Nov 17, 2020 - Economy

Corporate America's revolving door for Black employees

Illustration of a person leaving through a door.

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Systemic racism is leading to a turnover problem in corporate America: Companies have a hard time holding on to Black employees.

Why it matters: Beyond affecting individual professionals and teams, a corporate culture that causes attrition can spread rot through entire companies.

Driving the news: If companies don't pay attention to their corporate culture, the pandemic and remote work could drive the Black turnover rate even higher, experts say.

  • "Remote work can exacerbate the problem because there’s less person-to-person contact," says Patrick McKay, a professor of human resource management at Temple University.
  • In-person encounters with colleagues who don't look like you chip away at your biases, but those biases can stay strong when we're all working from home, he says.

By the numbers:

  • 33% of Black professionals don't feel respected or valued at work, per a recent survey from the Society for Human Resource Management. Compare that with 18% of their white counterparts.
  • That pushes people out the door. According to a report from the Center for Talent Innovation, more than one-third of Black employees intend to leave their companies within two years, and Black professionals are 30% more likely to intend to leave than their white counterparts.
  • At Google, which releases turnover statistics, Black employees make up less than 3% of the workforce and have an attrition rate that is 13% higher than the national average.

"There's a progression model," Derek Avery, a business professor at the University of Houston, tells Axios.

  • "Things like microaggressions and harassment lead people to withdraw psychologically, which causes higher levels of burnout and lower levels of engagement. Then there's physical withdrawal: tardiness, absenteeism and ultimately turnover," Avery says.

What's happening: While many companies are trying to address the issues through implicit bias trainings or recruiting initiatives, these efforts can feel like "slapping a Band-Aid on a tumor," says McKay.

  • "Deep down, organizations are highly inertial," he adds.
  • Steps that could actually chip away at the turnover problem include adding transparency to recruiting and promotion processes, setting up ways in which employees can report discrimination, and holding aggressors accountable, McKay says. "But organizational policy infrastructures are rarely changed to support diversity."
  • There are even stark differences in how workplace racism is viewed within HR departments — the very bodies tasked with addressing it. In the SHRM survey, 49% of Black HR professionals reported observing racial discrimination at work, compared with 13% of white HR professionals.

The stakes: Black employees who get fed up and leave might have trouble finding their next job.

  • "You look like a job hopper to potential employers," says McKay. "And they’re not aware of the job climate you dealt with previously."
  • And for the companies themselves, there's a lingering "secondhand smoke effect," Avery says. White employees who aren't experiencing the discrimination themselves but are routinely witnessing it are likely to feel burnout and even quit over the frayed company culture themselves.

The bottom line: It's simple. "If your organization is doing things that systemically run off talented people, you will, by definition, be left with less talented people," says Avery.

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