Can General Counsel Affect Race Relations in the Workplace?

We, as a country, are taking stock.  We are taking stock of our health care system and its weaknesses.  We will be taking stock, in just a few months, of our political future with the upcoming election.  And, we are taking stock of the systemic racism that exists in this country.

You may know that the percentage of African American fatalities due to Covid-19 is far higher than white Americans, and African Americans are overall more likely to suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, or stroke.  According to the Sentencing Project, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to receive lengthy prison sentences.

We are in a time of upheaval, and across the country, race relations are being discussed. It is the moment for industry leaders, including General Counsel like yourself, to take an honest look at how your organization can improve diversity and inclusion at your organization.  Accordingly, we have eight suggested steps you can take to help your organization recognize and address internal diversity issues and to promote positive employee relations for all.

  1. Reach Out with Empathy

There is a phenomenon that has been garnering increased attention recently.  It is the concept of “weathering.”  Simply put, “weathering” is the ever-present level of stress that results from consistently experiencing either small or significant incidents of discrimination.  Over a lifetime, “weathering” could explain the increased likelihood of health issues that are prevalent in the black community.

Call your colleagues of color and ask them how they are weathering the current race relations conversation and events. What positive changes do they see happening?  Listening with genuine empathy goes a long way.

As someone who leads a legal department, and has considerable influence over employment policies in the workplace, you can play an active role in diminishing the effects of “weathering.”  It may sound cliché but simple gestures of recognition such as – “I want you to know that you are valued.  You made XYZ contribution to the ABC project.” – goes a long way.  If leaders in an organization make an effort to give that special recognition, the organization will generate positive energy toward building goodwill.

  1. Tap into the Resources Already in the Organization

Consider scheduling one-on-one meetings with your team.  Ask for a brainstorming session on how the company can improve diversity on your side.  Then, bring your team together and continue the conversation.

Ask if there are mentoring programs for lawyers or other professionals of color that you may be able to mentor. You’re a senior legal leader and probably have a wealth of knowledge to impart about the organization, navigating the organization and leadership attributes.

  1. Benchmark with other GCs and Industry Leaders

We all know that two heads are better than one.  How many times did you have a work question that had you stuck only to get your question answered by just chatting with a colleague?  Your organization will likely have not tried certain approaches.  So, ask others in the industry what they are doing to improve their own organization’s diversity awareness.

  1. Reach Out to Bar Organizations Focused on a Particular Minority Group

Most states throughout the country have diversity bar associations. The Asian Pacific American Lawyers Association, The National Bar Association (Black Lawyers), the Hispanic Bar Association, and The  National Muslim Lawyers Association are just a few.

You may consider sponsoring an event with a diversity bar association so that you can foster dialogue and learning.  Positive diversity conversations will be the path to better understanding, knowledge, and synthesized growth.

  1. Focus on Diversity in Hiring Practices

Your organization likely has procedures in place when it comes to hiring for in-house counsel positions.  The current climate in our nation should be the catalyst that pushes you to review the company’s hiring processes and see if diversity is considered as a factor.  If not, reach out to a recruiting professional to better understand how you can appropriately incorporate diversity into your hiring processes. We have multiple examples of diversity recruiting initiatives and resources.

  1. Look at Current Furlough and Layoff Processes

According to Fortune magazine, black workers are being laid off or furloughed at twice the rate of white workers during the global pandemic.  That data may have you wonder if that statistic is accurate in your organization.  Thus, as the legal leader, take the time to look at the layoffs in your company concerning race.  Then, see if there is a way in which you can ensure that layoffs, when they happen, occur in a racially neutral way.

  1. Go Beyond Diversity and Inclusion, and Pledge to be an Anti-Racist Employer

The notions of diversity and inclusion are decades old.  While worthwhile and very, very important, D & I programs may now need to yield to the idea of the organization choosing to be expressly “anti-racist.”  The concept may take some time to gain a foothold, but the key to being “anti-racist” is to acknowledge the existence of racism inherent in organizations, industries, and communities.

Systemic racism is not always obvious.  That is why the statistics above are so helpful.  Systemic racism manifests in unspoken norms and routines that delineate better or worse opportunities for employees based on skin color.  In sum, we know that acknowledging the problem is the first step to solving it.  Pledging to be an anti-racist employer is a bold step toward effecting change.

  1. Own It and Think Outside the Box for Solutions

The racial diversity programs already in place need to become moral imperatives for the organization.

Workplace training can help, but awareness alone does not get you where you need to be.  Rather than educating employees on microaggression in the workplace, try giving employees the tools to respond to the behavior at work.  Indeed, a two-hour training, or diversity lunch, helps but may not go far enough.  Accountability and empowering employees to uphold diversity principles is a solid first step.

And if you’re feeling courageous enough, host a Town Hall Meeting like Damien Atkins, General Counsel of Hershey Corporation: Being a legal leader of color may help but you may also find a leader in your organization to partner with in running town hall conversations. Or limit the conversations internally to your legal team.


Our country is taking stock concerning race relations, and our current national dialogue surrounding systemic racism presents an opportunity for employers to promote diversity and inclusion.  To be sure, the issue will be challenging to discuss.  Yet, it is a worthwhile endeavor, so we can move forward with a better understanding of what it means to be a person of color in the U.S.