3 ways to make sure corporate diversity and inclusion efforts have a lasting impact

“The fierce urgency of now.” 

Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, spoken during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, are, sadly, still as relevant today as they were almost 60 years ago.

The devastating killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among too many others, have stirred a national crisis of conscience as to the work still to be done for justice and equality for all. And the passing of civil rights icon John Lewis, a man who risked his life as he marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, reminds us all of the need to ensure our nation lives up to these very ideals. 

In the past, corporate America has often let moments of change pass by. As a CEO and a board member of one of the nation’s leading financial services firms, we pledge this time will be different. We believe that in order to make real change, business leaders in our country should deploy our collective resources to help benefit society. While progress doesn’t happen overnight, we will begin now.

Corporate America’s response should go beyond platitudes and simply checking boxes on diversity initiatives. Diversity, inclusion, and equality are moral and business imperatives—companies can and should do better. This moment calls for business leaders to ask ourselves soul-searching questions as to how to tackle the root cause of structural racism within our own spheres of influence; while doing so, we also have to face some uncomfortable truths about how we operate today. 

At Synchrony, diversity and inclusion have always been core to our corporate culture.  If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be in the position we are in today: Our eight diversity networks, employee groups open to all, help drive change from the ground up, with more than 10,000 employees (60% of our workforce), either joining groups with which they identify, or becoming partners and sponsors to better support their peers.

Yet the current movement from within, driven by candid dialogues with our Black colleagues as well as those from outside our company, has caused us to look even more deeply at our own corporate practices.  We have a responsibility to drive systemic change to further integrate diversity and inclusion into our long-term business strategy. 

Here are some of our key learnings to date: 

Create an ethos of an inclusive culture

Removing unconscious bias starts with an ethos to build an inclusive culture; one that promotes candor and openness. We must do more than conduct diversity training. Corporate leaders have to build bridges through honest conversations with people whom they know and with whom they work. Only through authentic, continuous interactions at every level can the business community come to grips with unconscious biases and begin to eliminate them. 

Through our recent listening and engagement efforts, our minority employees have shared that they feel pressure to fit into the majority culture. One Black colleague revealed the hours of preparation it took to style her natural hair in an effort to conform. We have heard from others who feel they have to not appear “angry” or “aggressive” in order to move up the corporate ladder. 

(Read “Why I’ve decided to stop playing the ‘safe’ Black professional role in corporate America.”)

These experiences are part of what is a common occurrence for many Black Americans. Fostering an environment of candor and trust allows minority professionals to speak out about their life experiences outside the workplace. Being mistaken for the parking valet no matter how well one is dressed, or being wantonly stopped by the police are all too regular events for many. Hearing these stories from colleagues gives our employees a unique understanding of the challenges and needs of our diverse workforce and the customers we serve. 

One way we can reject this oppressive mindset is by raising it with our peers. Being authentic cements stronger relationships and higher engagement, which are critical to opening up opportunities for all. By infusing an attitude of inclusion, where everyone feels accepted for who they are, businesses will be able to attract the best talent and realize exceptional performance over time.  

Diversify your board

We believe companies will perform better if they capitalize on diverse talent, starting at the top and infused at all levels of the business. To guide companies into the future, we believe it’s critical to assemble an independent board of directors that possesses diverse backgrounds and skill sets that align with strategic business needs. This means pushing search firms to increase diverse representation, looking beyond traditional criteria, and setting clear goals on how future board seats will be filled. 

Synchrony’s board of directors is among the most diverse in the financial services industry, with four women and four members with racially diverse backgrounds (out of 12 members overall). The board is an active one; its members engage with employees, attending company events and forums; their presence shows employees that inclusiveness stretches across the company at all levels.

Integrate D&I into long-term business strategy 

To succeed at driving progress over the long term, we should treat diversity and inclusion no differently than we would an important business challenge, with new board-approved governance rules, imperatives, and accountability mechanisms that allow us to measure results and course correct as necessary. 

Synchrony recently created a senior-level committee led by our president, chief diversity officer, and others. The committee is charged with developing an enterprise-wide strategy, setting measurable goals, and providing progress reports to our board and employees across all areas of the business.  

Changing the face of leaders is key to driving innovation, becoming tomorrow’s employer of choice for future generations. This requires a data-driven approach, measuring gaps as well as progress while still employing the human touch overall.

Earlier this year, through our Advancing Diverse Talent program, we used data analytics to identify gaps in our hiring and promotion process. As a result, we put more focus on hiring, developing, and progressing talented underrepresented minorities, understanding that we needed to move the needle faster for Black or Hispanic employees to rise to senior leadership positions.

Consequently, we tied leaders’ performance metrics to diversity improvements, mandated diverse candidate slates for senior roles, and launched a new leadership program designed to advance diverse employees. 

Our work as corporate custodians should extend beyond our companies as well. We have committed to creating new products and policies that could positively impact Black Americans and other minority communities. We are examining ways to deepen our diverse supply chains and investments in women- and minority-owned small businesses; we have committed $15 million in philanthropic grants to help nonprofits advance social justice initiatives, providing emergency relief to small businesses and assisting communities hit hard by the pandemic; and we are mobilizing resources to ensure employees can exercise their right to vote in elections. 

During a crisis, it’s easy to feel energized, driven by a sense of purpose and motivation. It’s harder to maintain that work when crisis fatigue sets in, when the world moves on to the next major news event or catastrophe. We should not lose the momentum. We should push to ensure diversity and inclusion stay ingrained in our workplaces and in our lives. 

What gives us hope is the next generation of leaders who are demanding justice and equal rights in our society and within our companies. That fact, along with a cultural mindset shift built on open, honest relationships, new faces among corporate leaders, and diversity as critical to long-term business strategy, is what we believe will, this time, truly move toward a world of equal opportunity for all.

Margaret Keane is the CEO of Synchrony. Paget Alves is a member of the board of directors of Synchrony and previously served as the chief sales officer of Sprint Corporation.

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