Employers scrutinize diversity efforts as national protesters demand change

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For employers, a private and public reckoning is now taking place over their responsibility in changing systemic racism at work.

The public death of George Floyd — videotaped live on May 25 on a Minneapolis street corner for the world to witness — and the killing of Breonna Taylor two months earlier at the hands of law enforcement, who burst into her private apartment and fatally shot her, have sparked global outrage over systemic racism and police brutality against people of color.

The protests have put a sharp spotlight on racial inequality in the U.S. and have highlighted the responsibility employers have to evolve their diversity initiatives.

Companies have blanketed social media with statements condemning the actions of the officers who took Taylor and Floyd’s lives and have pledged to evaluate how they can improve. Fortune 500 companies such as General Motors, Walt Disney and others also have weighed in.

In a letter to employees, dealers and suppliers, automaker GM’s CEO Mary Barra announced that the company will be launching an inclusion advisory board, which she will head, aimed at making GM a more inclusive workplace.

“Collectively, and in time, we will be part of the change,” Barra said. “For now, my personal commitment is to ensure that the leadership of GM, and the entire GM family, consistently remains aware of our responsibility to bring awareness to injustice. Because awareness leads to dialogue, dialogue leads to understanding and understanding leads to change.”

Veteran workplace leaders say these are good early steps, but they say making actionable changes to an employer’s diversity plan requires sustained participation at every level of an organization.

“To have a true long standing impact, it can't just be an HR initiative or on the leaders” says Sarah Stevens, people team senior director at Limeade, an employee well-being and engagement platform. “It's really critical that everyone takes ownership.”

Commitment to change
Facing pressure from employees and society as a whole, some companies have started to put these initiatives into action. Fashion retailer American Eagle Outfitters immediately started diversity training with associates and had sessions with the company’s black employees to gauge what kind of support American Eagle should be offering.

“Our workforce is our community. We want to understand what’s happening so we can all learn from it and become better people,” says Tammy Fennessy, director of benefits for American Eagle Outfitters.

Wanting to do more, Fennessy consulted the company’s EAP provider to see what resources were available to help black employees dealing with trauma. She was disappointed to learn they offered nothing. Undeterred, she approached Jessica Brooks, a colleague and the CEO of the Pittsburgh Business Group on Health, to ask for guidance on appropriate resources.

“The fact that she’s asking these questions and challenging herself and [American Eagle’s] leadership shows how much she cares and is committed to change,” Brooks says. “They’ve been willing to be uncomfortable and do what it takes to make a difference.”

After consulting Brooks, American Eagle added training videos to AEO Academy that use techniques from mental health professionals to help diverse employees process their feelings and fight discrimination in their workplace. There’s also a selection of trainings to help non-diverse allies promote anti-racist values, and champion the advancement of their diverse colleagues.

To give the program a more personal touch, Fennessy created a Diversity & Inclusion group at the corporate office, where colleagues are encouraged to openly talk about their experiences with discrimination. Guest speakers are also invited to educate their entire workforce about implicit bias.

“Other employers don’t know how to react, but silence is not going to work,” Fennessy says. “We view silence as an acceptance of racism — it’s not helping the cause.”

No more ‘empty rhetoric’
The United States has a long history of workplace racism and discrimination against people of color. The subject of race is often avoided in the workplace, resulting in systems of privilege remaining in place and a lag in the representation of black leadership, according to the Center for Talent Innovation, an organization that uses research to leverage talent across the divides of gender, generation, geography and culture. Issues of race and dicrimination are rampant in the workplace, as African Americans are woefully underrepresented in white collar organizations.

Black adults make up only 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs, 3.2% of senior level managers, 8% of all professionals and 10% of college degree holders, according to the Center for Talent Innovation. Nearly one in five black professionals feel that someone of their race won’t achieve a top ranking position within their company.

While 65% of black professionals feel they have to work harder to advance, just 16% of white professionals feel the same way, according to the report. These deep disparities must be changed by championing the professional advancements of black employees, employer groups say.

Still, racism and the U.S.’s violent past is such an uncomfortable subject that many look to ignore it.

Indeed, according to the Center for Talent Innovation study, half of white Americans believe that there is “too much attention paid to race and racial issues.” Additionally, hate crimes targeting individuals of color accounted for 65.5% of all hate crimes in 2018, according to data from the Justice Department.

Speaking out against these injustices and adopting more effective diversity and inclusion strategies, means employers must address the topic of race at every level of their organization and take action to change, according to Laura Hamill, chief people officer at Limeade, and other workplace leaders.

“Real progress on these issues requires real work,” says Kristin Johnson, the chief human resources officer at financial services company Edward Jones. “Employers should listen and learn to understand where they are today and where they want to be in the future when it comes to important topics such as equitable hiring, training, promotional practices and policies.”

To that end, Edward Jones has announced a plan to address racism and help develop career opportunities for people of color, which includes making a $1.2 million investment in the National Urban League and St. Louis Urban League.

As part of the plan the firm will conduct an analysis of how employees in its home offices are paid in order to close any unnecessary gaps. Edward Jones will also expand its racial-equity training and anti-racism personnel policies.

“This is a vital step toward change and recognizing which actions can be implemented to achieve, foster and maintain a culture of diversity and inclusion” Johnson says.

Another strategy employers can utilize to increase their diversity and inclusion efforts is to start by looking at their hiring practices, and bring in more people with diverse backgrounds, Limeade’s Hamill says.

“We want seats and voices at the table,” Brooks says. “Transparency and metrics are going to be crucial moving forward. We can’t allow for boxes to be checked, and the culture not to be shifted.”

Employer response
Nearly two years ago, American Eagle recognized that its workforce wasn’t very diverse, Fennessy says. To provide more opportunities to people of color, American Eagle partnered with historically black colleges — like North Carolina Central University, Delaware State University and Howard University — to offer students jobs and internships. This year, American Eagle’s internship program is being conducted online so students don’t miss out on work experiences because of the quarantine.

“We have to keep doing the work to provide opportunities for diverse employees — we can’t let COVID-19 get in the way,” Fennessy says.

For companies that want to deepen their commitment to inclusivity, Brooks says that it’s incumbent upon employers to take action to voice and show support for their black employees, but also respect their personal boundaries. She reminds employers that what happened to Floyd and countless others is deeply upsetting; asking black colleagues to chime in on diversity policies while they’re mourning attacks on their community will come across as insensitive.

“A boardroom of white men making unilateral decisions isn’t going to solve the problem. But at the same time, expecting people who are on the front lines, grieving and living in fear to participate in thought leadership in a small time frame is too much,” Brooks says. “Being part of the solution means being committed to the journey.”

Allowing black employees to take time off, like the benefit American Eagle offered, to process their grief is one way employers can show their support. Brooks says colleagues in her network who were offered that time tended to feel more positive about their employer. She says a good rule of thumb is to be as accommodating to black employees as you would be to someone dealing with the challenges posed by quarantine. Employers who are genuinely committed to change won’t be deterred by their diverse employees taking a few days off, she says, because they know it’s a long-term, conscious effort.

“Although the pandemic of racism isn’t new, these recent events are on the back of COVID-19 and that same culture and willingness to modify policies for people going through pain is definitely a best practice,” Brooks says. “Encourage the mantra of ‘we are in this together’ to address this pandemic as well.”

While legislation is vital to combat these issues from a societal perspective and on a federal level, employers have to recognize their responsibility to influence change within and outside of their organizations.

“What’s changed is really a recognition that this isn’t about caring about most of your employees. It’s about caring about all of your employees,” says Michael Thompson, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, an employer group representing the healthcare industry. “Averages don’t matter if people are being left behind.”

To drive sustainable change, employers must be ready to do more than make speeches and donations, Brooks says. While those are important factors in creating a transformation, it is actions, not words that will have the greatest impact.

“Donations are great, but you can’t pay your way out of the reality and quality of life that people have,” Brooks says. “The workforce wants true partnership and change — this time has to be different.”

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