‘It has felt taboo to me, forever’: What’s changed at American workplaces since George Floyd

October 12, 2021, 6:00 PM UTC

In the 16 months since the murder of George Floyd, conversations about race and privilege have burst into offices and boardrooms (virtual or not). It hasn’t always been comfortable, said a group of women business leaders from WW, HP, and Deloitte.

“It has felt taboo to me, forever, my entire career really, to talk about it so openly,” Kim Seymour, chief people officer at WW International, said at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Tuesday. “And the few who did were deemed as courageous.”

“What good did come from that really afforded us the opportunity to call it”—racism—“what it is and deal with it straight on,” said Lesley Slaton Brown, chief diversity officer at HP.

But making—and sustaining—true progress in creating a diverse workforce requires reexamining every part of the business, a mission that goes well beyond simply discussing the issue with incoming employees and the board, they said.

Deloitte, for example, has focused on building up the number of accounting graduates coming into the role, but has also had to apply a “surgical” level of detail to mentoring and coaching, said CEO and chair Lara Abrash. That includes pushing back on vague assessments for why a certain person is or isn’t suitable for a particular role. Out are fuzzy selection benchmarks—a candidate’s lack of “presence,” for example—and in is a willingness to have tough conversations.

“Unfortunately, sadly, for our next generation, I don’t see an end to societal unrest,” said Abrash. “I see a lot of tension. And so if we don’t get comfortable talking about it, we’re not going to have an environment where people thrive in and around the workplace.”

But businesses need to go further, reexamining their entire supply chain, Seymour said. That means pushing the advertising agencies and creative teams they work with, too, to represent that diversity, added Slaton Brown.

The shift hasn’t come without pushback, however.

‘What is our aspiration?’

Abrash noted pointedly that white male employees have sometimes questioned why other employees are getting “extra,” or have asked why decisions about who holds leadership positions in the company are being “politicized.”

“I try to bring it back to the very basics of ‘What is our aspiration as a firm?’ And if our aspiration as a firm is to have white males lead in every position in the firm, then maybe we’re not making the right choices,” she said. “But if our aspiration is to have a firm that represents society, then of course we’re going to have to do more inside the firm.”

“I even try to stay away from the word ‘fair’ because everyone’s definition of what that means is different,” noted Seymour. Instead she tries, “Don’t you want to live in a world that…”

When that line of reasoning fails, Seymour added, she sometimes tries a blunter approach, explaining to colleagues: “All I want is a world where we all have the equal opportunity to suck.

“What I mean is, I should not have any more obstacles in my way, or any underrepresented person. We have an equal opportunity to be mediocre. Or to be bad,” she added. “If you are Black or brown-skinned, you do not have an equal opportunity to be bad. You just don’t.”

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