A new report by the global communications firm Edelman finds that US executives are “out of touch” when it comes to race in the workplace and issues of racial justice, even as their employees increasingly want and expect to see more action taken to address racial issues.
Executives are far more likely than their employees to believe their company has made significant progress.
Broadly, the report finds that concern about racial injustice has grown across demographics since Edelman began measuring that statistic in 2020. From 2022 to 2023, the percentage of employees surveyed who reported they were “concerned about systemic racism and racial injustice in this country” grew among each demographic measured.
But perceptions about the extent to which those concerns have been understood and acted upon in meaningful ways differ widely between executives and their employees.
According to survey details, executives are far more likely than their employees to believe their company has moved in a positive direction in addressing race and racism at work. Sixty percent of executives said their organization “is making a lot of meaningful progress on addressing racism and racial inequalities in the workplace,” compared to 28 percent of mid-level employees and 18 percent of associate or entry-level employees (10).
And that’s not all. Few employees—only about 15 percent—trust their CEO to be honest about race and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives within the company.
Meanwhile, self-reporting by CEOs shows they tend to undervalue the importance of a diverse workforce relative to their employees and that they are more uncomfortable talking about race and racism. And roughly two-thirds of executives believed that racism is an “individual” rather than a systemic problem in the United States, compared to about half of employees.
Overall, the report finds low levels of trust among employees that their bosses understand race and racism and that they will act in good faith to address racial issues within the organization.
A Widening Gap
These and more findings come from a “special report” on race and business as part of Edelman’s larger annual “Trust Barometer,” an annual survey by the firm measuring public and employee trust in various institutions.
The report reveals “a huge disconnect between what employees feel is happening or the progress being made, and what executives feel.”
This is the fourth such special report on race and business in as many years, starting in 2020 amid the nationwide racial reckonings that grew in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and other killings of Black Americans at the hands of police.
Coming out of 2020, “Executives were expected to be anti-racist—that was a like a base level: be anti-racist, be vocal and active in addressing [race],” says Trisch Smith, global chief DEI officer for Edelman and senior architect of the report.
“The next year, 2021, it was that employees said that an inclusive workplace was a top expectation,” Smith says, noting the trend continued. “Last year, six out of ten employees said that they wouldn’t work for a company or that they left an organization that failed to speak out against race and racial injustice.”
And this year, Smith says, the report reveals “a huge disconnect between what employees feel is happening or the progress being made, and what executives feel.”
Executives were far more likely to report feeling uncomfortable talking about race.
“So, there is this dual reality, or this misperception among the executive ranks of what’s really happening, what progress is really being made, what employees are really feeling and living each and every day within their organization,” says Smith.
At the same time, executives were far more likely to report feeling “uncomfortable discussing race and racial issues,”—61 percent of them, compared to 43 percent of employees (18).
The Value of Diversity
That gaping difference in experience is reflected as well in ideas about the value of diversity in the workplace, the report finds, with around one-third of executives reporting they believed that diversity carries various benefits, including creating a sense of belonging or fostering innovation and creativity, compared to closer to half of employees (15).
“So that’s telling us that at the bottom of the organization, people feel like a diverse workforce is really helping their day-to-day experience and their day-to-day effectiveness,” notes Drake Baer, senior vice president of thought leadership for Edelman and report lead.
The report also drills down on why employees feel more progress isn’t being made or what barriers stand in the way of such progress.
“And we found that it is because DEI initiatives themselves are not resourced, that return on investment [in diversity] is not communicated, that racial inequity is not a priority,” and that pressure (for example, from board members) to pause DEI initiatives is not resisted, says Baer.
Among 57 percent of employees who already said their organization is “not making much meaningful progress in addressing racism,” 42 percent cited among the top reasons that “DEI initiatives are not resourced,” while about 30 percent said that return on DEI investment is not communicated and that racial inequity was not seen as a priority. (19)
These trends have an impact, among other things, on employee loyalty. “If you feel like your workplace is going in a positive direction, like it’s a healthy ecosystem, then you’ll be much more loyal, a greater advocate, feel more belonging and be more committed,” says Baer. “So, there’s all of these really valuable talent outcomes that influence the bottom line that our respondents are telling us are really strongly correlated with progress on racism and racial inequities.”
But those correlations only underscore, says Smith, the glaring disconnect between executive actions and employee expectations when it comes to race in the workplace.
In separate studies, Smith says, “We found that many organizations don’t have the infrastructure and framework to even manage and drive [DEI] work. And we’ve seen in the last several months, several organizations are even dismantling or scaling back their DEI teams.”
Feedback and Understanding
Organizations that have made public or internal pledges to address racial inequity, Smith says, should be acting on those pledges by making prominent investments in DEI, actively monitoring progress toward stated goals, and, crucially, talking openly about those goals and progress in implementing them.
“One of the reasons why there is this disconnect” between executives and employees, Smith says, “is that groups are not talking to each other. We’re not having authentic, frank conversations in safe spaces and in ongoing forums so that [employees] can get feedback.”
That feedback should, in turn, inform action toward stated goals, Smith says, noting that “We know that the fastest way to lose trust is to break your promises.”