10 Jul. 2017 | Comments (0)
Last month, in an unprecedented show of solidarity, 150 CEOs from the world’s leading companies banded together to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace and, through an online platform, shared best practices for doing so. To drive home the urgency, the coalition’s website, CEOAction.com, directs visitors to research showing that diverse teams and inclusive leaders unleash innovation, eradicate groupthink, and spur market growth. But as Tim Ryan, U.S. Chair and senior partner at PwC and one of the organizers of the coalition, explains, what galvanized the group was widespread recognition that “we are living in a world of complex divisions and tensions that can have a significant impact on our work environment” — and they need to be openly addressed.
At the Center for Talent Innovation, we wanted to look into these suspicions. Do the political, racial, and social experiences that divide us outside of work undermine our contributions on the job? Our nationwide survey of 3,570 white-collar professionals (374 black, 2,258 white, 393 Asian, and 395 Hispanic) paints an unsettling landscape: For black, Asian, and Hispanic professionals, race-based discrimination is rampant outside the workplace. Black individuals are especially struggling, as fully 78% of black professionals say they’ve experienced discrimination or fear that they or their loved ones will — nearly three times as many as white professionals.
But 38% of black professionals also feel that it is never acceptable at their companies to speak out about their experiences of bias — a silence that makes them more than twice as vulnerable to feelings of isolation and alienation in the workplace. Black employees who feel muzzled are nearly three times as likely as those who don’t to have one foot out the door, and they’re 13 times as likely to be disengaged.
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.
This blog appeared on Harvard Business Review on 07/10/17.
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