speak up
(Photo by fizkes, iStockphoto by Getty)

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and following the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, an upper manager at AT&T asked TeNita Ballard, lead consultant for diversity and inclusion at the company, how she was doing. After responding she was fine, he pushed her further. “He caused me to slow down–he really wanted to know how I’m doing,” she recalled. She answered him honestly: “I let him know, I’m not doing good.”

Ballard was reflecting on a talk with her family about being Black in America, particularly the fears of her brother. After the killing of George Floyd, she took the conversation with her family and boss and wrote a letter to share with fellow employees. “It was raw, it was real, and it was vulnerable,” she said. Her open letter prompted further workplace conversation around race and being Black at this moment in American history.

Ballard shared this experience during Bridging the Voice Gap: How Diverse Points of View Can Help a Company Thrive, a webinar hosted by From Day One. It was a frank conversation that examined the benefits of an open and honest workplace, while addressing why employees are often thwarted for speaking–and how employers can provide productive listening space for those who challenge the status quo.

The speakers all acknowledged that at the intersection of a pandemic and racial-justice movement, employers can no longer expect workers to simply show up and do their jobs as if their lives aren’t affected by the world outside. Managers have to take into account the needs and vulnerabilities of employees as they evolve, while creating the outlets for their opinions to be aired.

From Day One's webinar on the need for workers to speak up, moderated by Lydia Dishman (top row, center), an editor and writer for Fast Company (Image by From Day One)

Instead of labeling such conversations as “uncomfortable” or “unwanted,” employers can view them as productive for the overall company. Many companies are making new efforts to embrace a more vocal workforce. At Siemens, the industrial giant, company leaders compiled racial-justice resources, plus a knowledge board with “micro learnings” around empathy and anti-racism, before hosting “courageous conversations,” according to Nichelle Grant, head of diversity, equity and inclusion for Siemens USA.

Rather than pushing employees into discussion together, Siemens provided conversation-starting tools, including a facilitator guide and manager-information sessions to address questions early on. “What’s really working for us is that we’ve paired them with a racial-justice coach, so they’re not going at it alone,” Grant said. “We recognize the conversation about race is rare in the workplace, and it’s not easy for people to talk about in general.”

Other speakers shared steps their organizations are taking to encourage honest dialogue. Corey Flournoy, Groupon’s global head of inclusion and diversity, said the company hosted a global open forum following the killing of George Floyd. “Employees got to really share how they’re feeling … and the entire senior-manager team was part of the discussion,” he said. “It was a catalyst to start a lot more work and conversations that Groupon is doing.”

Erin Bramblett, head of HR for Communities in Schools of Atlanta, said the organization is hosting town halls, employee well-being surveys every four to five weeks, and regular mental- health check ins. She also stressed the importance of building an HR department based on trust. “It should be known for reacting and handling things properly and confidently, so that trust and that space is there,” Bramblett said.

Jana Morrin, CEO and co-founder of Speakfully, a platform for workers to document and report mistreatment, addressed the perspective of top managers: “As leaders, if you want [employees] to come forward and talk to you, you have to be vulnerable yourself and share experiences yourself,” she said. Chief executives have a responsibility to foster the culture of workplace trust, openness and vulnerability: “It has to come from top down, because otherwise people won’t believe it,” she added. “If they see senior leadership having these hard conversations on an ongoing basis, they understand the CEO wants to know what’s happening to them.”

Investing in long-term progress on workplace equity–as opposed to quick fixes–was a recurring theme of the panel. Siemens works with historically black colleges and universities and is exploring mutually beneficial partnerships in which the company can recruit from the schools and help support them as well. Groupon has an anti-racism book club with global sessions that will include top leadership. Participants won’t simply read books like White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, but will open a conversation of how it may apply to company culture, according to Flournoy. The company also started a Black Lives Matter room on the Slack platform to maintain racial-justice dialogue.

The webinar speakers also suggested that while consistently pushing for more diverse and equitable workplaces, company leaders should simply “stick to the facts,” as Flournoy put it. Track the data on female and minority leadership within the company, he said, and point out where diversity falls short. “Yes, we may have a high number of certain employees, but what [leadership] level are they?” asked Ballard. “It’s all different ways to look at our pipeline to make sure we’re doing the work.”

The panel was upfront about the challenges ahead. Among them: the all-remote workplace often adds a layer of complexity, there’s fear that the energy around social justice and equity will die down, and there remains a lack of mentorship to help people of color move into top leadership.

But the speakers suggested that workplaces can take a good first step by simply listening. “Meet people where they’re at,” said Grant. “I start with listening and then it’s a dialogue, a conversation about where they’re at. It’s not just one conversation, it’s multiple conversations over time.”

Editor's note: From Day One thanks our partners who sponsored this webinar: Speakfully, LumApps, and Achievers.

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, NY-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Curbed and other publications.