respiratory arrest. Upon calling a code, a multidisciplinary clinical team goes into action to save the patient’s life.

In 2020, George Floyd’s death is our Code Blue.

8 minutes, 46 seconds…..George Floyd’s 6-year old daughter Gianna said in the midst of a loss she probably still has not fully understood given her age, “My daddy changed the world!” And, indeed, he has.

His death has served as a catalyst for opening eyes to an epidemic of racial injustice that has birthed the most multicultural movement for change seen in decades.  Shining a klieg light has also brought a more avid focus on health equity and the uncontested impact of racism on the health and well-being of those it targets.

And other “isms,” such as sexism, ageism, antisemitism (and their kin, e.g., homophobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia) are being more readily acknowledged by more of the population as reprehensible as well.

George Floyd never even had the opportunity for an actual Code Blue to be called on his behalf. Therefore, it is even more critical and incumbent on us to pursue transformational change. We cannot afford reflexive, “in-the-moment,” cosmetic micro-incrementalism parading as progress.

George Floyd’s death and the global response to it served as a test of the values of organizations and the character of their leadership (including their Board members).

We need action now, but an important first step necessary for creating a better future is to know and learn from the past.

So, why do we find ourselves in a Code Blue? Let’s look at how we got here in the first place and face the ugly reality of the racism endured by African Americans, to which many are subjected on a daily basis.

Changing the World

Some might say the human race is innately hate-filled and evil. As an example, they point to the biblical story of the brothers Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve, and the fratricide which ensued when Cain killed his brother.

Although some days can make it difficult to disagree, we have to believe there is a counterbalancing humanity and core of similar goals of health, well-being, a sense of purpose, having a voice, making a difference, having someone to love and to be loved. Otherwise, what hope can we hold that the myriad and voluminous challenges of hate and injustice will ever be overcome in a substantive and sustainable manner?

Race | Racism and Its Kin

Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” 
~ Lao-Tzu

The idea of race is a human construct born of the inaccurate theory of Thomas Morton. He was a 19th century doctor and “scientist” who believed there were 5 races. He defined them through his study of empty skulls and the number of pepper seeds needed to fill them.

In his creationist theory, there was a definite hierarchy within the human race, with those who were white felt by him to be superior and the most intelligent of all.

In the eyes of Samuel Morton and his acolytes, those who were Black were relegated to an intellectual capacity so inferior that all the horrors of abduction from the motherland, family separation, slavery, and its many barbaric and criminal acts of violence were justified in the minds of the enslaver class.

The result? 400 years of crimes against humanity and the establishment of internecine systems which have predestined the type of outcomes that devastate the lives and generations of so many, sometimes long before its victims are even born.

The definition of racism according to Merriam-Webster is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” This belief system is held by many, many more individuals and communities than many of us want to even imagine as being possible.

Racism is a complex, multilayered concept with a foundation of deep-seated emotion. Its roots are deep, and its impact on the health, well-being, and the very lives of its victims is multifaceted and complicated.

Of course, there are other “isms,” among them sexism, ageism, and antisemitism. And the kin of the “ism family” include misogyny, xenophobia, religious persecution, and homophobia.

But racism holds a special place in history, and in fact, in the founding, building, and day-to-day morés of the United States. And it is being more broadly recognized as America’s “original sin” (of which there are several).

Reality at a Human Level

Imagine ……. if the color of your skin (name, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, SES, age, country of origin, religion, etc.) was an actual affront to many of those around you.

Imagine ……. being the target of hate in all its many forms by people who don’t even know you.

Imagine ….. a devastating system with vast tentacles designed to keep you “in your place.”

Imagine…. your potential as a human being predetermined and capped by others to be one of subservience no matter your creativity, your innate talents, your skills and expertise, your educational level, or your income/net worth.

Imagine…. your life being so devalued that killing you meant nothing at all in the eyes of the law and many of the populace (and sometimes was even relished).

Racial Equity Tools

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
~ Andrew Marshall

So where do we start now that the code has been called and the team has arrived?

One important and far-reaching opportunity is in the workplace. In order to be substantive and effective, the approach to programming must be holistic, comprehensive, and undertaken with a long-term view.

There must be commitment across the enterprise, beginning with the Board of Directors and C-suite and extending down to the front lines.

One critical indication of true commitment is the extent of the ongoing and consistent investment and organizational resources allocated to the work.

Another measure is whether the leader of the strategy and delivery of programming is a member of the C-suite.

Lastly, you can tell an organization is serious if (1) metrics are established, (2) both hitting milestones as well as (3) demonstrating annual improvement are tied to a material portion of potential bonus, stock grants/options, etc. at the individual level as well as the organizational pool of dollars available for bonuses.

Writing a check, hosting internal dialogue and training, declarations of support, and establishing an employee forum for ideas and feedback can be helpful initial steps in the journey.

However, in some cases, those actions can also ultimately manifest as a type of “check list performance art.” They may serve as a glide path to achieve a corporate ranking that may be helpful as a PR and short-term recruitment tool but not make a significant difference in the day-to-day lives, opportunities, and career trajectory of employees.

The July 13, 2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Demand for Chief Diversity Officers Is High. So Is Turnover,” indicated “Frustrated by talk but little action and a lack of resources, many diversity executives find themselves rotating through C-suites.”

Taking Action – External Opportunities

  1. Start with your health insurance carrier(s) (medical, RX, dental, vision, behavioral health, etc.). Set expectations with them regarding programming and data analysis/segmentation/analysis and insights relative to (1) identification of health disparities and both health literacy and social determinants of health (SDOH) needs, (2) development and implementation of a strategy and detailed action plan to address them and to close care gaps, (3) quantification of the diversity of their provider networks, with transparency for members and active recruitment as needed to achieve a network which can optimally provide care to all employees, and (4) making training available to the provider networks regarding health equity, including their role in cultural sensitivity, competence, and humility in their interactions and communications with your employees/their patients.
  2. Communicate assertively your commitment to racial justice and anti-racism:
    • Serve as a role model and communicate your values. How diverse is your supply chain and the vendors with whom you contract? Include pertinent questions during the RFP and vetting process that signal yours is a company whose culture includes anti-racism as a value and one you expect to be shared in those companies with whom you do business.

      Imbed criteria in your selection process. This ensures you are capturing comprehensive information that will result in partnering with a set of companies to meet your needs which reflect the diversity of ownership and provide opportunities to those who are often overlooked. (Overlooked not because of the inability to do the job but because they are not part of your usual networks or inclinations when you perform company assessments.)

    • Set expectations with vendors who provide goods and services to your company that you anticipate employment and/or subcontracting arrangements include material representation of historically underrepresented groups.

Taking Action – Internal Opportunities

Dedicated Team

  1. Designing a strategy and action plan begins with enlisting a cross-functional, multi-disciplinary team dedicated specifically to the work and with skills in leadership, team building and collaboration, data analysis and synthesis, diplomacy, communication and marketing, surveys, social listening, and focus groups, project management, facilitation, adult learning theory, psychology, and operations plus a deep understanding of inclusion, diversity, cultural competence and cultural humility, people management, employee growth and development, mentoring and sponsorship, and career mapping.  

    And there must be inclusion of employees who find themselves at the receiving end of racism and racist practices, which may range from blatantly overt and insidiously malignant to a reflection of implicit bias.
  2. The team must create an environment which ensures confidentiality, offers a safe haven where employees will feel free to express their feelings and communicate their experiences without fear of reprisal and walks the talk of diversity and equity which enables them to serve as role models for the rest of the organization.
  3. The team must be led by a member of the C-suite who reports directly to the CEO and whose job responsibilities are focused on equity within the workplace.

    Although collaboration with the CHRO will be required, this position should not be relegated as an “off the side of the desk” assignment within HR. And, although a culture of equity, true inclusion, and anti-racism is the responsibility of each and every employee, the message through action must begin at the top.

    Many companies say, “Our people are our greatest asset.” If that is a genuine organizational belief and value, then it must be more than a slogan and an internal marketing campaign.

Comprehensive Data and Transformational Insights

A determination must be made of the data – both qualitative and quantitative – necessary to develop a clear and comprehensive picture of the baseline state.

In many cases, some of the data points will be generally agnostic relative to being important markers to detail the areas and degree of inequity of whichever disadvantaged, marginalized, and underrepresented group may be the one for which action is necessary (including, for example, women, African American, Latinx, and AAPI communities, the LGBTQ community, and indigenous peoples).

However, in some instances, metrics may differ to a varying extent depending on factors such as industry sector, organizational structure, company size (e.g., revenue, # of employees), for-profit vs. non-profit status, and applicable role types.

They should also include metrics and weighting schemata which may be specific to a particular disadvantaged, marginalized, and underrepresented group. In other words, one size will not fit all.

The metrics must include both foundational data as well as data customized and nuanced enough to capture the information needed to detect the themes and often complex insights essential to a strategy and action plan that will produce a transformational change in a timely fashion.

(NB: For purposes of this article, the examples below focus on African Americans.)

Quantitative Data

  • What % of employees are African American?
  • How many African Americans are “mis-leveled” when first hired and are never able to catch up economically and recover from an action that ultimately impacts the entire span of their career?
  • Are African Americans represented in C-suite roles, such as COO, CFO, CMO, CTO and CIO?
  • Are African Americans on the board of directors? If so, are they chairs of any board committees, including compensation/nominating/finance? Are they members of the executive committee?
  • Are African Americans included in the succession planning slate?
  • What % of employees in the following positions are African American? What is their average tenure?
    • Team Lead, Manager, General Manager, Director, AVP, VP, SVP, EVP
  • What is the salary band distribution of African Americans?
  • What % of those in positions with direct/team reports are African American?
  • What are the criteria used to define “high potential” and who decides what they are?
  • How many of the criteria are objective and can be quantified vs. qualitative and subject to implicit/explicit bias?
  • What % of employees designated as “high-potential” are African Americans?
  • What % of employees in career development, high-potential rotational programs or assigned to high-profile projects are African Americans?
  • What % of promotions are received by African Americans? 
  • What is the % breakout for African Americans who receive Exceeds vs. Meets vs. Does not Meet performance review designations?
  • What is the breakout of African Americans in white collar vs. production/call center vs. blue collar positions?
  • What % of employees with P&L responsibility are African Americans?
  • What % of employees with formal mentors are African American?
  • What % of employees with formal sponsors are African American?
  • What % of those whose positions were eliminated in the past 5 years have been African Americans?
  • What % of those fired for cause in the past 5 years were African Americans?
  • What % of company suppliers (and any of their subcontractors) are African American-owned businesses?
  • Do you have an innovation team? If so, when they assess companies, do they have a workflow in place which will ensure representation of companies owned/founded by African Americans (and not just as a figurehead shell game) in the identification, vetting, and selection of companies that can provide the services and products you need? Is the selection process blinded, so the determination of the best partner is based on facts and the ability to deliver and not on a history and potentially subconscious decision-making grounded in an inclination to choose people who “fit the profile” and who are part of the “old boy network,” with connections that have nothing to do with the quality of the product or service provided and the ability to get the job done?

Qualitative Data

  • Have you conducted (1) online surveys and (2) focus groups to capture the following?
    • Employee perceptions of the culture relative to equity, inclusion, diversity, and belonging
    • Employee experiences of discrimination and explicit bias
    • Employee experiences of racist (or other “ism”) language and/or treatment by co-workers, managers and others in authority/power positions, and/or customers
    • Employee experiences of lack of resources to get his/her job done
    • Employee experiences of lack of interest, support, sponsorship, and resources relative to growth, development, learning opportunities, and career advancement
    • Employee experiences of lack of acknowledgment and recognition of accomplishments
    • Employee experiences of favoritism on the team
    • Employee experiences of unchanging performance reviews regardless of the quality of work, work effort, and work excellence

Once the data is compiled, it is crucial for the team analyzing and synthesizing it to be diverse, open-minded, emotionally intelligent, empathetic, and willing to “field test” its conclusions.

This ensures it rings true and accurately portrays the state of play and repercussions thereof. Without this review, risks are increased that ineffective and potentially damaging “solutions” which lack substance will be implemented despite the best of intentions.

Education and Communication
In the months following George Floyd’s death, many companies were racing to get out messages of anti-racism and allyship support.

Others went a step further and became more actively cognizant of the subliminal signals of bias they were sending by the choice of language and images used in their communications and marketing.

Some took actions like internal forums for employees whose lives have been stricken by the impact of structural racism to express their feelings, share experiences, and provide examples of the emotional tax they may bear day in and day out. Their stories simultaneously help educate those who have never been at the receiving end of a system that is fundamentally and intentionally rigged against certain groups within the population.

There were also opportunities to learn about implicit bias and perform self-assessments which would support the development of a more inclusive way of thinking and a sensitivity to the workplace plights, both large and small, of colleagues of color. Openness and sincere curiosity are critical steps to the evolution of a corporate culture to one that is anti-racist in both word and deed.

Such conversations and training sessions also raise awareness and disseminate concrete actions which both individuals and the organization can take to be alert to a work environment which has myriad opportunities to communicate and to develop a strategy and action plan with clear deliverables and timelines as well as sufficient resources to execute and sustain the plan.

They can also serve as a springboard of discovery to identify behaviors and/or a wide range of organizational policies and procedures which reflect, or even support, a culture and workplace environment that is not truly diverse or inclusive (or might even be blatantly racist).

Some companies wrote checks to organizations the mission of which is to fight against racism and advocate for those impacted by it.

Yet others took a more assertive approach in expressing their stand, e.g., cutting ties with companies whose behaviors, products, and/or multi-channel advertising reflect a racist culture and whose denizens serve as racist cells in their organization and the communities in which they live. Such an approach provides a financial penalty and ongoing disincentive to organizations that persist and perpetuate a racist system and way of doing business.

Many companies began recruitment efforts for chief diversity officers, established roundtables or councils for ongoing employee feedback, and began to take steps to revamp general recruitment and retention workflows and other equity-focused programming which plant the seeds needed to grow a workforce that is diverse and truly inclusive.

Once again, all of these actions are foundational to genuine efforts to create a sustainable anti-racist (and anti-“ism” in general) culture which reflects true diversity and inclusion.

Transformative Leadership

A recent BCG article outlined what they consider “imperatives of ‘bionic’ companies.” These include:

  • Rethinking the art of the possible, including setting imaginative aspirations and a bold direction
  • Moving from managing to enabling, including leading by example and leveraging technology and behavioral science to strengthen the needed behaviors
  • Translating purpose into action, including bringing humanity to work

Expectations for substantive and comprehensive change are high as an organization awakens to the need and demands for a workplace which values diversity and the inherent worth of each employee regardless of race/ethnicity, age, religion, gender/gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth. We must always take sides.” 
~ William Faulkner

The status quo has become a more difficult option to sustain, and employees will judge the interest in and sincerity of the effort by:

  • the priority established and focus given
  • the actions taken (or not taken) and not platitudinous proclamations of support
  • the degree of investment in resources, both human and otherwise, beyond just writing a check in the moment with no long-term commitment to change
  • the timely design of a strategy which imbeds in its action plan (1) diversity and workplace equity as it relates to day-to-day interactions and a welcoming and inclusive workplace environment and (2) career opportunities, growth and development, sponsorship, and advancement throughout the business
  •  the expectations set regarding all-employee accountability for implementation of the plan and material progress tied to a speedy timeline for execution

Best Practices for Racial Justice

Systemic racism in the United States is as old as the country itself. The inauspicious arrival on the shores of North America of the enslaver class was followed by the massacre of Indigenous peoples whose land was taken and whose survivors were forced onto reservations and the enslavement of populations abducted primarily from the continent of Africa. Hard-fought progress has been made since the country’s founding through the literal blood, sweat, tears, and deaths of many.

Over time, best practices have emerged that can serve as components of a roadmap focused on an anti-racist, diverse, inclusive, and equity-focused work culture. Some of these include:

  • Establishing crystal clear clarity throughout the organization that an equity-focused culture is not the latest HR fad or a one-and-done process and that it is a priority for the Board, CEO, and the C-suite
  • Imbedding an equity-focused approach as an inherent component of business strategy and key to organizational success.
  • Implementing, as a starting point, the Rooney Rule, which requires “at least one woman and one underrepresented minority [to] be considered in the slate of candidates for either every open position or every open senior position”
  • Blinding the names (and other content that might feed implicit/explicit bias) of all candidates in the recruitment pipeline and have an individual independent of the hiring process assess resumés against job requirements to cull down to the group which meets job criteria and to which outreach will initiate the active recruitment phase of the process
  • Rather than just focusing on candidates being a cultural “fit” (which often is code for “people who look and think like me”), prioritizing an orientation which includes a perspective of individuals being a cultural “add”
  • Expanding the pool from which candidates are recruited from the outside or promoted from within by following the Willie Sutton rule, Go where the money is.”In other words, including organizations in your search protocol that are likely to have a high percentage of the population being those in which you have a focus of interest, e.g., historically  black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and your own employee resource groups for African Americans; utilizing specialty headhunters
  • Widening the net to include diversity as a priority and area of focused effort in your sponsorship and succession plans
  • Establishing employee/network resource groups which provide an opportunity for those within certain segments of your population, and their allies, to have an organizationally-supported and easy way to connect with each other, provide leadership opportunities, and create a safe haven and welcoming environment for honest exchange
  • Establishing ongoing training protocols which help the organization stay abreast of tools and innovations to create, nurture, and sustain and an equity-focused culture such that an anti-racist, diverse, and inclusive workplace environment becomes “the way we do things around here.” The Harvard Implicit Association test is a well-known tool to get you started.
  • Reviewing data to ensure pay equity exists. If it does not, (1) establish a policy and take the steps necessary to (2) ensure those belonging to groups who have always been at a pay disadvantage compared to white males (e.g., women, African Americans) have their salaries adjusted and (3) pay equity is tracked for ongoing policy compliance.
  • Heeding the wisdom of the “Change Cascade”: If it’s not measured, it’s not a priority. If there isn’t transparency and reporting, there isn’t accountability. If there isn’t accountability, nothing changes.
    • Make sure you are collecting and analyzing both quantitative and qualitative data (including “voice of the employee” input) to gather insights and ideas which ensure an ongoing assessment of progress, impact, and any needs for a course correction.
    • Include equity-focused measurements in performance review metrics and tie a material percentage of merit increases, bonuses, and potential stock/stock options to individual and organizational progress in the arena.

The Shot Heard Round the World

We have had days of reckoning many times in the past, e.g., the civil rights and women’s movements. And those moments in history have indeed resulted in actions to make the world a better and more equitable place. But days of reckoning must become weeks, months, decades, and centuries of continuous commitment to the cause.

Change is difficult and fragile if not continuously nurtured. Change always means there will be groups vehemently opposed to anything and everything which challenges the status quo, particularly if it results in a shift in the balance of power or threatens a group’s sense of self-worth and standing in the world.

Shot Heard Round the World – Concord Hymn
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.”

People are human, life is challenging, and there are always distractions which divert attention away from the complicated and arduous job at hand.

In the months since the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd – our modern day “shot heard round the world” – there have continued to be a series of regular killings of Black men – in some instances even with their backs to the police or actually running away and clearly not posing a threat – as a result of an interaction with law enforcement. 

And to add to an already grim picture, they have sometimes been accompanied by what appears to be a cover-up by sins of omission, commission, “lost” evidence, and actual lies about evidence key to any investigation, much less the adjudication of justice.

According to Statista, 23% of the 999 civilians fatally shot in 2020 by law enforcement were Black.

Though some find the multicultural protests against racial injustice disturbing, history tells us that unfortunately without cell phone videotapes and active social reaction to the footage, many of the deaths would go unnoticed, unreported, and have no chance of investigation, much less a day in court.

Even with ongoing protests which began March 13, 2020, the date of the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, not only one was no one charged with her killing, a very typical blame-the-victim playbook was followed, with active attempts to smear her reputation and all matter of information has been withheld from the family and the public.

History tells us that without an ongoing and evolving movement sufficient enough to keep it front of mind in the daily lives of many and boosted by media attention, initial surges of public support fade away quickly no matter how heinous the triggering catalyst for change. Indeed, polls indicated that support of actions focused on racial injustice dropped 10% (or much more depending on the group polled) in the 4 short months after George Floyd’s murder.

A fleeting and ephemeral level of commitment is not only unfortunate; it makes it easy for many individuals to feel very comfortable all too often in forcefully communicating with unequivocal intention the very loud and unmistakable message sent in Louisville for all the world to register – Black lives most certainly do not matter at all.  And it further encourages and perpetuates the cycle of racism and the avoidable and unjustified violence against and death of African Americans.

As community citizens and the beneficiaries of all society has to offer, corporations have the opportunity (some would say even the obligation) to move boldly, go deep, and display leadership in the workplace to serve as a powerful force in the transformative and equity-focused fight against racial injustice and for genuine diversity and inclusion. Will the opportunity be seized as a long-term investment in doing the right thing (and, as well documented in many studies, a competitive advantage which contributes mightily to the bottom line) or will it be abandoned and lost in a fog as the headlines are filled with other images?


Contact Colette at: 
[email protected]