Black and brown executives have long faced systemic discrimination in the workplace. They are less likely to receive promotions and more likely to be overlooked for jobs than their non-minority colleagues of similar qualifications and experience levels. When they do receive opportunities to perform these roles, Black and brown executives are often grossly underpaid. A well-known 2009 study found that in the advertising industry specifically, racial discrimination against Black professionals was 38% worse than it was in the broader U.S. labor market. The situation stemming from Wells Fargo— where CEO Charles Scharf stated in an internal memo that “the unfortunate reality is that there is a very limited pool of black talent to recruit from”—is unfortunately, all too common.
As a publicist, I know firsthand the impact a respected company’s public statements can have on the culture of an industry. When a corporation’s messaging, whether it be internal or external, perpetuates these overly racial biases, the impact is as irresponsible as it is unethical. And the impact these false narratives have on our communities is real.
For that reason, communities are speaking up and taking action to hold brands like Wells Fargo accountable. In recent days, a movement has materialized on Facebook encouraging Black business owners to pull their funds from Wells Fargo. More broadly, many grassroots movements gained momentum over the summer to support Black-owned businesses and boycott brands that fail to support Black communities, indicating that consumers are no longer remaining silent on issues of systemic racism. These communities—and the consumers that drive them—are making their voices heard with their dollars. Brands like Wells Fargo must focus their efforts on genuine inclusion and diversity programs, or risk losing market share to the companies that make it a priority.
Studies have shown that for every 100 men promoted to a managerial role, only 60 Black women are similarly promoted. And once they’ve obtained those promotions, Black women are far more likely to have their professional expertise questioned than their male counterparts. As a Black woman who has worked with hundreds of Black-owned businesses, I can personally attest to the fact that there is no shortage of Black talent in corporate America today, neither in the communications industry nor the myriad of industries we serve. Mr. Scharf’s statement is reflective of the larger problem of discrimination against Black executives in white-collar roles, and perpetuates the harmful narrative that Vlack talent is rare and difficult to find.
Mr. Scharf’s statement is reflective of the larger problem of discrimination against Black executives in white-collar roles, and perpetuates the harmful narrative that Black talent is rare and difficult to find.
When a CEO subscribes to this ideology and uses his or her position as a thought leader to publicly reinforce racist ideals, it speaks volumes about the lack of progress throughout the organization and the industry as a whole. Leadership comes from the top down, and real change requires actionable steps on the part of industry leaders and spokespeople. Black workers with a college degree are objectively more likely than their white colleagues to be employed below their skill level, and two times as likely to be unemployed at almost every education level. The narrative myth that there is a shortage of Black talent in white collar industries fails to recognize the well-documented prevalence of underemployment that prevents industry-wide progress.
Companies need to focus their efforts on inclusion and invest in robust supplier diversity programs. The narrative suggested by Scharf provides a clear example of a company leader and corporate culture that has decided to make an excuse for its discriminatory hiring practices, rather than executing a dedicated plan to attract top talent and diverse suppliers. While the messaging of a new diversity plan may sound promising to stakeholders or to the public, the true value lies in a company’s commitment to achieving it.