(Illustration by Ada Yokota, iStockphoto by Getty)

The phrase often repeated during the protests over racial injustice, energized by the police killing of George Floyd, is that this time “feels different.”

In one of many media commentaries offering hope for lasting change, CNN’s John Blake, who covered riots sparked by the Rodney King police-brutality verdict and the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, wrote, “[A]fter the George Floyd demonstrations I find myself filled with a guarded optimism.”

Amplifying that feeling was the response of Corporate America, which rushed to answer the bell. Though not without criticism, business giants pledged billions of dollars to community-outreach programs. Many have promised to address shortcomings in diversity and inclusion through new initiatives.

Yet to prove they’re not just “woke-washing” their reputations, these organizations will need to take concrete steps toward real change. How they might do that was the topic of a panel discussion at From Day One’s July virtual conference, The New Push for Workplace Equity. In a conversation moderated by Lydia Dishman, an editor and writer for Fast Company, five leaders in the field of diversity and inclusion offered suggestions to corporate leaders who are eager to enact change:

Start With an Expression of Empathy  

The renewed focus on the well-being of employees, which has arrived after a half-century of corporate fealty to shareholders, has been sharpened by the emotional impact of watching people of color killed by police and the struggles of workers throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Now is a time when business leaders need to show that they care.

“There are issues of bias and inequity in COVID, and thinking about who is affected most, who are considered essential workers, what are the infection rates within different neighborhoods,” said Dion Bullock, who leads strategy on equity, inclusion and belonging at Bravely, a coaching platform. “How do you work, and how do you have this conversation about racial equity within this context of, quite frankly, mass infection and death, and mass unemployment and loss?”

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From Day One's panel on workplace equity, let by moderator Lydia Dishman (upper left) of Fast Company

When Bravely employees started working from home this spring, leaders sought ways to address employee morale–if only after some prodding, he said. “Part of the challenge was to get our leadership from, ‘Here’s how we just keep the lights on,’ to ‘OK, but the people who help us keep the lights on also need our support,’” Bullock said. “We really need to make sure we’re checking in with folks.”

A wave of internal communications were sent to workers, with leaders boosting transparency. They outlined strategy considerations, remote-work best practices, safety procedures, and employee-support options. That same active approach, with some tailoring, can be applied to other difficult periods, notably the nationwide protests over racial injustice.

Develop Comfort and Trust So Difficult Conversations Can Occur

The Coca-Cola Co. did not shy away from taking a public stance on racial injustice, which the  CEO called “a wound in the fabric of America.” The company announced four pillars in its  efforts to enact change, centered around “listening, leading, investing, and advocating.” The organization has developed “allyship guidebooks” and “talking points for leaders to use during difficult conversations,” said Valerie Love, SVP of HR at Coca-Cola of North America, who acknowledged that some leaders within the corporation “need help” in engaging the issue. But for the sake of building trust, those leading the company’s D&I push have told them, “We’re gonna meet you where you are.”

“I like that one of our associates said, ‘The table is set for the conversation,’” Love recounted. “‘We’re gonna slow it down and we’re gonna speed it up for wherever you are on this journey.’ … We’ve asked our leaders and our employees to be patient, and have empathy, and realize not everyone is at the right place to start the conversation.”

Matt Orozco, an organizational-change consultant at Peakon, a platform that measures employee engagement, said his company has developed metrics for measuring progress in D&I. But he acknowledged that the collection of voluntarily submitted data won’t tell leaders much if employees don’t feel as though they can honestly express their opinions on fairness, equity, diversity, inclusion, and support in the workplace. And leaders might not even want to ask the tough questions in the first place.

“Not many people feel comfortable telling their friends about those kinds of things,” Orozco said. “We’re trying to help [leaders] get comfortable with the discomfort of asking questions and getting responses they haven’t received [before], but also building trust.”

Orozco urged managers to consider the question: “How do you create a foundation of trust so that people feel OK giving you this information, with the intention of using it in a thoughtful way, rather than in a not-thoughtful or adverse way?”

Establish a D&I Task Force and Actively Listen

With much of the world’s economy temporarily hitting the pause button during the pandemic, many corporations are taking major financial hits, which may inspire them to disregard D&I initiatives and focus on exploring new revenue opportunities. Ruchi Jalla, chief D&I officer of BAE Systems, a multinational defense, security, and aerospace company, said that her company instead decided to double-down on its diversity commitments.

“We have goals, specifically tied to diversity and inclusion in our leadership population, and we had a conversation [with leadership] about that as a recipe objective, and they said, ‘We’re keeping on course; there’s going to be no give here,’” Jalla said. She implied that it was as if BAE’s leadership, in an effort to keep morale strong, told company leaders: “If you can’t make your financial [goals], you better make sure that you’re meeting your goals around safety and diversity and inclusion.”

BAE has recently formed what Jalla called “Racial Equity Vision Teams,” in collaboration with the company’s Black and African-American employee resource group, to “help inform” and “ensure that we don’t march along thinking we know the answer without asking employees that are impacted.” These teams will offer insight into how BAE can make, according to Jalla, “equitable progress within all of the representative categories, whether it be processes, practices, and people.”

Establishing such a group within a company is only an initial step, however. One of the primary keys to any company’s D&I mission is its leadership’s listening ability. “One of the things that was very exciting for everyone around the globe was having a weekly webinar,” said Olga Yakimakho, director of leadership and organizational development at Special Olympics International, a nonprofit whose very existence is to drive inclusivity. During these webinars “we really shine the light on our athletes,” Yakimakho said, giving neurodiverse people a chance to tell their stories about how they have been marginalized and excluded. “So now the entire world is able to understand how they feel when they can’t go outside, when they stay at home, the loneliness, the disconnect.”

Yakimakho said the webinars have had an impact on the organization’s in-house team as well. Yakimakho admits that even this group, which could be seen as a beacon of inclusion, has room for improvement.

“Any organization, any company has work to do,” Yakimakho said. “It’s a journey; we’re never quite there [and] so we’ve been trying to learn from [the athletes], learn from their resilience, learn from them how they overcome their challenges.”

Play Games With a Purpose

Nothing will change if employees, as well as leaders, aren’t engaged in the journey. Sitting in an auditorium and watching a PowerPoint presentation won’t cut it. (Besides, in these pandemic times, such a gathering isn’t even allowed to take place.)

Bullock says Bravely has developed a role-playing game called Just-in-Time Coaching, taught to company clients. If an employee has a performance review approaching, for example, they’ll act out the roles of both manager and employee, with the goal of leaving both sides more mindful of “different dynamics when going into those conversations.”

Yakimakho discussed a similar role-playing game designed to illustrate different perspectives among diverse employees. “We have a blind colleague with an intellectual disability and he would do a session blindfolding everyone in the room,” she said. The colleagues would spend 30 minutes blindfolded, engaging with each other. “When you really step into his shoes, you understand why we don’t have boxes in the corridors so he couldn’t trip.”

Such an exercise, though now by necessity a virtual one, would likely lead to a better comprehension of the viewpoints of others. Once that kind of understanding takes hold, empathy–so vital to change today–could find a way to flow much more freely.

Michael Stahl is a New York City-based freelance journalist, writer and editor. You can read more of his work at MichaelStahlWrites.com, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl, and order his first book, the autobiography of Major League Baseball pitcher Bartolo Colón, at Abrams Books