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What an NBA reporter’s experience can teach us about approaches to diversity and inclusion in the workplace

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On July 4, 2021, the New York Times published a story about a leaked video capturing the host of ESPN’s “The Jump,” Rachel Nichols, a White woman, questioning the merit of her colleague, Maria Taylor, a Black woman.  On the video, unaware that she is being recorded, Nichols is heard saying, “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy long-time record on diversity – which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it – like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else.”1 On the tape, which was recorded during the 2020 NBA Finals, Nichols was complaining about the network’s decision to share her airtime with Taylor, which coincided with Taylor’s rise in popularity due to her widely publicized comments on the George Floyd protests.

According to the article, in response to the leaked video, on July 5, 2021, Nichols apologized for her statement. A day later, ESPN pulled Nichols from her sideline coverage duties of the 2021 NBA Finals, though she continued to host “The Jump.”2 The Times reported that Taylor refused to appear live on air with Nichols after the incident and that Taylor has repeatedly had to defend this position to executives. One employee told the New York Times that ESPN’s decision not to punish Nichols was an “active source of pain” and discussion among co-workers.  The Times reported that ESPN has had to pre-record Nichols’ appearances to make them appear as live.

Overall, this incident highlighted what some in the media are calling ESPN’s “pervasive race problems”3 and, more generally, has sparked a discussion about sexism, racism, and merit in the workplace.

The frustration from Nichols in the video underscores the barriers women can face in many traditionally male-dominated fields.  While some of her colleagues at ESPN criticized Nichols for being “a bad teammate,” others have also criticized ESPN for positioning two well-deserved female reporters against each other to compete for the same opportunities.4

Perhaps the most problematic and controversial aspect of Nichols’ statement is that it suggests that Nichols felt Taylor was offered the hosting job only because of her race, and not because she was the best person for the job.

In our experience, organizations, aware of their lack of diversity, often undergo broad systemic changes and take a more active role in advancing diversity and inclusion initiatives.  When we have been called upon to conduct workplace assessments5 of these initiatives, we sometimes, disappointingly, hear from employees who are resistant to these diversity and inclusion efforts. Not dissimilar from Nichols’ statement, we have heard employees express that while they feel that diversity and inclusion are important values, they think their organization’s initiatives overcompensate and hire less competent individuals solely because of their identity (typically being race and/or gender).  In our experience, allowing these misconceptions to go unaddressed can lead to resentment and hostility among employees, and is a disservice to the racialized and/or gendered employees who are being hired or promoted.

In order to responsibly manage the evolution of an organization toward an equitable workplace and make sure the workplace is a safe space for marginalized groups, leaders in organizations are encouraged to consider the following strategies:6

    • Mitigate hiring bias by using more objective measures for hiring and professional development;
    • Have a diverse, multi-person panel conduct formal interviews using questions compliant with local human rights legislation;
    • Reduce the opportunity for discrimination in advancement opportunities by using formal processes and objective criteria (which helps avoid favouring certain employees over others and mitigates misperceptions about those who are hired and promoted);
    • Be transparent about hiring and promotions processes;
    • Introduce a mentoring or sponsor system to better enable employees from marginalized groups to connect with their peers and/or their leaders and discuss common issues, goals and solutions;
    • Conduct organization-wide equity training, in addition to specialized training for leaders to learn to address unconscious bias; and
    • Champion the values of diversity and inclusion, but also communicate the work being done in order to reduce cynicism and the perception that the initiatives are mere “lip service.”

Carefully designing and communicating a transparent process to gradually shift the workplace culture will make decisions to hire and promote marginalized groups seem more intentional and less of a knee-jerk response to social pressures. This includes creating enough resources and space for marginalized groups to succeed without competing against one another.  A workplace assessment to take a temperature check of current employee attitudes and feelings towards diversity and inclusion efforts may also give an organization better insight into how these strategies are faring.

The New York Times article says that Taylor has been pressuring the network to hire or promote more Black women, and into more prominent roles; the article adds that Taylor, a top talent, appears likely to be leaving after her contract expires.  ESPN’s incident should serve as a cautionary tale to all employers: shifting workplace culture to one that values diversity and inclusion can be tricky and doesn’t occur overnight.  Laying down the right cultural foundation and getting buy-in from employees will help avoid or mitigate situations like ESPN’s.

1 Kevin Draper, The New York Times, “A Disparaging Video Prompts Explosive Fallout Within ESPN” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/04/sports/basketball/espn-rachel-nichols-maria-taylor.html

2 The Athletic, “ESPN removes Rachel Nichols from NBA Finals sideline coverage”

3 Iliana Limon Romero, Los Angeles Times, “Commentary: ‘This isn’t about Maria vs. Rachel:’ ESPN must address pervasive race problems”https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2021-07-06/espn-maria-taylor-rachel-nichols-comments-diversity-record

4 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/04/sports/basketball/espn-rachel-nichols-maria-taylor.html

5 Unlike a workplace investigation (where evidence is collected with respect to allegations and factual findings are made), a workplace assessment is a process whereby information is gathered from an organization’s employees about how they are feeling in the workplace in order to help an organization be proactive in addressing any workplace issues or problems.

6 International Labour Organization “ACT/EMP Research Note – Breaking barriers: Unconscious gender bias in the workplace”, August 2017, pages 4-12.  https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_dialogue/—act_emp/documents/publication/wcms_601276.pdf and, Human Rights at Work 2008 Third Edition: Interviewing and making hiring decisions; Training promotions and advancement.

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