In the year since George Floyd’s murder, there has been a heightened sense of urgency among many organizations to better understand the extent to which their people, processes, and systems are perpetuating supremecist culture and contributing to inequitable outcomes. They often declare this first step to be an “equity audit.” 

While we agree that a formal, structured, and facilitated assessment—preferably conducted by someone who has no direct stake in the outcome—is the appropriate first step on the path to reducing an organization’s “racism footprint,” calling the process an “audit” presents its own problems. 

An audit connotes that there are some generally accepted standards that can be objectively applied to an organization’s actions and performance, and even that there is a right and wrong way to operate. We are a long way from such standards when it comes to organizational racism and systemic inequity. Any implication that we can “checklist” our way out of systemic racism runs the risk of unproductively overvaluing the audit results and minimizing expectations about the level of effort necessary after the audit.

We prefer the term equity assessment, and we think of it as the first step in helping the organization prioritize what issues it will address first, and what self-improvement work might be necessary to even be in a position to tackle those priorities. We can, however, tightly define what we’re looking at, such as:

  1. The equity commitments an organization has made
  2. The representation of those commitments in official policies and communications
  3. Whether or not operational procedures support or inhibit equitable outcomes
  4. The extent to which the organization’s priority activities and spending further equity, and
  5. The way the power is shared or hoarded within the organization

Whether what we uncover is exemplary, in need of improvement, or straight up deplorable depends nearly as much on how far and fast the organization is trying to push itself as it does on comparisons to “best practice.” 

But the contextualization of the target does not mean organizations should sacrifice rigor in the assessment process. Here are some of the methodologies we think should be applied in practice:

Conduct a focused document analysis. Given the depth and volume of documents in many institutions, especially large ones, it is important to take a strategic approach to the scope of a document review. The goal is to understand how the organization’s commitment to equity shows up (or doesn’t) in key documentation, not to complete a detailed deconstruction of every official document. When determining which documents to review, consider creating criteria for the prioritization of the documents related to recency, reach, and relevance to a set of key areas of focus.

Include a detailed quantitative data analysis. Take an in-depth view through an equity lens of all employees at all levels to determine the extent to which inequities and disparities exist, especially as they relate to recruiting, hiring, training and professional development, turnover, advancement, tenure, and compensation. Extending this analysis to programmatic outcomes, spending levels, and procurement activity provides an even fuller picture of the organization. 

Don’t forget the qualitative analysis. People often equate quantitative data with being “objective.” But  we have found that listening to the voices of stakeholders and community members directly is often the most impactful and illuminating component of an equity assessment. In addition to the quantitative data results, use surveys to help identify potential areas of focus, and then engage in targeted focus groups and even one-on-one interviews to tease out stakeholder perceptions and anecdotes that can help animate findings from other parts of the assessment. 

But perhaps the most important aspect of an equity assessment is the action that should follow it. Leaders in the organization must take ownership of and action on the insights revealed from the analysis. Knowledge without action will not produce change. Own and be willing to be held accountable for your organization’s past and present outcomes. Otherwise your “audit” will itself just be a box to check. 

The time to realize this opportunity is urgent given that in a matter of days, a year will have passed since the horrific murder of George Floyd. The pandemic is still illuminating inequitable systems, especially in Black communities. Every organization has an opportunity to talk about their mission, values, and practices differently now. 

What will a review of your organization’s documents and practices yield about opportunities to undo harm and address inequities?

Top of mind and in our hearts – Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey, Jacob Blake, Elijah McLain, and too many more.