Many organizations endeavored to institute structural changes to racial equity efforts following the morbid booster shot effect of George Floyd’s murder on stagnant national conversations about race. Countless companies released statements, and some took actions that focused on anti-racism instead of mere inclusion. Yet, while attention to culture and new ideas can be modes of influence, organizations—whether dot org, dot gov or dot com—ultimately make their most significant changes through internal policy. Hiring and promotion policies determine an organization’s makeup. And this past year’s dramatic increase in remote work has demonstrated that institutions are not buildings or products—they are the talent: the talent that comes, the talent that stays, and the talent that leads. The importance of hiring and promotion in the workforce makes the problematic trope of the “hard-to-find” qualified Black candidate more than just a stereotypical cliché: its damaging effects are an enduring racist cog in the wheel of progress.

Last spring during a Zoom meeting with staff, Wells Fargo’s CEO Charles Scharf said that the bank had trouble reaching its diversity goals because there was simply not enough qualified Black talent, reiterating in a company-wide memo: “While it might sound like an excuse, the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from.” Reuters reported that “Black senior executives across corporate America said they are frustrated by claims of a talent shortage, and called the refrain a major reason that companies have struggled to add enough racial and ethnic diversity to leadership ranks, despite stated intentions to do so.” By September, Scharf had apologized, calling his comment “insensitive,” and said that it reflected his “own unconscious bias.”

By using the language of “sensitivity,” the apology reduces the racial bias and its harmful effects to a matter of hurt feelings. However, Scharf’s words are more than indelicate; they harm worker confidence and sense of belonging. His words don’t just reflect a largely accepted way of thinking, they reflect the harm potentially inflicted throughout an entire career—in hiring, promotions, and organizational culture.

Read the full article about racism in the workplace by Autumn McDonald at Stanford Social Innovation Review.