|   Business


  |   Business


Dr. Shawn Joseph, CEO of Joseph and Associates, Looks at How Leaders Can Promote Racial Equality in the Workplace

The journey towards racial equality in the workplace — and in every other forum and facet of society — has moved significantly forward in the last several decades. However, despite some notable gains and achievements in this area, we are still a long way from embodying the aspirational vision posed by MLK, in which people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

“In many ways, the most dangerous and damaging kind of racism in our workplaces today, is the belief — often conveyed in a hostile manner — that racism does not exist, and that as a society we have achieved racial equity,” commented Dr. Shawn Joseph, the Principal of acclaimed education and equity consulting firm Joseph and Associates. “The truth is that while some issues and aspects have gotten better in the last several years and decades, other areas have not improved, or have even become significantly worse. What we need more than anything else right now is for workplace leaders to stand up, step forward, and start implementing practical solutions.”

One core and common reason why some workplace leaders have not actively promoted racial equality in their workplace is often because they do not know where to start, or which direction to head. Different organizations face various issues, challenges and obstacles based on a wide range of factors. However, leaders can — and according to experts such as Dr. Shawn Joseph, they must — develop a robust roadmap to guide their organization forward.

A template for this roadmap was recently introduced by Dr. Robert Livingston, who serves on the faculty at Harvard Kennedy School. In an article published by Harvard Business Review, Dr. Livingston advised organizations to adopt what he has coined the PRESS model, which is an acronym for: problem awareness, root-cause analysis, empathy, strategies, and sacrifice. Each of these is described below, with accompanying commentary by Dr. Shawn Joseph.

Problem Awareness

The issue of problem awareness has been discussed earlier in this article, but the impact is so debilitating, that it is worthy of reiteration: leaders must acknowledge that racial inequality exists in their workplace, just as it does in virtually every other aspect of society. Neglecting to acknowledge this reality is not just a failure of leadership, but paradoxically, it is proof that racism exists and has burrowed deep into organizational culture.

“Many people who have enjoyed privilege and have not experienced racism, believe that racism is always and exclusively overt, confrontational and sometimes violent,” commented Dr. Shawn Joseph, who in 2020 accepted a tenure track position at Howard University’s Graduate School of Education in the Educational Leadership Department. “But this is not always or even often the case. Racism manifests in many different forms, and it can be demonstrated by individuals and groups who may not be aware that their behavior is, in fact, advancing a racist agenda. Leaders need to set the tone by acknowledging that racism exists in their workplace, even if this long overdue deceleration rubs some people the wrong way. Some truths are painful to admit, but denying their existence is even worse.”

Root-Cause Analysis

What is driving racist attitudes and actions? Are they cultivated and enabled by formal rules and policies, or by unwritten codes that have, over time, become embedded in the workplace culture? There is a very good chance that the answer is “all of the above,” and it is therefore the task of root-cause analysis to dig below the surface and uncover the triggers that combine to promote racial inequality in the workplace.

“Performing a root-cause analysis not about assigning blame or meting out punishment — it is about identifying practical and sustainable solutions,” commented Dr. Shawn Joseph. “Leaders, together with their teams, need to find important answers to difficult questions that shed light on how and why racial inequality is expressed, and in turn, what must be done to address the core causes. In many workplaces, this will involve providing supervisors, managers and executives — that is, people with influence and power — with training and coaching, so they can both eliminate any unconscious racist attitudes or behaviors on their part, as well as immediately and effectively recognize and address it in the workplace. Eliminating racial inequality in the workplace is a long-term equipment, not a short term fix.”


What transforms understanding that racial inequality is a problem, into actively striving to make the present and future better? The answer is empathy, which is the next pillar of the model.

“Many people can neutralize their sense of responsibility about helping to solve a problem by merely feeling bad about it,” commented Dr. Shawn Joseph, who is the author of The Principal’s Guide to the First 100 Days of the School Year: Creating Instructional Momentum, which provides insight into the complexity of principalship and offers core strategies for focusing on increasing student achievement. “For example, they watch in horror as hurricane victims pack into a makeshift shelter, but they do not feel any sense of personal responsibility to make a donation, or provide assistance in some other meaningful way. Yes, they feel deeply about the situation, but they do not act upon that feeling. In a similar sense, it is not nearly enough for leaders and their colleagues at all levels of the workplace to feel bad about the racial inequality that exists in their organization, and almost certainly has for years and decades. They need to turn that raw emotion into intelligent action, and empathy is the bridge.”


If the roadmap is indeed heading in the right direction, at this point organizations (led by their leaders) have clearly acknowledged that racial inequality exists in the workplace, have uncovered root causes, and are ready to act out of a sense of responsibility and obligation. What comes next is executing a series of integrated strategies that meaningfully and measurably promote workplace equality at all levels.

“Regardless of how motivated and energized leaders may be and hopefully are, promoting racial equality in the workplace is not going to happen quickly or easily,” commented Dr. Shawn Joseph. “Without strong and robust strategies, any efforts to move forward are destined to fail.”


For leaders, there will come a time — and it may be sooner rather than later — when they face pressure to shift their focus away from promoting racial equity, and towards other business priorities. However, this is when leaders need to stand firm and do what is right; not necessarily what is popular or expedient.

“Promoting racial equality in the workplace will come at a cost that is measured both in dollars and other resources, and in the frustration and disillusionment by groups who previously — and perhaps unconsciously — enjoyed privileges and opportunities that are now being taken away,” commented Dr. Shawn Joseph. “Organizations must be willing to pay these costs — that is, they must be willing to make sacrifices — if they truly want to move forward.”

The Bottom Line

Promoting racial equality in our workplace — which is critical towards establishing racial equality in our society and communities — is arguably the most serious and pressing matter of our time.

“There is no middle ground here,” commented Dr. Shawn Joseph. “Either leaders are actively, meaningfully, sustainably and effectively striving to promote racial equality in their respective workplaces, or they are tacitly part of the systemic problem. Leaders must lead. It is as simple and stark as that.”

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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