4 steps companies like ESPN can take to create safer work environments for Black employees

Inclusion isn’t a quick fix. It’s a journey over time that includes making mistakes, but the goal is always to learn from the mistake the first time and not repeat it.

Signage is seen during the 13th Annual ESPN The Party on February 3, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for ESPN)

As we watch another headline about inappropriate commentary and controversy at ESPN, it leaves one to wonder: what’s next? From the outside looking in, ESPN still has a lot of work to do (or redo) to foster inclusive practices and language in their organization. 

The good part about making mistakes is that it’s an opportunity to grow and improve, the downside, however, is that even when the intent wasn’t to cause harm, harm was done both to those on the receiving end, to the general public and to ESPN’s brand.  

The microinsults and microinvalidations that were used by hosts toward colleagues and athletes, require immediate action, starting with the ESPN leadership. Although the public apologies appeared to communicate that leadership and hosts understand where they went wrong and their unintended impact, it’s not enough. It’s a point now where audiences are wondering, ‘What else is going on when the cameras or recorders aren’t rolling?’    

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – JULY 31: ESPN reporter Rachel Nichols stands on the court before a game between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks at The Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on July 31, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Here are my recommendations on what ESPN, and other organizations need to do to foster safer and more inclusive workplace environments for their Black employees.


You can’t fix what you can’t see. Are the hosts reflecting the culture at ESPN or are they truly “individual mistakes”? The fact that there are multiple examples in a short period of time, my guess is there’s more waiting to be revealed. ESPN leadership, and frankly leadership at all companies, need to know what is going on in their organization, starting with an equity and inclusion survey and facilitated discovery meetings and interviews to provide them with a full understanding of what’s going on, how everyone is feeling and how it’s impacting engagement.

Leadership Training

It’s time for the leadership (ESPN) to hold themselves accountable and lead by example starting with training (or retraining) and then modeling for the rest of the organization what inclusion looks and sounds like. We heard that ESPN started training last year but what type of training was it? This situation requires workshops, not someone speaking at the leaders and learning through osmosis. It also needs to begin with a workshop on microaggressions amongst the list of topics, to create a common language and understanding of what is acceptable and what is not, and why. Training also needs to include giving and receiving feedback, at all levels of the organization. You need a way to track your progress (outside of public controversy).

Culture Change

The next step is to commit to a culture change for the entire organization (ESPN). Start by reviewing the inclusion strategy to ensure it addresses the current situation and update it if necessary. Are the milestones and timelines reasonable given the current environment?

Accountability is a must 

Although necessary, public apologies are not a solution. Once everyone understands what is acceptable and what is not, the organization needs to hold all employees accountable with consequences.

Inclusion isn’t a quick fix. It’s a journey over time that includes making mistakes but the goal is always to learn from the mistake the first time and not repeat it. ESPN and many other organizations have a lot of work to be done but it’s worth it for not only their brand, but for their employees and viewers. Everyone deserves to feel like they belong, are treated fairly and are valued.

Zoe Mitchell

Zoe Mitchell is the author of “Inclusive Leadership Now.” She is an award-winning Inclusive Leader with over 20 years of corporate experience building, leading, and maintaining successful high-performing diverse teams. As a former finance senior leader, she is experienced at driving business deliverables and performance metrics while building an inclusive work culture.

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