Davos Agenda

How to achieve racial justice in the workplace: reconnecting with 4 basic rights

A macaw flies over buildings with the Avila mountain behind in Caracas March 31, 2015. Caracas, the world's second most violent city according to the United Nations, also suffers terrible traffic and residents spend hours in massive lines for scarce products. However, on antennae, rooves and windowsills, blue-and-yellow macaws (or Ara ararauna) break the harsh routine. Though originally native to rainforests from Panama to Paraguay, they have adapted well to Caracas thanks to the exuberant tropical vegetation surging between skyscrapers. Picture taken March 31, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Silva - GF10000069920

We can simplify our commitment to inclusion by measuring how free we feel from basic human perspectives. Image: REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Laura Morgan Roberts
Professor of Practice , University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit
  • The effects of diverse workplaces ricochet positively into our communities and societies.
  • Workplace diversity efforts need to be reduced down to measuring how free we feel in the workplace in many different senses.
  • Minority communities are forced to start off on the wrong foot in the workplace when they do not feel these freedoms.

Diversity efforts in workplaces have been criticised as paying lip service to the cause, simply checking the boxes, and relying exclusively on an overly-simplistic, instrumental, potentially exploitative business case for racial diversity.

And yet, global leaders in business, education and government sectors have pledged to promote racial justice. Perhaps it is time for a diversity-equity-inclusion reset to advance racial justice – one that embraces workplace freedom as the path to progress.

Imagine a workplace in which all people – especially Black and brown people – could be truly free. How would this be measured? Black and brown people – and their colleagues – will experience racial justice at work, and by extension in society, when they can exercise four fundamental workplace freedoms.

The freedom to be our authentic selves

This could look and feel like anything, with the caveat that it must not oppress others.

Underrepresented and lower-status minorities feel less safe expressing their cultural styles, identities and ideas. Therefore, they instead suppress them at work by changing their names on job applications, avoiding disclosing their involvement in cultural events or communities, and modifying their appearance and speech patterns to eliminate signals of stigmatised identities — such as ethnic hairstyles and accents.

The upshot is that they wear facades of conformity, as they are uncomfortable deviating from the status quo; they already stand out, so they hesitate to cast a greater spotlight on those differences that could undermine others’ perceptions of fit or loyalty.

Feeling this freedom goes hand in hand with feeling at liberty to deviate from the status quo or the prototypical group member’s profile — being free to dissent and critique conventional practices, strategic goals and team decisions. When people possess this freedom, they feel more connected to their coworkers, aligned with the workplace culture, and committed to their organisations.

The freedom to become our best selves

As a positive organisational psychologist, I’ve been studying the science of maximizing human potential in diverse settings for 20 years – and affirming difference is the cornerstone of this process.

Affirming difference means betting on dissimilar others’ potential, not just people who remind us of our younger selves. This matters for internships, jobs, schools, study teams, and any other setting in which people invest in growth and development because they believe in who we can become.

What if diversity among us was the norm — not the option that we were trying to sell, or the case we were trying to argue?

Laura Morgan Roberts

This freedom is often constrained in environments where underrepresented and lower-status minorities feel they have to prove their capabilities non-stop before they can receive any opportunity to stretch, grow, expand their skillset or test their mettle. High-quality feedback and developmental opportunities grant individuals the liberty of self-actualisation at work, and this allows us to truly flourish.

The freedom to be average

The freedom to be average means normalising heterogeneity rather than homogeneity; to work in a world in which Black and brown people are not positioned as minorities, underrepresented, or on the margins of power, influence and resources.

What if diversity among us was the norm — not the option that we were trying to sell, or the case we were trying to argue? What if it was an essential ingredient of our workplace, community and society?

A learning community will not be sufficient or effective unless it is diverse; nor will a business community. If diversity were the standard, we would normalise many of the valuable differences currently framed as deviant and problematic.

The freedom to be average is also the grace granted for imperfect works-in-progress. This is essential in high-stress situations, such as global health and racial injustice pandemics.

But the bar hasn’t lowered for minorities’ performance standards. The spotlight is brighter, employment insecurity and economic insecurity looms larger, and the demands of working, caregiving, and merely surviving have grown exponentially. Who has the wiggle room under these circumstances to drop the ball, to deliver less-than-their-best, to express a bit less patience and a bit more frustration?

The answer is: those who have the most power — the same people who have been granted the liberty of mediocrity, while Black and brown people have had to conspire in the myth of exceptionalism to trickle out of the “pipeline” of scarce diverse talent.

Workplace freedoms to be authentic and extraordinary are inextricably tied to the freedom to be mediocre. We all have our best days and our less-than-best days, when good-enough is the best we can do.

Managers who promote racial justice will keep one eye on potential – welcoming authenticity, inspiring the extraordinary, and applying the same performance standards across racial and other sociodemographic categories.

The freedom to fail

The paradoxical hallmark of success is, of course, the freedom to fail: to fall flat on your face and not have it be career-ending or life-threatening. The freedom to make really bad decisions and choices, and for people to still believe in the sanctity and value of your life and livelihood, enough to grant you another shot.

On the streets, we witness the penalties that George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and so many innocent others have paid for having brown skin. Within our work organisations, when we don’t fit the prototype, our failures are more costly and our successes are discounted.

As evidenced by the National Bureau of Economic Research, Black workers are more likely to be monitored, fired for negative signals, and to remain unemployed after being fired.

This freedom to fail and get another chance offers true safety — physically, psychologically and economically speaking. It grants the liberty of the benefit of the doubt, equitably extending access to safety nets, loopholes and hand-ups.

It is justice extended in the face of numerous obstacles to success, like exclusion and oppression.

Have you read?

How do we begin to liberate our workspaces, where Black people were held in bondage for centuries? It will take sustained, structural transformation. But we can start by asking the question: What do Black people want from their workplace leaders right now?

Several studies in our edited volume Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience provide answers. And the answers might look strikingly similar to what everyone wants: humanity, opportunities to thrive, to have people seek our input and give us credit and rewards when it benefits the company, just as they would for anybody else.

We also want to have people bet on our potential and invest in our success, even if we don’t look like the company’s current leaders. To have people who will have our back when we are being unjustly treated.

To invite us to bring our differences to work — not just assimilate into a “welcoming” culture, where success is contingent upon culturally coded metrics of fit and executive presence. To be diligent, dedicated and brilliant — a contribution to our workplaces, families and communities.

What we cannot do is continue trying to erase race from the consciousness of an economic system and social order that was fundamentally anchored in racist hierarchy. It will only slow us down in our efforts to uphold our espoused commitment toward inclusion, justice, merit, equity and freedom.

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