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Frank Office Talk About Race—How ERGs Can Help

December 19, 2014 2:16 pm

By Barbara Frankel

All day long, your employees’ smartphones buzz with news alerts. “Ferguson Grand Jury Decides Not to Indict.” “Protesters March in 10 Cities Over Eric Garner Death.”

Do you encourage them to talk about the seismic movement against racial injustice sweeping this country? Or do you feel that it’s a divisive issue, one best left out of the workplace?

“You can’t help but deal with this in real time. How do we get people to acknowledge this and still be productive?” asks Joelle Murchison, Vice President, Enterprise Diversity & Inclusion, Travelers (one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies).

To openly discuss racism and other sensitive topics, Murchison says, companies must have the ability to ask and answer questions and create an environment where that dialogue can occur frankly and respectfully.

In discussions with Travelers, Brown-Forman (also a 25 Noteworthy Company) and Ameren (one of DiversityInc’s Top 7 Utilities, which serves the Ferguson, Mo., area), three significant ways to open the dialogue emerge:

  • 1. Don’t be afraid of controversy
  • 2. Use your employee resource groups
  • 3. Senior leaders should lead the dialogue

Don’t Run From Controversy

Joelle Murchison, Travelers

Joelle Murchison

Murchison cites as an example people talking in an office about the riots and looting after the Ferguson grand-jury decision was announced. “People thought everyone was falling along strict lines—it was wrong or it was right,” she says.

But there are middle grounds to discuss how people feel by saying: “I don’t necessarily agree with the tactics but I can understand the frustration. Yes, it is unlawful but there is a piece where you have to be open to understanding the pure hopelessness or frustration that is driving those actions.”

She advises helping people who don’t have a connection to oppressed communities to learn to acknowledge that frustration and then discuss “How do we make sure individuals have an appropriate means to deal with their frustration?”

Employee Resource Groups Are Essential Tools

At Brown-Forman, the African-American employee resource group, called SPLASH, is convening a series of “real talks” open to anyone to discuss the racial strife in this country.

Ralph de Chabert, Brown-Forman

Ralph de Chabert

“People don’t know how to talk about these issues. We are all trying to develop the capability,” says Ralph de Chabert, Senior Vice President, Chief Diversity Officer.

In a recent column for the company’s internal D&I newsletter, Mosaic, he wrote: “It is clear to me that the levels of misunderstanding are, in part, rooted in a lack of cultural competency, coupled with a tendency to see ourselves as disconnected from those ‘others.’ Much of that leads to people being closed off from one another as they avoid having necessary conversations for fear that someone will say something offensive which will promote embarrassment and an incendiary environment. That, in turn, caused me to wonder how are we doing here in B-F with our cultural competency across race because, in our microcosm, we still live in this macrocosmic swirl of confusion where the undiscussables are just that—undiscussable.”

SPLASH, de Chabert says, is an integral part of the dialogue about these “undiscussables.”

At Travelers, Murchison notes that the Black/African American Diversity Network is also involved in setting up dialogues across the company, including webcasts. “We have created an environment coming on the heels of our diversity education program that has made people much more comfortable to ask questions,” she says.

Messaging From the Top

Sharon Harvey Davis, Vice President, Chief Diversity Officer at Ameren, has been at the forefront of the company’s efforts to help people in the Ferguson area.

Chairman, President and CEO and Warner Baxter, who discussed these efforts at DiversityInc’s fall event, has been publicly leading these initiatives.

Sharon Harvey Davis, Ameren

Sharon Harvey Davis

For example, Harvey Davis cites the company’s annual diversity council retreat, on Jan. 22, 2015, where the topic will be Ferguson. It will feature a panel of experts: Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, Director of Racial Justice for YWCA Metro St. Louis Amy Hunter, retired Assistant Superintendent of Ferguson-Florissant School District Dr. Jon Wright, and St. Louis University Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Kira Hudson Banks.

The retreat is aimed at the 15 members of Ameren’s diversity council, who represent all levels of the company, including senior leadership, middle management and union members.

“When Warner heard about this [panel], he said, ‘You need to invite the executive leadership team.’ Our CFO [Marty Lyons, who chairs the diversity council] said we need to invite all of our leadership team,” Harvey Davis notes. So everyone at Ameren who is a director and above [240 people] will have an opportunity to participate.

“This is a first for us. We’ve never had anything like this and we’ve never opened it up to anyone,” she says.

Harvey Davis emphasizes that for Ameren, it’s crucial that the leadership be part of the solution for Ferguson. And that requires open and frequent dialogue.

“We want our leadership to have a full perspective of what is the history of Ferguson and what are the challenges now,” says Harvey Davis, who adds that the retreat will feature breakout sessions. “Hopefully out of that discussion will come ways that they can have a positive impact in rebuilding and healing our community.”

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