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In 2021, Black leaders still occupy less than 1 per cent of executive roles and board seats at major Canadian companies. We need to do more to create supported pathways for Black people to succeed and, more importantly, have real power at the corporate leadership level – not just be token members.

The ladder to executive leadership positions for Black people is full of broken rungs. Once in the door, the ability to advance requires a genuine culture of inclusion. Racism with a capital “R,” along with smaller, more subtle acts of discrimination, must be addressed. Below are just some proof points that illustrate a broken system.

Address denial: While 65 per cent of Black workers say it’s harder for them to advance than white workers, only 16 per cent of white workers agree. This just doesn’t match the data. The Conference Board of Canada found that university-educated Black Canadians make 80 cents for every dollar earned by university-educated White Canadians.

Microaggressions on the job: Brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages – anything from stereotyping comments to racially insensitive language that demeans Black workers – instill distrust and prevent a sense of belonging.

Having to “code switch”: Fifty-three per cent of Black grads feel the need to adjust their behaviour at work. Changing the way you express yourself when you are around non-racialized people in the workplace means you cannot bring your full self to work. This does not foster a culture of belonging or respecting differences.

Low rates of sponsorship: Black employees have low rates of sponsorship and find promotion processes unfair and biased. For example, according to a Boston Consulting Group diversity and inclusion survey, 49 per cent of Black workers report discrimination in promotion processes – the most of any minority group.

The persistence of one act upon another takes an emotional toll on Black employees and becomes a barrier to career progression and overall engagement. Data indicates that Black workers are less satisfied at work and 50 per cent more likely to be planning to leave their job than White workers. With the average cost of replacing an employee pegged at 33 per cent of their annual salary, this makes no business sense and can’t be ignored if employers want to build high-performing teams.

Below are actions organizations can take to improve career progression for Black employees. They have shown promising results for other disadvantaged groups as well.

On-boarding matters: Establish specific practices so Black employees are positioned to see a path to success, feel welcomed and are prepared for what’s next. Governing boards need to both identify qualified Black candidates for board recruitment and support Black board members. By taking both steps, Black leaders and employees at all levels of your organization will be more successful.

Policies and performance measurement matter: Tie a portion of leadership performance evaluations to progress on individual diversity and inclusion objectives. Implement the “Rooney Rule,” which mandates that you must interview at least one racialized candidate for open leadership positions. You can also conduct a review to identify and remove bias in Black employee outcomes, including performance appraisals. Exit interviews can help determine why Black employees may choose not to stay.

Open dialogue for tough conversations: Recognize that a segment of your workforce believes they cannot fully be themselves at work. Create opportunities for dialogue and make sure employees feel supported when they talk about their lived experiences. Make it clear that they can give honest feedback with no consequences. Consider how you can profile, celebrate and promote Black employees and review corporate policies to make sure they don’t deter things like having natural hair or wearing cultural or religious clothing.

Up your mentorship with sponsorship: Sponsorship goes beyond just mentorship – it’s when more senior colleagues advocate on a sponsored employee’s behalf, helping guide them through career progressions in an organization. By strengthening sponsorship programs and succession planning to support Black colleagues, you will start to see representation shifts while also creating a more inclusive culture. Sponsorship is considered by Black employees to be highly effective.


Leslie Woo is the CEO of CivicAction, a non-profit civic engagement organization. She is the leadership lab columnist for February, 2021.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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