Much progress has been made, but there is still much work to do.
By Marta Chmielowicz
The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May sparked nationwide outrage, propelling protests and civil unrest at a level not seen since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. This event, following on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic, brought the deep racial frictions and grievances in the U.S. to the forefront of the national consciousness.
The business world was quick to respond, releasing statements and making donations to organizations working to end perceived racial injustice and heal divisions. Companies have become increasingly vocal in their support of Black and minority communities and many look to continue to improve through their diversity and inclusion efforts.
“Diversity is the numbers, and inclusion is about your culture,” says Tacy M. Byham, CEO of Development Dimensions International (DDI), a company that specializes in a unique approach to diversity training. “A big part of the reason that D&I programs fail is because they only focus on the numbers and scratch their heads when the numbers don’t change, especially among leaders at higher ranks in the company. And that’s because they don’t really know how to change people’s behavior so that the culture is inclusive.”
In order for D&I efforts to truly make a long-term, cultural impact, a team effort is required. In addition to tablestakes strategies like reducing bias throughout the hiring process and offering diversity and inclusion training, HR leaders need to engage their workforce, educating them about inequities in the workplace and fostering dialogue that builds empathy and understanding.
Pooja Jain-Link, executive vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation, says HR leaders need to leverage a variety of strategies to gather employee feedback, including interviews, focus groups, listening sessions, town halls, one-on-one conversations, and surveys, and create confidential spaces where employees feel safe sharing their experiences.
That is one approach that Sirmara Campbell, CHRO of staffing agency LaSalle Network, recently undertook to better guide her company’s response to the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In addition to participating in one-on-one conversations with managers and employees, she conducted a survey to gauge how her staff was feeling and to address any questions they had. The survey results revealed concern about the company’s response to the protests, and a general lack of understanding about the existing D&I initiatives that LaSalle Network had in place. These concerns were then addressed in a company-wide town hall Zoom meeting that included the participation of the CEO.
Courtney Graham, CHRO of digital signage company Four Winds Interactive, also had success leveraging the town hall format to respond to employee questions. Her company holds weekly Zoom meetings called “LLAMA—Leadership Listens, Ask Me Anything,” where key leaders answer employee questions anonymously submitted ahead of time. This meeting is followed by a written weekly update that summarizes key talking points.
“This ties into D&I because it’s an effort to create a safe environment for learning and for understanding,” Graham says. “It has really helped create transparency and trust in the organization. People ask really hard questions, especially with recent events—’What is our stance?’ ‘How are we moving forward?’ We have gotten great feedback by having something so simple like that. It’s an hour a week of our time and it’s our best engagement effort that we have done to date.”
In order to more effectively engage in these difficult conversations about race, Campbell says that leaders first need to be vulnerable and acknowledge their own biases and shortcomings. “I recommend that leaders just start with, ‘How are you?’” she explains. “Be vulnerable. You don’t have to know everything—don’t be afraid of that. We don’t know all the solutions, but we’re honest and transparent and we’ve made it safe to have these conversations. We are empowering our management and leadership teams to continue to have awkward conversations and continuing to talk about the unconscious bias inside all of us.”
Good leaders will not shy away from these conversations; they listen, acknowledge their mistakes, follow up, and incorporate what they’ve learned going forward. Byham shares an example of effective leadership in the face of racial discrimination: If a Black employee shares direct feedback of the microaggressions they have experienced on their team, leaders should track what those microaggressions look like and take active steps to educate the team about the harmful behaviors.
Another key element of Graham’s strategy is providing spaces for employees to talk and learn from one another. In addition to organizing a collaborative team art project and coordinating community engagement opportunities, Four Winds Interactive hosts a monthly, companywide town hall meeting featuring a “Voices of FWI” segment where employees from around the company are encouraged to share their stories.
“We solicit people from around the company who want to share their story and we work with them on crafting a powerful story that shares their experience with the company,” she explains. “It’s no more than five minutes. We’ve had people share experiences of homelessness, drug addiction—really powerful, vulnerable stories. The reason I’m most proud of that is because I feel like we’ve made strides in creating an environment that is open and welcoming and non-judgmental and safe, where people feel comfortable sharing something so personal with the entire company. We’ve had standing ovations and people reaching out to those who’ve shared their story.”
The company has also introduced a speaker series where experts from the community are invited to talk about difficult topics related to D&I. By providing a range of opportunities for employees to speak about their experiences and learn from others, Four Winds Interactive has created a culture that is more open and inclusive, where coworkers feel comfortable coming together across racial boundaries to have meaningful dialogues.
“There’s too much silence,” says Campbell. “Oftentimes, it’s Black people speaking, but it needs to be everyone. It’s time for people to be uncomfortable, to feel awkward about conversations about race. People need to find their voice and come out and be courageous and speak out against programs that favor people in power. We will not see real change until we are comfortable navigating being awkward.”
Girish Ganesan, global head of diversity and inclusion at TD Bank Group and head of talent in the U.S. at TD Bank, agrees that listening and learning from each other is a large part of the journey. “In June, TD hosted ‘Uncomfortable Conversations: Breaking the Silence,’ a virtual global event where 2,500 colleagues came together to discuss their experiences of racial injustice, sharing the emotional toll, and concrete suggestions for a way forward,” he explains.
Raising awareness is a key component, and taking action on it is critical to real change. What are some ways that companies can create cultural change that sticks?
1. Collaborate. Jain-Link emphasizes the importance of co-creation, leveraging diverse voices from across the organization to develop action plans. One way Four Winds Interactive does this is by engaging a diverse committee of people, including veterans, Black professionals, LGBTQ employees, women, and indigenous employees, and giving them the opportunity to work with the chief diversity officer to set strategy and drive change.
Ganesan shares that TD has several existing diversity pillars in their quest for inclusion, including “Women in Leadership,” “Visible Minorities/Minorities in Leadership,” “People with Disabilities/Individuals with Diverse Abilities,” “LGBTQ2+,” “Indigenous Peoples,” and “Veterans.” The organization recently added the pillar “Black Experience” as an area of focus.
“While the newly formed ‘Black Experience’ pillar will create a comprehensive roadmap to attract, retain, and develop Black talent and make TD an employer of choice for Black communities, the senior executive team has already taken the step of committing to double our enterprise-wide vice president-plus Black representation by the end of 2022.”
2. Lead. Make diversity a key role in the organization. One person should have the power and vision to lead the charge on all D&I initiatives, Graham says.
3. Be objective. Add objectivity to talent management processes. For example, leadership advancement decisions should be made using data and leadership assessments rather than a vague feeling of “leadership potential,” explains Byham.
Likewise, to make the hiring process more objective, Graham says that her company hired a non-profit organization with a research-based approach to write job descriptions with language that attracts diversity.
4. Train. Offer diversity and inclusion training to teach leaders how to recognize their biases and foster a welcoming and inclusive environment for all employees. This can be expanded even further; Campbell is planning to offer unconscious bias training to all employees to help them navigate difficult conversations about race.