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Tackling Racial Inequity: Insights From Corporate Leaders

March 4, 2024

At A Glance

Corporate leaders can address racial economic equity in the workplace. Through targeted programs and inclusive practices, these Changemakers are leading the way on racial economic equity. 

Surabhi Lal Senior Advisor
Carol Azeez Senior Manager
Practices & Centers

In the wake of the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the protests calling for advances in racial justice that ensued, many employers made commitments to better support their Black employees and communities and promote racial economic equity for all employees. Corporations, foundations, and philanthropists responded to that call, vowing to spend at least $50 billion to address social injustice and racial inequities. However, it’s unclear whether those commitments have had a positive impact on advancing racial economic equity.  

Research on occupational health inequities and the impact of racial inequality on economic growth reveals that racial inequity in the workplace is costly for communities and the economy. It’s also costly for businesses. According to a 2021 analysis from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), “racial bias in the workplace is annually costing U.S. businesses $54.1 billion in increased absenteeism, $58.7 billion in lost productivity and $171.9 billion in turnover.”  

While workplace conditions can contribute to racial economic inequity, at Jobs for the Future (JFF), we believe employer policies and practices can be key levers that create more equitable conditions for people who face systemic barriers to advancement. Our Impact Employer Model (IEM) is a valuable resource for employers that want to build equitable workplaces, offering corporate leaders a set of talent management tools and resources to empower organizations to invest in the well-being of their employees and the long-term success of their business.  

There are corporate Changemakers leading the way who share a common goal of creating working environments rooted in equity, opportunity, and economic mobility. To learn about effective strategies for achieving that goal, we spoke with Corey Lee, chief operating officer of Commercial Banking at Capital One; Erinn Corbett-Wright, senior manager of Philanthropy at Salesforce; and Ken Oliver, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Checkr and executive director of the Checkr Foundation. They offered practical guidance on the types of programs and policies employers can implement to increase racial equity in an organization.  

In our conversations, it became clear that there are three key factors that play especially impactful roles in improving racial economic equity in the workplace: access and career advancement, mentorship, and culture. Here are more in-depth discussions of the role each one plays. 

Access and Career Advancement

Career mobility programs can be a strong tool for advancing racial economic equity. By offering accessible opportunities for career advancement to individuals who are members of populations that face systemic barriers to advancement, organizations can contribute to creating more inclusive and equitable working environments. 

Apprenticeship is a good example of an effective career mobility program. They provide pathways to quality jobs by offering participants opportunities to earn a paycheck while learning valuable new skills. For example, Checkr’s Fair Chance Apprenticeship program offers structured and paid training that gives employees with criminal records opportunities to learn on the job and build in-demand skills that can open doors to opportunities for economic advancement. Oliver said the program proved to be so transformative for both employees and the organization that Checkr decided to help other companies create similar apprenticeship programs.  

Checkr as a company has walked the walk and decided to test case themselves first before they advocated for other companies that they should be doing it. Currently, almost 5% of our company is justice-impacted people.

Ken Oliver, VP, Corporate Social Responsibility, Checkr

At Capital One, Lee saw that many employees who work in customer-facing roles were interested in building new skills and moving up in the organization but couldn’t find a way to do so. That’s why he created the company’s Customer Facing Associate Mobility program. He worked with hiring managers and employees to understand talent supply and demand. Hiring managers were often looking within their networks to fill roles, and that approach didnt create opportunities for current customer-facing Capital One employees who had the aptitude to take on new roles but didn’t have an avenue to learn about those roles. The program Lee created gives employees opportunities to work in other areas of the business, participate in structured learning and development programs, and eventually secure permanent placements in new roles 


Mentorship programs play an important role in improving racial equity in the workplace by giving employees of all backgrounds—not just those who already have strong networks of friends, relatives, and former classmates and coworkers—opportunities to build professional social capital. A critical but often overlooked factor in equitable economic advancement, professional social capital connects people with information, resources, and support that strengthen access to promising career and educational opportunities while fostering a sense of belonging 

Lee confirmed this by explaining that it wasn’t just hard work and aptitude that got him to the C-suite at CapitalOne. His ability to navigate social connections, which led to him knowing the right people and being in the right places at the right times, also helped catalyze his career success.  

Social connections are usually an initial step toward a first conversation or relationship . . . and we all don’t get an equal set of social connections.

Corey Lee, COO, Commercial Banking, Capital One

However, people who face systemic barriers to advancement are often unfairly shut out of opportunities to make connections that can propel their careers.  

Corbett-Wright said Salesforce is working to address that barrier by offering employees opportunities to build social connections through mentorship programs. One in particular, the Untapped Dual Mentorship program, is for workers in entry-level roles who entered the company via its Untapped Talent program, an initiative through which Salesforce recruits young adults who are members of populations that are underrepresented in quality jobs. Employees in the Untapped Dual Mentorship program are paired with two mentors: One who shares an aspect of the employee’s identity and a technical mentor who helps the employee develop skills and expertise. The goal is to help employees develop a sense of belonging by connecting with people who share their identities while also learning what it takes to succeed in their new roles.  


With the recent increase in the number of people working remotely or in hybrid arrangements, creating a shared sense of culture that unites all employees has become a challenge, but many companies find that employees are eager to connect, no matter where they work.  

At Salesforce, Corbett-Wright said a longstanding enterprise-wide commitment to mentorship helps build and maintain a workplace culture. The company’s mentorship programs are open to anyone. Whether they work remotely, in a company office, or a combination of the two, everyone can be a mentor or a mentee. Corbett-Wright noted that mentorship provides an opportunity for employees who start in different places and positions to come together for a common goal and accelerate their careers together.  

From an equity perspective . . . we are creating pathways for everyone to have the experience of their choosing. And we’re not making that necessarily dependent on personal factors like your personality or your geographic location or even the propensity that you have to drive business growth by developing relationships across the enterprise.

Erinn Corbett-Wright, Senior Manager of Philanthropy, Salesforce

Creating a corporate culture that allows everyone to succeed, regardless of their background or circumstances, is important to promoting equitable opportunities for economic advancement for workers. That often starts with people policies and practices that recognize that everyone has their own personal challenges and responsibilities and are flexible enough to accommodate individuals’ unique needs.  

For example, Oliver said people leaders need to understand that employees who were once incarcerated and are now on parole or probation may need to check in with their supervising officers frequently. That means that they might need to step out of meetings to make a phone call or use their paid time off to meet that requirement. Understanding that every employee’s needs are different and providing support to those who need it helps to create an equitable culture. Peer-to-peer coaching is one type of support that would make it easier for many employees to navigate the workplace, and it can be especially helpful for people with criminal records.  

What’s the best way to start developing policies and practices that advance racial equity in the workplace? Consider this advice from our Changemakers: 

  • Invest sufficient resources: Corbett-Wright cautions that enterprise-wide initiatives can’t be side projects; they require an intentional commitment to success and adequate allocations of money, staff, time, and other resources. This isn’t “side of the desk” work. 
  • Set a big goal: Lee suggested setting a goal that’s so big that no one is 100% confident that it can be accomplished. That will push people to know that change is needed and that teamwork throughout the organization is required to achieve the goal.  
  • Make a case: Put forth both a business case and a human case for creating more equitable opportunities for economic advancement for all employees. Oliver said it starts with dignity. When the company embraces all of its employees, it changes the trajectory of how employees feel about themselves because they become part of something bigger than themselves.    

Lee, Corbett-Wright, and Oliver all have one thing in common: They’re working to expand access for people who face systemic barriers to advancement. Watch the videos below to learn how these Changemakers are embodying what it means to be Impact Employers. 




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