The killing of George Floyd while in police custody has sparked public outrage about continued racism while putting a spotlight on the failure of most corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) efforts.
“There is only a limited time that this window of opportunity [to make advances in inclusion] will be open,” said Karen Boykin-Towns, a vice chairman at the NAACP and a former senior executive at Pfizer Inc. “For right now, we have to use our voices while companies are listening and looking for answers because they don’t have the answers.”
Boykin-Towns was speaking at the Mid-Level Managers’ Symposium of the Executive Leadership Council, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that aims to increase the number of Black people in corporate leadership positions. She was joined by other experts who called for companies to make sure Black employees and other minorities feel truly included in the workplace—not only when tragic events happen but also throughout the company’s lifespan.
Only 15 percent of C-suite positions are held by people of color, according to a study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org. These individuals hold only 18 percent of senior vice president posts.
One-third of Black employees say they don’t feel valued at work, according to research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “That means you have a problem. You have solved for diversity but not inclusion or equity. Now is the time for a conversation,” said SHRM President and Chief Executive Officer Johnny C. Taylor Jr., SHRM-SCP, speaking at the symposium.
He concedes such dialogues aren’t easy.
“If you are over 35, you were taught that you don’t speak about politics, race and religion at work,” Taylor said. “If you don’t talk about it, you can’t fix it.”
This time of social upheaval may be the best opportunity to act. D. Steve Boland, president of retail at Bank of America, said the company has been hosting “courageous conversations,” where people of different backgrounds talk about issues they face and ideas on how to make the bank a better place to work. The bank has earmarked $25 million to help other organizations have such dialogues.
“We have to have this conversation publicly,” Boland said. “There needs to be an awareness and understanding we all come from different backgrounds and experience.”
Corporations have rushed to hire DE&I experts. And while that is a step in the right direction, Taylor said it’s critical that those executives have business experience and that their qualifications go beyond being a member of a minority group.
He also advised the managers in the audience to not let activism override the job they are paid to do. They must be seen and perform as an expert in their position to be credible and effective when they advocate. “You have to hone your craft,” Taylor said. “It will give you more leverage.”
“Work hard to be recognized as a leader who does a good job running a business,” agreed Boland, who is also a vice chair of the Bank of America’s Global Diversity and Inclusion Council. “At this stage in my career, I have more freedom.”