The response, at most organizations, is no response. Leaders don’t inquire about coworkers’ life experiences; they stay quiet when headlines blare reports of racial violence or videos capture acts of blatant discrimination. Their silence is often born of a conviction that race, like politics, is best discussed elsewhere.
But as evidenced by the formation of the coalition and the initiatives we captured in our report, that attitude is shifting. Conscious that breaking the silence begins with their own example, captains of industry are talking about race, both internally with their employees and externally with the public. After a spate of shootings of unarmed black men last summer, Ryan initiated a series of discussion days to ensure that all employees at PwC better understood the experiences of their black colleagues. Michael Roth, CEO of Interpublic Group, issued an enterprise-wide email imploring coworkers to “connect, affirm our commitment to one another, and acknowledge the pain being felt in so many of our communities.” Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, published an essay in which, in a plea for empathy, he shared his own experiences of discrimination. And in an emotional recounting of his black friend’s experience outside the office that went viral on YouTube, AT&T chairman Randall Stephenson encouraged employees to get to know each other better.
Leaders who display this kind of courage don’t always see immediate rewards, but in the long term, our research suggests that the payoff could be extraordinary. Of those who are aware of companies responding to societal incidents of racial discrimination, robust majorities of black (77%), white (65%), Hispanic (67%), and Asian (83%) professionals say they view those companies in a more positive way. Interviews with employees at firms like Ernst & Young point to stronger bonds forged between team leaders and members as a result of guidelines disseminated to managers on how to have a trust-building conversation. Town halls at New York Life with members of the C-suite and black executives have likewise paved pathways for greater understanding across racial and political divides.
CEOs at the cutting edge, in short, are working to ease the racial tensions and heal the painful divides that undermine trust among coworkers and team members. That’s obviously good for business. But as the CEO Action coalition acknowledges, it’s also a powerful first step in mitigating the violence erupting outside their company walls. In our current landscape of raging partisanship, this is one corporate agenda we must all embrace.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation and the founder of Hewlett Consulting Partners LLC.
Melinda Marshall is executive vice president and director of publications at CTI, where she drives the Center’s research on innovation, sponsorship, and leadership. She is coauthor of the CTI book Ambition in Black + White: The Feminist Narrative Revised and CTI reports including “Innovation, Diversity and Market Growth” as well as “Sponsor Effect 2.0.” .
Trudy Bourgeois is the founder of The Center for Workforce Excellence and is a renowned and respected authority on leadership development. She is the author of Her Corner Office, The Hybrid Leader, and the forthcoming EQUALITY: Courageous Conversations about Women, Men, and Race in the Workplace to Create a Diversity and Inclusion Breakthrough.