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It’s time to put employees first

February 24, 2021, 9:52 PM UTC

Ford Foundation president Darren Walker and Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins have co-authored an opinion piece for Fortune that’s well worth your time. 

They say in no uncertain terms that business has a vital role to play in not only halting the spread of COVID-19, but also in addressing the longstanding and deadly inequities in society that the pandemic has made plain. How? By making employees their most important stakeholders.

From their piece:

We have witnessed how workplace transmission is contributing to the country’s mounting case count. Inequality has also exacerbated the spread of the virus. President Biden’s order points to the social, racial, health, and economic inequities that frontline workers are experiencing today, and this is a clear signal that every business must not only root out inequality by reshaping leadership strategies—businesses must also have clear frameworks for understanding and addressing how certain groups are disproportionately impacted.

So, facing these multiple crises—a pandemic, a needed economic recovery, a reckoning with racial inequality—what is the role of employers, and how do leaders need to change? In our view, businesses must focus on their people, placing their voices, their health (both physical and mental), their safety, and equity at the top of business priorities. Thinking about employees shouldn’t be a function of human resources—it’s a competitive differentiator, and it’s needed now more than ever.

The two men have a strong connection; Walker was early on the scene at Cisco, virtually, as the company’s work on race and equity took on new urgency after the death of George Floyd. The company has had a long track record of inclusion efforts that has helped earn it a spot on every Great Place To Work list since it was first published in 1998. Robbins says the foundation of trust the company has established over the last five years or so was enormously helpful when the twin crises of pandemic and racial inequity came into focus.

Robbins shares key details in this extraordinary episode of Fortune’s Leadership Next podcast, recorded shortly after George Floyd death. “The most important thing we do is frequent, authentic, honest communication,” he says, referring to the candid monthly all-hands calls known as “the Cisco Beat.” But by late spring last year, those conversations, some of which Walker joined and observed, took a very real turn. “I learned so much about the lives of our Black executives,” Robbins says. “We’ve turned those insights into action.”

From Walker’s point of view, these conversations can be an important way to inject courage into business. “As I spend time in circles of leaders, particularly at the senior level…there are few active listeners,” he told raceAhead last fall. You can’t mentor someone or change a system without understanding the perspectives of people who are different from you, he says. “This is my case for the arts and empathy. They show us how to see the dignity in every human being.”

Part of the path forward, as the relationship between Robbins and Walker suggests, is a collaboration between powerful sectors. 

“If we bring the business community together with civil society and NGOs that actually do this every day, and have all the research and all the insights already about what needs to be done,” then vital progress can be made, says Robbins. “We can put some financial resources behind some of these things, but we can also improve representation at our executive level and our board,” leaders who are prepared and empowered to make these partnerships work.

Tomorrow, I’ll be catching up with Robbins and Walker, along with Cisco’s executive vice president and Chief People Officer Fran Katsoudas, to dig into how and why to put the wellbeing of employees first. 

What’s on your mind? Let me know. Either way, I’ll be reporting back.

Ellen McGirt

On point

More young people identify as LGBTQ+ than ever before This research from Gallup, released today, shows that one in six adults who classify as Generation Z consider themselves LGBTQ; further, that the number of adults who do has risen to 5.6% of the U.S. population, up more than one percentage point since the last survey in 2017. The methodology is interesting and worth your time, as different approaches to LGBTQ terminology tend to yield different results. One thing that did stand out of this survey of 15,000 people: More than half of LGBT adults (54.6%) identify as bisexual.

Advocates push for truly diverse governance on boards Two groups, Disability:IN and the American Association of People with Disabilities, submitted joint letters to the SEC asking Nasdaq to expand its current governance diversity proposal to include people with disabilities. The current proposal, subject to a public comment period, would require Nasdaq-listed companies to have at least one female board member and one board member who identifies as LGBTQ or other underrepresented racial group. “Including disability diversity in the corporate boardroom would mark a major turning point for disability rights,” said AAPD Chair Ted Kennedy Jr. in a statement.

Hey! Let’s stop with the Cherokee thing Jeep has been selling vehicles called “Cherokee” and “Grand Cherokee” for more than 45 years, and has so far dodged (sorry) any requests to revisit the name. But now, a senior leader in the Cherokee community says it’s time to stop. "I’m sure this comes from a place that is well-intended, but it does not honor us by having our name plastered on the side of a car," Chuck Hoskin, Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, said in a statement he shared with Car and Driver. "The best way to honor us is to learn about our sovereign government, our role in this country, our history, culture, and language and have meaningful dialogue with federally recognized tribes on cultural appropriateness." The statement comes as Jeep prepares to launch the next generation of the Grand Cherokee, a move which now feels profoundly out of step with other brand-naming conventions, like that of Cleveland’s baseball team and Washington’s NFL team.
Car and Driver

On Background

And let’s stop with the Caucasian thing I’ve seen an uptick in the instances of white people referring to themselves “Caucasian” lately; while this is not a scientific observation, it feels like a sign of the troubled times in which we live. It needs to stop. The term comes from a racist classification of humans created in 1795 by the influential German physician and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach. Back in the day, he measured human skulls in search of value distinctions between “races”—you see where I’m going with this—and declared the skull of a female human from the Caucus Mountain region of Russia as symmetrical and beautiful, and, long story short, all pleasing characteristics were assigned to white people. Next thing you know, the beauty of whiteness became an Enlightenment ideal, despite the fact that the Caucasus region was not home to many white people. It gets worse and more complicated from there, as people who don’t want to be called Negroid or Mongoloid already know.
Los Angeles Times

The hidden history of racism in atomic research European scientists, fleeing Hitler’s rise, flocked to the U.S. in the 1940s. Many joined the Manhattan Project and the quest to create atomic weaponry. African American scientists were welcomed by the refugees in facilities up north, but when the Oak Ridge, Tenn. lab was constructed in the Jim Crow South, Black scientific talent was no longer welcomed by the community. Says a University of Chicago professor, the European scientists were shocked. "Many were foreign-born and so the whole idea of discrimination against blacks was repugnant.” Click through for the inspiring story of J. Ernest Wilkins Jr., the Black prodigy who worked with Enrico Fermi at the famous Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, before his research moved south without him.
Knox News

We still can’t travel, so why don't we take a wander in history? The New York Public Library has, I believe, the largest collection of Green Books, all of which are digitized and searchable. From the introduction to the 1949 edition: “With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable. The Jewish press has long published information about places that are restricted and there are numerous publications that give the gentile whites all kinds of information… There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”
New York Public Library

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Karen Yuan.

Today's mood board

Grocery store workers and others stage a protest rally outside the Whole Foods Market, in the South End of Boston, in April. Many retail companies began 'hazard pay' amid the pandemic—and some of that pay is now being rolled back.
Pat Greenhouse—The Boston Globe/Getty Images