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Organizational Climate and Culture

Organizational culture is a set of widely shared beliefs embedded in the overall strategy and structure of an organization. Many companies focus on excellence and productivity as core operating principles of company culture and neglect the inherent structural biases...

Published onAug 25, 2021
Organizational Climate and Culture

Defining Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is a set of widely shared beliefs embedded in the overall strategy and structure of an organization. Many companies focus on excellence and productivity as core operating principles of company culture and neglect the inherent structural biases and inequalities that affect culture and internal progression.

It is not enough to rely on the (capitalist) thinking that an individual’s performance alone will be able to secure them equal rights to participation; such thinking assumes that all employees would have the same prospects if only they work hard enough [1], [2]. Research shows that despite the progressive shift away from overtly racist goals and structures, corporations continue to function as racialized social systems that affect the ability of BIPOC employees’ careers to flourish in the same way as their white counterparts [3], [4]. Indeed, in predominantly white organizations, employees are often segregated into racial hierarchies, where dominant white groups get better jobs than Black people [5],[6].

The cognitive norms that form part of organizational culture are taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel. These patterns become subconsciously linked in our automatic assumptions and provide meaning to daily tasks. To fully understand organizational culture, companies must uncover and understand underlying assumptions. 

Levels of Culture

Artifacts: Palpable but hard to decipher, including dress code, manners, building layouts, emotional intensity, and company records, products, statements. Best practiceHalo Code, the U.K.’s Black hair code. By adopting the code, employers show they are committed to ensuring employees do not face barriers around how they wear their hair. 

Values: Why observed phenomena happen the way they do. Can be accessed through interviews, value statements. Best practiceElsevier’s Inclusion and Diversity resources and strategy

Basic underlying assumptions: Unconscious perceptions, thought processes, feelings, and behaviors that often start out as values but come to be taken for granted with time. 

Organizational Climate

Organizational culture is not the same as climate or management style, nor do all organizations have a company culture. Culture is an in-depth phenomenon that goes deeper, presenting a narrative about how the organization came to be: “Only if a fairly stable collection of people has had significant history (sharing emotionally involving problems) can one imagine the social learning process that would produce the possibility of culture” [7].

Climate is made up of the shared perceptions and meanings attached to policies, practices, and procedures that employees experience. Climate can be observed in how employees talk to each other and measured through interviews or surveys. It can differ among departments, and can shape how individuals in these different settings react to policies. One must consider both psychological climate—at an individual level, one’s own perceptions of the organizational environment—and organizational climate—the aggregate of individual perceptions, or the collective perception of their work environment by all members of an organization [8].

Company Culture, Antiracism, and DEI

Our work is anchored by a single theory of change: in order for meaningful, sustainable change to occur in any environment, a transformative process is necessary. This process must support all people (personal work) in developing a common language, consciousness and value in relationship to equity, diversity and inclusion (culture work). It must also develop clear, usable tools with an equity plan that institutionalizes equity, diversity and inclusion into an organization’s identity, policies and procedures (institutional work). 

Center for Equity and Inclusion 

When translating company culture into a DEI strategy, companies must be mindful of taking an overly superficial and incorrect definition of their culture as the basis of any subsequent initiatives [7]. In an anti-Black society, it is surface-level diversity—Blackness—that prevents Black people from getting jobs [4]. Organizations must realistically determine whether their corporate culture will only generate superficial change or allow for an in-depth change process where antiracism will become inherent in their culture. Understanding culture as a human learning process requires us to consider the two aspects of learning: “positive reinforcement (repeating what works) and avoidance, or anticipation of pain (anxiety)” [7].

Changing culture will at first create potential for more anxiety, which illustrates why people usually refrain or meet such proposals with rejection. Edgar H. Schein stated that a common language, conceptual systems, and set of rules relating to the work environment and the people within the environment need to be developed to reduce the anxiety of uncertainty and stimulus overload and build stability [9]. The role of leadership is crucial: when cultural change is needed and unavoidable, leaders must take responsibility to start, accompany, and be held accountable for the results of this learning process [7].

Transforming Your Organization

How to Create an Antiracist Corporate Culture

The following framework is derived in part from “Understanding and Developing Organizational Culture” by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) [10].

  1. Identify your company’s cultural traits.

    • Social culture: Defined by SHRM as “group members’ roles and responsibilities. It is the study of class distinctions and the distribution of power that exists in any group” [10].
      Questions you could ask: How does the company culture maintain racial and ethnic distinctions among employee groups? How deeply ingrained are these in our company structure? Are these distinctions overt or do they function subconsciously?

    • Material culture: According to SHRM, “what people in a group make or achieve and the ways people work with and support one another in exchanging required goods and services” [10].
      Questions you could ask: Are team hierarchies, consciously or subconsciously, influenced by racism and ethnic discrimination? How is collaboration within departments affected by structural racism within our company? What effects do these underlying mechanisms have on the well-being of BIPOC employees? 

    • Ideological culture: Defined by SHRM as “a group’s values, beliefs, and ideals—the things people view as fundamental. It includes the emotional and intellectual guidelines that govern people’s daily existence and interactions” [10]
      Questions you could ask: What are subconscious biases and prejudices in the values, beliefs, and ideals of your teams and departments? How do these motivate employees’ behaviors, actions, and the prioritization of activities?

  2. Translate your cultural traits into managerial action items.

    • Create a task force or high-level working group with BIPOC and ethnic minority representation to inform leadership actions.

    • Gather intelligence from Employee Resource Groups that closely work with and listen in to the different communities in your company. 

    • Identify shared assumptions, values, and beliefs that underpin your organization’s cultural traits.

    • Report out on findings (e.g., corporate communication updates by senior leadership; sharing of information via your company’s intranet).

    • Create a space for exchange and information flow dedicated to antiracist cultural change via an intranet or internal messenger tools. 

    • Create a DEI action plan for the overall company as well as DEI plans for individual departments and locations.

In doing the above, keep in mind that culture is created through:  

  • Critical incidents: where group reactions lead to the creation of norms.  

  • Leaders: provide a model of how the group should function. Employees learn from the system built by the leaders which dynamics function and which don’t; the latter are then discarded.  

  • Primary embedding mechanisms: Schein defines this as what leaders pay attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis; leader reactions to critical incidents and organizational crises; how leaders allocate resources; deliberate role modeling, teaching, and coaching by leaders; how leaders allocate rewards and status; and how leaders recruit, select, promote, and excommunicate [9].  

  • Secondary articulation: organizational hierarchy, stories, statements of organizational philosophy, etc. Culture is reproduced through the socialization of new members entering the group.  

Denial of the problem

In order to change the system of oppression, you’re going to have to get uncomfortable.

— Charles Blow [11]

Antiracism in the workplace faces ingrained challenges, not the least of which is getting white employees to see the problem. White supremacy is not part of the day-to-day consciousness of a majority white workforce, even though it runs through our workplaces, organizational cultures, and social interactions. White privilege is the ability to lead a “normal” life without having to confront racism. The burden on BIPOC people is being unable to escape it.

Denial can take many forms. Total ignorance may be increasingly rare, but the view that racism is something in the past—fixed by laws on equality and freedom—still persists. A more common mutation of this idea claims that things have improved so much that BIPOC people are engaging in deliberate victimhood when speaking out. Even for those white colleagues who don’t fully endorse this view, the suggestion may be a convenient path to inaction.

A more nuanced form of denial is to ignore BIPOC voices in favor of rationalization—treating the issue of racism as something to assess alongside (or after) class or wealth privilege before it is taken seriously. In reality, this denial tends to stem from the outright disbelief or defensiveness of white colleagues who do not see themselves as privileged. Using the term “white advantage” rather than “white privilege” may help differentiate issues around class and race. Stephen J. Aguilar wrote in Inside Higher Ed, “When we shift the language to that of advantages and disadvantages, it foregrounds how unjust and arbitrary some of those advantages are—while also allowing us to quantify relative (dis)advantage better. The language of privilege, on the other hand, obfuscates the systems of oppression it is meant to highlight” [12].

To complicate matters further, many people discount information that is more distant from their own beliefs, a process known as egocentric discounting, and are subsequently more likely to believe information that affirms their initial opinions [13]. If such an individual’s network is restricted to others who also share their belief/disbelief, the weight of their own opinion is given further validity in their minds. This is one of the many reasons why a diverse and inclusive workforce is so important for ensuring that everyone is exposed to multiple viewpoints and experiences. 

Even for those who acknowledge that racism is an issue, lack of exposure leads to inaction. As outlined in the C4DISC Antiracist Toolkit for Allies [14], passive racism is more common in more educated circles that see themselves above racial slurs but are not actively opposing racism.

Those of us who work in higher education, whether within university presses or elsewhere, can easily slip into feeling as if such “progressive spaces” are havens from racism and other isms. It sometimes feels like we can let down our guard within these spaces and expect to find an absence of bias. But is that really the case? Yes, it’s true that Confederate flags and other symbols of white nationalism are largely absent. And there is typically an understanding that racial slurs or racist jokes are unacceptable. The truth is, however, that even progressive white spaces perpetuate white supremacy culture in ways that are hard to identify without intentionality and hard work.

— Antiracism Toolkit for Allies [15]

When motivated enough to take action, white people frequently have clunky, unsympathetic responses to BIPOC voices, centering their own feelings [16]. In her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race [17], Reni Eddo-Lodge gave an example of a white student at one of her discussions who asked when there would be an end point for racism. The student’s Black counterparts later identified that those “who want to skip to an end point are the ones not really affected by the issues.”

What approach, then, can an organization take when resistance comes in so many forms?

In How to Be an Antiracist, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi demonstrated that racist and antiracist “aren’t fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an anti-racist the next” [18]. For those who don’t suffer the effects of racism, the word racist may seem like a slur, useful only for taking someone down in an argument. The commonly held belief of the good-bad binary posits racism on a side where few want to find themselves, subsequently closing off attempts to engage in a dialogue that is perceived to be damaging to one’s own sense of moral worth. Kendi reiterated, “you could not be a good person and participate in racism; only bad people were racist” [19]. For this reason, white employees calling out racism may be all too readily overlooking their own part in the problem, comfortable in their self-view as “not racist” while not practically engaging the issue. A challenge in scholarly communications and science in general is that this field sees itself above racism by dint of its intellectual status, thus ignoring huge racial disparities and everyday racism through willful ignorance. An honest conversation on racism begins with understanding and accepting the role that each of us working in scholarly communications has played in maintaining the status quo.

The cycle of liberation outlined by Harro [20] provides a useful model for organizations to think differently about antiracism: there is no set end point and people will begin at different points, with different knowledge, self-awareness, and maturity. In this cycle, one must wake up to racism and challenge one’s own beliefs before taking action, but education isn’t the end point—there is no end point, no box to check.

Organizations can also take up the path of honest introspection and assessment required of an individual to become antiracist. The Crossroads Ministry Continuum on Becoming an Anti-Racist Multicultural Organization [21] outlines such steps. An organization needs to be honest about whether it is effecting merely symbolic change (i.e., tokenism) and actions only within its comfort zone, or whether it is growing into a force that challenges racist structures, even those that are part of its business.

Resistance to Change

In organizations, change management fails 70 percent of the time, due mostly to ineffective execution [22]. Change typically involves people, and change management is people management. Research shows that organizational change can foster intensive cognitive disorder, spurring confusion, anxiety, and paralyzing decision-making, all of which translate to change resistance [23].

It is one of the most recalcitrant issues business executives must address [24]. According to Susan M. Heathfield, “Resistance to change is the act of opposing or struggling with modifications or transformations that alter the status quo. This resistance can manifest itself in one employee, or in the workplace as a whole” [25].

Change can either be agent-centric or recipient-centric, and both are often met with resistance. In their research on change resistance, Jeffrey D. Ford, Laurie W. Ford, and Angelo D’Amelio define change as decision-making or events whose consequences (e.g., new policies or practices, new tool adoption, changes in team structures) interrupt normal organizational patterns with new, often ambiguous patterns [26]. Change agents (those who drive change) and recipients (those upon whom the change is imposed) engage in sense-making, or interpreting change and assigning meaning—initiating change resistance.

To manage change resistance effectively, one must understand employees’ reactions to change. The problem arises when resistance is treated as if it were objective, unaffected by the change agents and recipients themselves . Change agents are left to determine how to accomplish change and may assume that change will be met with resistance, therefore behaving as if resistance is inevitable. They create a world that appears to be a result of their insightful awareness of reality rather than a product of their own making. Ford, Ford, and D’Amelio also argue that a self-fulfilling prophecy arises from this sense-making: if change agents go into change expecting resistance, they are more likely to find it [26].

The Importance of Middle Managers in Effective Change Management

Middle managers have the challenge of grasping a change they did not design and negotiating the details with others equally removed from the strategic decision making.

— Lüscher & Lewis [27]

Organizational change may be essential to create an antiracist organization but poses challenges to managers. Unsuccessful change often can be traced back to middle management’s challenges in coping with shifting organizational expectations. Middle managers are critical change agents, operationalizing the change initiatives designed by top management [27]. They essentially do their best to make sense of the changes coming from top-down levels. Managers must understand the change and then provide subordinates with a workable certainty [27].

Managing Change Resistance in the Context of Antiracism

A reflection by Axelle Ahanhanzo, Anti-Racism Employee Resource Group leader at Elsevier

Until recently, talking about race at work was still taboo (and in some cases, it still is). In the summer of 2020, antiracist protests denounced the pervasive nature and impact of racism on BIPOC people. Through social media, protests, and calling out systemic racism to their employers, many BIPOC employees around me, in and outside of my organization, denounced the institutional, interpersonal, and internalized racism they faced as a result of working in predominantly white spaces. Through leading an antiracist ERG as a minoritized ethnicity, I have positively influenced Elsevier’s antiracist strategy, while learning to arm myself with a lot of patience upon realizing that change is a lengthy and curvilinear process.

Here are some the things that I have learned as a result of my involvement in the inclusion and diversity transformational process at Elsevier:

  • Racial inclusion is not a zero-sum game. There might be a perception that predominantly white spaces/majority benefit from the status quo and, therefore, why would the majority be open for a change that seems to benefit minority groups only? Some organizational members might see these changes as “taking away” from them instead of benefitting the organization and all its people. As a way to prevent or limit change resistance, it is thus key to emphasize how DEI efforts and antiracism are not a zero-sum game. Antiracist changes in your organization aim to increase DEI, and do not take away from the majority. On the contrary, they aim to create more opportunity for innovation, creativity, and productivity, for a business and all its employees.

  • Resisters or detractors? At what point does change resistance become irrevocably contrary to your company culture and the new directions your business and its people are taking for the greater good? Imagine a colleague spending considerable time talking about a certain change process in a training session or courage conversation one day, and then demonstrating the next that they are completely against the change or continuously microaggress your BIPOC employees? Do you invest more resources into training resisters or do you make the decision that this person detracts from your overall change goals and thus is no longer a fit in this changing organizational landscape? Difficult decisions will be made when it comes to managing antiracist change. If your antiracist endeavors are here to stay and make an impact beyond the walls of your organization, your organization must both set and meet goals. In the long term, this might mean detractors from your organization no longer fit with organizational culture and climate.

    Other important takeaways:

  • Understand that change takes time and that it is often met with resistance.

  • Involve employees early on in the change process and find change champions at all levels of the business to help you drive and be more effective in the change process.

  • Educate the board, management, and employees in your organization on the importance of antiracism. If people deeply understand the need for antiracism and how racism impacts people (their current and future colleagues), they are more likely to support it. In turn, this could positively translate into more employees feeding new or improved ideas to help you advance your antiracist endeavors.

  • Explain that changing organizational policies and practices to become more antiracist and therefore more inclusive benefits us all, no matter our ethnicity or race.

Identifying and Overcoming Biases

Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment.

— bell hooks, American author, professor, feminist, and social activist

Those leading antiracism and DEI work will meet obstacles along the way. Bias is one of the major and often invisible challenges that change agents will face.

Structural bias is comprised of the policies, practices, and attitudes that work across institutions and systems to create adverse outcomes for marginalized communities. According to Aylor et al., structural bias bias is also:

the main driver of social inequality in America today.

[It] targets specific, easily stereotyped and generalizable attributes of individuals, such as race and gender.

Power and legitimacy both play an important role in the identification of structural bias and who is affected by it [28].

When discussing structural bias, it’s important to understand the individual biases that are also at play.

Affinity bias. According to Adwoa Bagalini of the World Economic Forum, affinity bias “is our tendency to get along with others who are like us, and to evaluate them more positively than those who are different. Our personal beliefs, assumptions, preferences, and lack of understanding about people who are not like us may lead to repeatedly favouring ‘similar-to-me’ individuals. In organizations, this often affects who gets hired, who gets promoted, and who gets picked for opportunities to manage people or projects. Employees who look like those already in leadership are given opportunities to develop their careers, due to affinity bias, resulting in a lack of representation in senior leadership roles for BIPOC” [29].

Confirmation bias. “This is the tendency to seek out, favour, and use information that confirms what you already believe. The other side of this is that people tend to ignore new information that goes against their preconceived notions, leading to poor decision-making,” Bagalini wrote [29].

Compliance culture in human resources. Historically, human resources professionals have used the lens of employment law compliance to address discriminatory actions. Can human resources professionals provide broader context for organizations looking to change their culture? Can they take this opportunity to move from a mindset of compliance to culture change in their organizations?

Implicit bias. This is the tendency for unconscious thoughts that confirm stereotypes to influence our behavior, lead us to overgeneralize, and even discriminate—despite our expressed intentions [30].

Perfectionism. Changes and improvements recommended as a result of an internal audit should focus on building a sustainable, equitable organization rather than on achieving perfection. Consistency and adaptability are crucial. This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to let quality slip. As Martha Muñoz, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University, said, “there is this false narrative that to achieve diversity, we have to compromise on excellence” [31]. The pursuit of perfectionism only leads to burnout and frustration, wasting energy that could otherwise be put to better use. 

As you take on the large task of looking inward and deciding what changes need to be made, “think small, humble, and doable rather than large, heroic, and impossible. Don’t paralyze yourself with impossible expectations” [32].

Some ways to avoid getting bogged down in perfectionism are to:

  • Be realistic and keep things in perspective. 

  • Prioritize what tasks need to be done immediately and what issues can wait. 

  • Write down all ideas in one area and then consolidate similar ideas into one stronger purpose.

  • Acknowledge the need for continual changes. Prepare a schedule or assign a team member to provide regular updates.

  • Keep moving forward in your goals and address stagnant areas. 

“White savior” concerns in predominantly white organizations. While examining and building the critical community of your organization, be sure to focus on the interpersonal stages of this liberation process. This stage is marked by changes in how we see and value others and interact with them on a normal basis. 

When we build community, we interact with people who are similar to us for support and then go to people who are different from us to gain understanding and build coalitions. We need to differentiate between white allies helping to build a critical community and white people swooping in to be the saviors who will fix the issue. The white savior mentality stems from an ingrained assumption on the part of those accustomed to power and privilege that they are the agents of change; they fail to understand that building a sustainable, equitable organization means centering the voices and experiences of those who are historically excluded from having a seat at the table.

To be allies in this process, white members of the organization must not elevate their voices above the rest. White centering occurs when the feelings and needs of white people are prioritized, and this can happen whenever those in power are white and fail to engage in the necessary self-auditing of the habits and practices of those socialized into whiteness. Without this internal audit, the white savior complex can easily overtake otherwise good intentions. 

The flip side of the white savior complex is placing too much of the actual achievement of systemic change on BIPOC indivuals in the organization. It’s essential to move the emotional labor away from BIPOC individuals, who are already shouldering a disproportionate amount of the work and often dealing with multiple layers of stress and trauma. White people should first monitor their own thoughts and words and self-analyze their conscious and unconscious biases. Coming to the table from a place of empathy—comfortable with being uncomfortable—will enable huge strides in building a strong and sustained community. Finally, active listening followed by active (not passive or performative) activism will transform the organization. 

White privilege. Not seeing, thinking, or talking about racism comes from a position of privilege and an environment where whiteness is the norm. For example, only those who are not affected by racist terminology can argue that certain words are not racist and laugh about them [33]. Members of the dominant group—white people—can afford to ignore their own whiteness. In their everyday lives and self-perception, it is a nonrelevant factor; white people wish to be perceived purely as individuals [34]. But so do their BIPOC colleagues. Racism directly affects BIPOC colleagues in different situations—rejections in job applications, othering (i.e., being perceived as “the other,” different, foreign; a form of heteronomy where someone is ascribed certain traits rather than being seen as an individual), being denied one’s need for belonging, or not being able to protect oneself or loved ones from racism. In contrast to the BIPOC experience, white colleagues have the privilege to choose whether they want to deal with racism or not [34].

Confronting white privilege is not about waiving the privilege, but naming the wrongs and taking a stand; it is about seeing the discrimination of others and dismantling it [33]. Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” is a useful tool for identifying the effect of white privilege in daily life [35].

Guilt. Replace any feeling of guilt with a feeling of responsibility. Focusing on guilt is a self-centered approach that dilutes real reflection with the issues at hand and can delay needed action. Instead, white people should focus on their responsibility within a system that white people benefit from and perpetuate. By bearing responsibility, white people become active agents oriented toward a forward direction [34].

Defensiveness. Shutting down the concerns of BIPOC staff as driving “identity politics” hampers the possibilities for dialogue and stems from the defensive position where white people feel “they are not allowed to say anything anymore” (translated by a Toolkit writer) [2]. White fragility, a term popularized by author Robin DiAngelo, is a tactic of intimidating and silencing the person who addresses a racist act or behavior and prevails in environments as mentioned above. It builds on the premise of protecting white privileges and not holding each other accountable in context of racism. You’ve encountered white fragility if you are a white colleague and feel:

  • the urge to defend yourself,

  • resentful or indignant,

  • the need to be an exception,

  • the need to distance yourself from the topic,

  • the need to address your own experience or broaden the conversation toward other forms of discrimination, or

  • the need to reject a BIPOC colleague’s experience of racism as emotional and subjective [34].  

Be aware that white fragility can easily evolve to white rage, a situation in which white people use their power to directly control or suppress BIPOCs’ voices, career opportunities, or personal development [2].

Time as a limited resource. Undertaking organizational changes means that time becomes an even more precious resource. Accepting this and acknowledging that time must be used as efficiently as possible from the beginning can only be a benefit. The Harvard Business Review lists the following as helpful practices to conserve time and put it to use most effectively.

  • Make agendas clear and selective.

  • Create a zero-based time budget (reallocating current time to more efficient use instead of “withdrawing” more time from the budget).

  • Simplify the organization.

  • Clearly delegate.

  • Establish organization-wide time discipline (e.g., require meetings to have agendas and send materials out beforehand).

  • Provide feedback to manage organizational load [36].

Additionally, some organizations allow employees to dedicate a certain number of hours each month to DEI work; for example, at Duke University Press, employees have four hours. Granting employees permission to spend work time on equity-related tasks, and even building specific equity goals into performance evaluations, can combat a sense of time scarcity.

External factors. One way to examine an organization’s needs and obstacles is to conduct an internal audit, which can provide an informed, realistic look at the external factors that affect all those involved. This can provide insight into how people in your organization are affected by external factors in their lives both personally and professionally. These factors can be social policies, racialized hierarchies, gender norms, religious privilege, among others. An inescapable part of our society is that we are all subject to systems that assign us roles, which then put us in classes and hierarchies.

It’s imperative to know what the members of your organization are dealing with and what pressures and expectations are associated with the boxes into which they’ve been placed. These boxes come with stereotypes and restrictions. If we want to improve an organization and make it equitable, we need to first look inward, examine what expectations people’s identities bring to their lives, and express outwardly what we would like to see from others once we have begun work on ourselves. 

Part of this internal audit involves looking at the type of community your organization creates. The goal is to move toward what Silvia Cristina Bettez at the University of North Carolina called “critical community,” in which people acknowledge that identities are intersectional. Bettez defines critical community as:

Interconnected, porously bordered, shifting webs of people who through dialogue, active listening, and critical question posing assist each other in critically thinking through issues of power, oppression, and privilege. Critical communities are not necessarily fixed in location or even in present time; they are dynamic, fluid, and shifting [37].

For scholarly communications in particular, it is crucial to have these conversations about external factors and their effects on both staff and peers in the community, recognizing that the strongest foundations for change come from first looking inward. 

Overcoming Obstacles

Here are some ideas that you might adopt in your organization to overcome obstacles, such as lack of clarity, defensiveness, conflict avoidance, perfectionism, quantity over quality, lack of professional expertise in DEI, hierarchical structures, and failure to measure and keep track of BIPOC participation. 

  • Create shared definitions of key terms; embed equity and inclusion in mission, vision, and value statements; generate baseline data using employee surveys, equity audits, exit interviews, and other measures to make the necessary work transparent; identify and name gaps between existing experience and perceptions and DEI goals and track them in an ongoing public manner for accountability.

  • Ensure that mission, vision, and value statements place importance on inclusivity; highlight and recognize quality as part of a culture of affirmation.

  • Set goals and schedules for DEI work that involve all stakeholders, not just leadership; determine which responsibilities or workflows can be paused or reduced to make time for DEI work; continuously examine and discuss experiences as part of initiatives to revise schedules and expectations in order to counter action bias; acknowledge that eliminating centuries of systemic racism entails considerable time and unwavering commitment from society as a whole.

  • Name and discuss the root causes of defensiveness in challenging conversations, which can range from power hoarding to fear of losing privilege; build an organizational culture of affirmation and learning, which can help reduce defensiveness and create spaces for safe conversation.

  • Create a listening strategy to determine how people in the organization prefer to communicate in order to obtain the best likelihood of engagement; embrace multimedia tools and resources as well as written documents; consider alternate ways of documenting and communicating at all stages of the employee lifecycle, from recruiting to performance reviews, to ensure that as-yet-unidentified strengths are valued and integrated into the culture. 

  • Decouple positions from status, creating an organizational structure that is more like a taxonomy—a system of organization—rather than a hierarchy of power; ensure that decision-making is inclusive and transparent and invites the experiences of those impacted by the decisions into the processes of change and assessment; consider the MOCHA management team model (with clearly defined cross-organizational roles of Manager, Owner, Consulted, Helper, Approver) and other ways to empower individuals across the organization in new initiatives.

  • Understand that discomfort is essential to growth, and that cultures of affirmation do not rely on consensus, rather on learning from disagreement and debate; acknowledge that meaningful work entails challenge; facilitate meaningful conversations through approaches such as the LARA method (Listen, Affirm, Respond, Ask Questions); create multiple ways for staff to practice engaging in challenging topics [38]

  • Privileging professional experience over lived experience reinforces racism and other inequities; consider ways to empower the sharing of all employee stories; add mentoring infrastructure and resources that empower lived experience. 

  • Measure and assess DEI goals just as other initiatives are measured—and do so consistently and transparently; embed and align accountability for DEI with other organizational goals; put in place a process for monitoring and evaluating leadership activities as part of the review process; consider an external equity audit (inclusive of specifics like salaries and promotions) to ensure that progress is being made. 


This toolkit focuses on helping organizations transform their workplace culture through the lens of antiracism and equity. It provides them with pathways to improve their leadership skills and to create policies and procedures to address inequities, disparities, and racist systems.

Developing routines to make antiracist choices is a daily commitment that must be carried out with intention.

— National Museum of African American History and Culture [39]

To transform the culture of your organization, you must be intentional with your daily commitments. This means that you will constantly assess where you are as a leader, measure your organization’s progress in ensuring equitable and antiracist policies, acknowledge all missteps in judgement and actions, and keep moving forward. Routines should include addressing racist systems and behaviors within your organizations.

The work of antiracism and equity building is a lifelong process. Some are motivated to address the issue of inequity and racist institutional systems because it is the right thing to do. For others, it is all about the business case. Ultimately, an organization’s exact motivation is irrelevant—if you did not think it was necessary to improve your organization via equitable and antiracist policies and procedures, you would not be reading this toolkit.

This toolkit provides tools, tips, and personal stories and reflections with the goal of assisting you no matter where you are in your journey to creating an equitable and antiracist organization. Ensure that you are focusing on the needs of BIPOC individuals and not centering the feelings of white people. Leaders must hold each other accountable if they seriously want to address inequitable systems in their organizations. We must realize that is not the job of any one individual or of a particular group to build equity and promote antiracism within our organizations. It is the responsibility of all of us.

Continue learning by visiting our resource list.

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