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Companies Try a New Approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Honest Conversations

For years, organizations have spent billions of dollars on DE&I programs that have largely failed. But there’s something different going on now.


SHRM | August 4, 2020


The SHRM article, “Companies Try a New Approa​ch to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Honest Conversations,” quoted Russell Reynolds Associates Consultant Tina Shah Paikeday on how leaders should approach sensitive conversations on race in their organizations. The article is excerpted below.

Disgusted and saddened by the May killing of George Floyd while in police custody, Jaime Irick wrote a letter about racism to his team of more than 6,000 employees at PPG. The executive explained how he learned about the subject from his Black father, who protested segregation in the 1960s, and how​​ he would lead the unit in conversations about recent events.

As a result, discussions about th​e typically taboo subject sprung up all over at the Pittsburgh-based maker of paints and specialty materials.

​​…

The Right Response

It's crucial for leaders to discuss what happened to Floyd and others because their deaths remain on employees' minds. "Silence is perceived as a lack of solidarity," says Tina Shah Paikeday, global head of D&I advisory services at Russell Reynolds Associates, a New York City-based executive searc​​​​h and consulting firm. Shah Paikeday acknowledges that some executives may find it difficult to broach such sensitive topics. She advises them "to lead with vulnerability" and concede that unease.

Disappointing Results

The social unrest has been a powerful incentive for companies to bolster their diversity efforts, though there's another powerful force sweeping America that could undermine those intentions: the recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Millions of people have lost their jobs, and the downt​urn has taken an especially devasting toll on people of color. Many companies are struggling to stay afloat and may not have the financial or management bandwidth to dedicate to diversity programs. Others didn't prioritize diversity even in good times. Less than half—47 percent—of companies in the S&P 500 had a chief diversity officer or similar post at the end of 2018, according to a study by Russell Reynolds.

There's another potentially complicating factor: Vast amounts of employees are now working from home because of the pandemic, and it's unclear whether that will impa​ct the reinvigorated diversity efforts. Some suggest delicate conversations about race lose their impact in a virtual setting. Distance also makes it more challenging to forge meaningful mentoring and sponsorship bonds.

Shah Paikeday says companies have been more proactive about reaching out to employees and keeping them engaged while working at home. That mindset could help div​ersity efforts, she says.​

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