Real Talk About Race in the Workplace

Real Talk About Race in the Workplace

By Roger O. Crockett with Steven Barth, Dorri McWhorter and Steve Pemberton.


Whether it’s frustrated students and faculty at the University of Missouri, or troubled citizens from Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, or Charleston, we Americans are expressing concern over racial discord at a rate nearly unseen since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Every night, it seems, the evening news informs us of another tragedy – a beating, a shooting, a death. And all too often, these disturbing incidents reflect racial conflict: White Policeman vs. African American or Trump vs. Mexican Immigrants. Social media is abuzz with chatter about the degree to which prejudice is at work. Dinner tables and back porch barbeques pulsate with opinions about who’s right and who’s wrong. But the discussion is mostly among races. It’s rarely between races. And the one place where we spend most of our time – at work – is noticeably bereft of dialogue. As white and black employees (Latinos, Asians, Indians, Native Americans, Gays and Lesbians, too) we avoid asking questions of each other or holding constructive conversation about our differences. Sometimes we even avoid each other altogether, and that hurts our ability to work together effectively. In the end, as communication deteriorates, productivity suffers.

Earlier this year, I sat with three influential professionals who manage race and diversity initiatives in their organizations: Steven Barth, a partner at the law firm of Foley & Lardner, Dorri McWhorter, CEO of the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, and Steve Pemberton, Chief Diversity Officer for Walgreens. The lively and refreshingly candid panel discussion, held at the Metropolitan Club of Chicago and co-sponsored by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, raised several important truths about race in the workplace and the critical importance of making time to address it. The consensus agreed to by blacks and whites in attendance: every workplace should hold such discussions. Below is the edited transcript:

Roger Crockett: We’re a long way from the Civil Rights Movement and the Selma March for Voting Rights, but are race relations really better today than 50 years ago?

Steve Pemberton: If a really creative movie director were to juxtapose some of the images from Selma – the confrontation on Pettus Bridge and the like – against what we saw in Ferguson, you really wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. I think that we have become a society retreating from the challenges of our time. We have become at times distracted. The 1960’s generation was unequivocally not distracted, and they knew the challenges of their time, and they were willing to sacrifice it all. Not for themselves, because a lot of times they didn’t think it would manifest itself in any means that will change during their lifetime. They were doing it for future generations. But we have become this purposely segregated society. What was once legal segregation has now become voluntary segregation. We retreat to the world in which we live and operate, retreat to our sanctuary. And so we are looking at the challenges of our time almost from a distance, almost as if that has nothing to do with me.  And we build these walls around ourselves and we are surprised when we see all this extraordinary civil unrest. When I think of younger generations, I would answer the question [are we better off?] with an unequivocal no. It is not better, not better for them.

Crockett: What about for women? Women have a unique challenge, and African American women have a doubly unique challenge in America. Are things better for women, especially black women?

Dorri McWhorter: At the YWCA we have this big lofty mission to eliminate racism and empower women. Clearly we are going to have to work quite a bit harder on that. But I think of my dad (who grew up in Macon, Mississippi) he would absolutely say that things are better relative to his experience. So we have moved the needle to some degree, but I always look at the possibilities, and so when we talk about “are things better” or “are we where we can be,” I think we are still far away from that. In particular, as you look at African American women, there are zero African American women partners at large accounting firms in Chicago, and that’s just one profession. If you translate that across many professions and across the workplace, we are not doing so well. I think that we just have to be very deliberate about our efforts to reach full representation. We cannot be effective as a company, a country, or anything, if we are not fully leveraging our talent. As you look back at 1965, I think things are better from a societal interaction standpoint, but as you talk about the workplace and what we could be, what could be possible if all voices are heard, we’re just not there.

Crockett: National polls show that the perspectives of most white Americans regarding race is different from most black Americans. Steve Barth, tell us from your perspective, your answer to the question: Are things better off for African Americans?

Steve Barth: I was only a young boy during the 1960’s Civil Rights era, when riots and upheaval came in response to overt racism. Looking back, I certainly don’t think anybody would question the motivations or the rightness of the cause, and I would fully support and dutifully support the Civil Rights Movement. Today, I think for most older conservative white guys, we have a much harder time seeing that there is really racism. You may say that it may be more subtle, it may be more institutional, so you can’t really put your finger on it. But to be honest, when folks like me see someone like Rev. Al Sharpton [civil rights activist and TV/radio host] talking about the racism going on, we don’t view today’s incidents as something as overt, as troubling as the situation was in the 60′s. So, yes I do think that race relations have taken a step back over the years, but I don’t know if I could directly compare it to 1965. I think that to a large extent some of the discord [created by African American community spokespeople] in race relations isn’t justified. It seems to be for political purposes, for personal gain, for other external reasons that I am not sure that I buy.

Crockett: Clarify what you mean by “not justified”.

Steve Barth: Let’s just take Ferguson, for example, I don’t see that it was a racist issue. There was a very extensive investigation by a Democratic District Attorney. It wasn’t conservative white Republicans doing it. It was a very independent government run investigation that was very pro-diversity, and they were very worried about the outcome because they certainly knew what a conclusion of “not guilty” would mean to the city and the society. So, they went about the investigation very carefully. Then after coming to a conclusion [police were found not guilty], for people to respond with very horrible riots, and people like Al Sharpton complaining that the decision was racist. I’m sorry, I don’t see it.

Crockett: Thank you for your honesty. We rarely have these honest conversations, especially between business colleagues of different races. Why do we keep quiet about this topic at work, and should there be more workplace discussion about race?

Pemberton: It’s difficult to have that discourse because fear has become a really profitable industry. There are some [in the media, for example] who are in the business of alienation, caricaturing of black women, caricaturing of black and brown people. It’s how they make money, how they get ratings and views. So you have those who have a vested interest in not having this kind of discourse. So, it’s hard for employees to sit down and say, “Hey man, I’m not feeling that. I don’t agree with that.”

As for the workplace, if you don’t have a strategy for the changing demographics of this country, good luck being relevant in 2020. How can you sit around and say, “We really don’t have a strategy for the Hispanic market”?  How do you expect to have market share? You’re not going to be relevant. So, you have to have these conversations, they are pretty important. And you have to reconcile different viewpoints. What unfolded in Ferguson actually is just a manifestation of things that have been happening across the nation for a really long time. So, we have to sit down and talk about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown (who was killed in Ferguson). Those conversations aren’t happening now because the minute someone even remotely says something offensive, we leap on them because we are afraid of the diversity police.

But all of us have something to give, and we also have something to learn. None of us have cornered the market on diversity and understanding. So, we have to take our time and say, “Let me understand where you are coming from,” and “Let’s see if we can find some reconciliation.” From there we can move to a solution.

Crockett: The word “fear” was used. There is this sense of fear that resonates underneath the surface for both races at work, among African Americans and White Americans. But it seems that fear works against progress. Help us understand that fear.

Barth: I will just take you into my world at a large national law firm, where we realize the importance of diversity, not only to do the right thing, but because it’s good business. We are desperate to do it right. I think we are very good at hiring diverse attorneys. But I think we are horrible at retaining them. But why? As we put together teams to do a transaction, we are very careful to include a diverse team. And when a younger member of that team might do a work product for me, if that was a young white guy, like me, with my background, and they had done a fairly crummy job, which most young associates do, I would give them hell. I would just tell them every single thing they have done wrong, and tell them they have got to improve. I would be very, very critical. Switch that out: The same work product, but if a diverse attorney does the same thing, a white partner might not be so critical. He is going to be very careful because he might be afraid. He might be worried about the diversity police, and if he is going to get in trouble. He might be afraid to be labeled with the “r-word”.  So, he is going to tell that young associate, “You could have done a bit better, and we have some work to do.” And you know what? The next project, the partner probably won’t use that diverse associate. So [associates of color] don’t get the training, and then they continue to not get the opportunities going forward. Multiply that over 3 to 5 years, when they could be considered for partnership. But the level of expertise isn’t there, and the experience isn’t there. It’s no wonder why.

So I think we have to have much more honest conversations with ourselves about how we need to be much more open to giving honest and fair criticism. That does not mean being out of line in doing it. It has to be very respectful. But the conversations still need to happen.

Crockett: Thanks Steve. You make a very important point. Dorri, what’s your view on discussions about race in the workplace?

McWhorter: We actually had this conversation at our board retreat. It was very difficult. There were several folks who were very uncomfortable because we were having conversations that they would not expect to have and wouldn’t have in their own workplaces.

After Ferguson, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, had those conversations in his workplace, and I thought that was a very great move. When you think about Starbucks and their employee base, you’re talking about folks that are in the neighborhoods and in the communities. How do you not think that these incidents impact them? In the corporate world, how do we not think that employees don’t come into our workplace with the same thoughts? They watch the news and then they come into work.  And to think that these issues [of race] are not impacting how they view and see and interact with each other is naive.

Crockett: Let’s talk about another issue where there tends to be some disagreement, and that’s affirmative action. Though the policy was introduced in the 1970s to address racial inequities, we still don’t see the rise of people of color, and people with disabilities, and people of various sexual orientations having the same opportunities in organizations. So, is affirmative action relevant in business today in 2015?

Pemberton: Affirmative action has its roots in what was deliberate purposeful discrimination. So, positive, or affirmative, action was necessary then. Diversity is something different, and I would argue it is more foundational to the country than affirmative action. We live under a federal system of government predicated on checks and balances. What is that essentially? It’s [encouraging] a difference of thought. The founding fathers did not want to create a system of government where one perspective can rule. It might sound strange, but diversity was at the center of the founding of the country.

The one time that we use diversity as an action is when it comes to investing our money. If I am your financial planner and say we are going to put all of your money over there, you would tell me, “Well, it was a pleasure to meet you.” It’s going to be a quick conversation. How do you mediate risk in investing? You mediate risk by increasing your number of options. That’s what a difference around the table means. Wise leaders will have a difference of opinion around them. Diversity is less about what you look like, it’s more about how you think, and what you’ve experienced. This qualifies every single one of us in this room. You’ve got to go beyond categories. Every color is not your kind. You can’t presume that just because Steve here is a white man, he has nothing you can learn about diversity. You don’t know anything about his background, about where he grew up, you don’t know who he is married to. You have to pause and say, “Let me spend a little more time understanding. That’s the way you make the most effective and deliberate and purposeful decisions.

Crockett: I agree, but it also then becomes easy, and many leadership teams around the world have done this, to focus on diversity of experience. That is sometimes code. It can be a license to forget that diverse experience is informed by your culture, by your ethnicity, by your neighborhood, by a whole plethora of things, race included. So Dorri, what is your view on the relevancy of diversity in business today?

McWhorter: One of my friends, a white male, jokingly said that we would have more diversity once we can prove that employing a Mexican, for example, will get you 30% of the bottom line. And he is right because we can see diversity returns in our personal financial portfolio – diversification gives you this result. And from the people side, we want proof of [the ROI] that comes from diversification, and then we will approve of it. You have to always come with the data and show that this actually works, versus understanding that it’s not merely the presence of diversity that improves your bottom line, it’s knowing what to do with it that improves your bottom line. I just think that we have a leadership problem and a management problem in corporate America and not just necessarily the representation problem. We used to say at my accounting firm that you can get the same stereotypical accountant, just in different colors, and that does you no good. What you need to do is truly understand what a person’s experiences are.

Crockett: Steve Barth you do a lot of work with boards of directors. Do they get this? Do they understand the value of diversity and how to get diversity of experience and perspective?

Barth: I think that the definition of diversity as diversity of experience or thought has been used for years, by boards in particular, to keep their [racial] composition the same as it has always been. It just means I am going to put somebody from Notre Dame on the board [vs. Harvard] because that is certainly diversity. So as long as I can put someone with international experience on the board, or I’ve got a CFO type, or I’ve got a marketing type, that means I’ve got diversity of thought.

I think the more the company deals with consumers as end-users, clearly, they’ve got to understand [racial] diversity.  That is your customer base. If you don’t have the input at the board level that is reflective of your customer base, you are then missing out on maximizing your business potential. But in the B2B business, heavy industrial businesses, I am not sure that an understanding of diversity’s value is there yet. It’s certainly making progress, but very slow progress. For example, I think the statistics on women on boards have been constant for the past 5 to 10 years at 17%, or something like that. So it’s very low, and I think it’s even worse for diverse directors on boards. There’s still a long stretch to cover.

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