One Year Later: Is Corporate America Anti-racist Yet?

BY Emily Nonko | May 13, 2021

When a group of business leaders decided to launch a new organization to respond to last year’s cries for racial justice, they knew that small, earnest measures weren’t going to cut it–they wouldn’t succeed where so much has failed. So the executives raised their ambition and recruited 37 major corporations from Allstate to Walmart in a campaign to provide life-changing opportunities for 1 million Black Americans.

With prominent Black executives at the forefront, including Merck CEO Ken Frazier and former American Express CEO Ken Chenault, the OneTen coalition is pushing for nothing less than business transformation in support of diversity and inclusion, “literally woven into the DNA of a company,” the new coalition’s CEO, Maurice Jones, told From Day One. “Diversity initiatives were all focused on this north star of hire, hire, hire,” he said. However, “you’ve got to hire, retain, create career pathways, promote, provide wraparound supports–you’ve got to change your corporate culture.”

OneTen, with the specific goal of hiring and advancing 1 million Black Americans without four-year college degrees into family-sustaining careers over the next decade, is just one of the initiatives launched by Corporate America in the year since the police murder of George Floyd. Amid the protests that followed, corporate leaders promised to “do more” and “do better,” to make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) a genuine priority. PepsiCo promised to increase its number of Black managers by 30% by 2025, while Facebook pledged to double the number of Black and Latino employees by 2023. America’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase, committed to a $30 billion, five-year plan to provide economic opportunity to underserved communities.

Yet such promises stand against tough realities and deep-rooted inequalities embedded into the capitalist system. A Bloomberg report released this March found that only 4 of the 37 companies surveyed had Black employees in 10% or more of executive and management roles. And while companies made promises, they don’t want to be pushed. In March, five of the biggest U.S. banks–including JPMorgan Chase–asked their shareholders to reject calls for racial-equity audits, arguing that they’re doing enough already.

But are they? With the approach of the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death on May 25, From Day One surveyed experts across the equity field–in human resources, DEI, academia, consulting and corporate leadership–to assess the progress made, and the challenges that persist.

The First Response Was Conversation

Dionne Poulton, an HR and leadership consultant, has been speaking and writing about topics like unconscious bias since 2003. In late 2019, she took the inaugural position of chief diversity officer for Care New England Health System, just in time to support the company as it navigated the Covid-19 pandemic and protest movement. Her immediate takeaway, as employees talked about George Floyd and the meaning of Black Lives Matter: “The conversations have become deeper,” she said. “I’ve been talking about bias and racism for a while, but it’s more acceptable–so to speak–to go deep into the issues.” In response, Poulton organized targeted training sessions, discussion groups, and company-wide town halls.

In George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, a mural marks the spot where he died outside Cup Foods (Photo by Stephen Koepp/From Day One)

Other experts testify to the emerging role of companies in mediating and providing intentional space for conversations that can be emotional and put people on the defensive. Laura Sewell, executive vice president and North America HR leader for the IT company Avanade, said the company’s predominantly-white leadership held “listening sessions” to hear from employees and discuss how the company's core values should tie into diversity initiatives. Alexandria Ray, the DEI leader for the law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson, now distributes a monthly “Culture Corner” article among the firm’s employees, followed by action items on issues including gender identity.

Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), which have historically been underfunded and under-resourced, suddenly rose in prominence for their role in such conversations. A June 2020 survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) found that 9 out of 10 large companies were taking some kind of action on racial equity and almost half were tapping into one or more ERGs, asking for the group’s participation in developing action plans. Such reliance on ERGs has led to demands for more resources, mental-health support, and formal validation from leadership.

New narratives supported in the workplace may seem like just talk, but they represent a huge shift in how Corporate America has engaged with diversity, according to Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of the workplace-culture company Emtrain. “It’s treating these topics as competencies to be learned over time and developed,” she said. “Previously, it was treated like policies and rules to be memorized in one sitting.”

The Rise of the Chief Diversity Officer

Between 2015 and 2020, corporate diversity and inclusion jobs increased 71% globally, according to LinkedIn. The racial-justice movement further accelerated demand for these leaders, but left room for concern about how seriously companies were taking this role. “Many CEOs were scrambling, without recognizing this is a significant position and that person has to be qualified to do this,” as Poulton put it. A second concern, which she discussed with the CEO of Care New England Health System before she accepted the role of chief diversity officer, was: “Am I a figurehead, or am I here to do the job? It’s important to get the answer.”

Research shows diversity roles have an impact: LinkedIn found companies with a DEI team were 22% more likely to be seen as “an industry-leading company with high-caliber talent” and 12% more likely to be seen as an “inclusive workplace for people of diverse backgrounds.” Experts stressed to From Day One that the role must come with power. “The work requires you not only to speak it, but have actions that follow,” says Jamal Lopez, senior director of institutional equity for Weill Cornell Medicine’s Office of Institutional Equity, a department created last summer as part of a set of actions by Weill Cornell to advance equity.

Lopez says he has support from leadership as well as significant backup for future initiatives, including a second dedicated office for DEI and a Staff, Equity and Inclusion Council composed of senior leaders. The company-wide embrace of DEI roles, he said, shows that “diversity today is trending away from the moral-imperative argument. While it's still the right thing, these are businesses that need to fully understand how the diversity, equity and inclusion agenda is going to impact the bottom line.”

New Thinking on Early Skills Development

There’s a growing acknowledgement that companies must change how they’re recruiting a diversity of talent and supporting those people in the workplace, with the goal of uplifting them into leadership roles. For Jones, at OneTen, that means rejecting the a four-year college degree as a prerequisite for career advancement. “In our country, we have been obsessed with the four-year degree,” he said. “It turns out 80% of jobs that pay $70,000 or more require four-year degrees.” OneTen’s program instead focuses on skills training, mentors and sponsorship. The organization has also kicked off discussions with CEOs and HR leaders to change the expectations and culture built around the college degree.

This year the HR consulting firm Randstad launched the program Transcend with the goal of training 40,000 Americans for high-demand jobs with a skills-first model similar to OneTen’s. “A four-year degree no longer directly aligns with success,” Keith Brown, Transcend’s community-impact director, told From Day One. “There’s a huge opportunity in terms of the skilling platform. That is going to change the entire framework of how organizations see talent transition into an organization.”

What that looks like for Transcend is no longer requiring a degree on a job application, with a stronger focus on in-office mentorship and sponsorship, specific skills training, and partnerships with companies to help with job placement. Cisco, for example, is both a founding member of OneTen and the first major corporate partner of Transcend. “We believe Cisco will be able to deliver this program in a very comprehensive way based on its commitment to OneTen,” said Brown. “That is huge.”

Facing the Need for More Diverse Leadership

As Avanade leadership held employee-listening forums that acknowledged the mainly white leadership team, they began thinking about initiatives to change that. “Our senior leadership team fully committed and engaged in a reciprocal mentorship program with mid-career diverse talent,” said Sewell. “The reciprocal nature of it was us as senior leaders reaching in the organization to build this population up, but their role was to help us as leaders become more empathetic and have better understandings of diversity.”

According to a McKinsey & Company report, the U.S. population is 13.4% Black, but only 7% of management roles are filled by Black people. The effort at Avanade reflects an emerging commitment among leaders to diversify leadership through active measures. At Hinshaw & Culbertson, the firm’s chairman took part in the development of a Black Attorneys Matter Referendum, which Ray called “the foundation to holding the firm accountable to what we wanted to implement,” including career development.

The development of Black leaders is a business opportunity as well, recognized by the founders of Valence, a social network with the mission of creating new pathways to success for Black professionals. The startup, which recently launched an executive-development program called BONDS, has funding from venture capitalists including Upfront Ventures, GGV Capital and Silicon Valley Bank.

The Communities Beyond the Corporations

As part of the mainstream embrace of the racial-justice movement, a Who’s Who of American companies made financial commitments to greater economic equality as well. Airbnb announced in a tweet it would donate $500,000 to the NAACP and Black Lives Matter; Etsy announced a donation a total of $1 million to Equal Justice Initiative and Borealis Philanthropy’s Black-Led Movement Fund; Walmart announced a contribution of $100 million over five years to create a new center for racial equity; Target pledged $10 million to advance social justice.

All well and good, but statements and donations in the name of social justice should not be mistaken for real systemic change, according to Erica Licht, a senior fellow with the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center. (Walmart, for example, is well known for suppressing unionization efforts by employees.) “There are real gaps between the claims of companies and their history of actively exploiting and oppressing Black, Indigenous and people of color,” Licht said.

Not far from George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, the "Say Their Names Cemetery," created by two young artists, commemorates people who died in infamous episodes of police violence (Photo by Stephen Koepp/From Day One)

She noted that more investments will be needed for companies to make an impact: “That’s time investment, personal investment–especially for white people putting in the work–and more generally it’s financial investment to address and advance racial equity.” That means making direct investments into marginalized communities more akin to reparations than one-off donations, Licht said. "It's not just about statements or numbers, it's about substance. It's also not about short-term thinking," she said. "Racial-equity work, working toward anti-racist structures, systems and values, is long term Take, for example, in grassroots philanthropy, the journey of the Haymarket People's Fund in Boston."

Taking Stronger Stands on Social-justice Issues

As Licht points out, “companies have always been weighing in on politics, in ways we may or may not know about.” She pointed to the history of corporate donations backing candidates who support explicitly racist policies. She noted a shift triggered by Georgia’s new election law designed to suppress Black voters. When Black business leaders spoke out against the laws, as well as similar GOP-proposed bills in statehouses across the U.S., the leaders of major corporations headquartered in Georgia began to take a stand for voting rights. “They’ve been actively pressuring politicians to block these harmful policies,” Licht said.

That led to an even larger coalition of business leaders stepping up their efforts to oppose such laws and defend voting rights across the U.S. In Texas, for example, two broad coalitions of companies and executives released letters calling for expanded voting access after Republican legislators’ proposed new restrictions on balloting. While the emerging boldness of corporations to take stands on these issues led to a wave of Republican outcries about "woke capitalism," corporate leaders have come to realize they answer to a much more diverse collection of stakeholders than most GOP politicians do.

The Urgency of Public Pressure–and the Question of Accountability

Ultimately it wasn’t the C-Suite that spurred change–it was citizens pressuring companies, and society at large, to address the longstanding issues of racism and inequality. In the workplace, that meant greater cries for companies to follow through on their commitments and statements of racial justice. There are new accountability tools, like the Corporate Racial Equity Tracker, to help stakeholders gauge how companies live up to their promises.

Public pressure tends to translate to investor pressure. In April, a record 30 resolutions focusing on DEI were on the ballots at annual company meetings–and advocates were closely paying attention to how companies asked shareholders to vote. In the same season, U.S. securities regulators turned down an exemption sought by Amazon to stop its investors from considering a shareholder proposal on racial equity.

At Hinshaw & Culbertson, public pressure has translated to the firm’s bottom line. “The clients we’re serving are demanding this, not just our direct clients but potential clients,” Ray said. She pointed out how the Coca-Cola Co. now requires its law firms to staff its matters with diverse lawyers or risk losing fees and business.

The promises of 2020 come down to accountability and longstanding commitments to equity, Licht said. “We have to be very careful that the momentum doesn’t fizzle out,” she said. “I think the real question is if people, especially white people and white people in power, are actually interested in undoing these systems of harm and systems of oppression.”

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.


Are You an HR Leader Who Can’t Say No? Then Maybe This Book Is for You

If setting boundaries is the right thing for your mental health, then why is it so hard to do? With all the demands on HR professionals in recent years, burnout has become a major problem. With good timing, author and playwright Kara Cutruzzula has come along with Do It (Or Don’t): A Boundary-Creating Journal, the third in her series on personal motivation. The book is rich with insights about why we hestitate to say no, how to do it gracefully, and when to know when it’s probably the best answer. In an email interview, From Day One asked her about the key lessons in her new book: Q. Why are we afraid of saying no? Is it mostly about being superstitious about missing an opportunity, or FOMO, or just not wanting to hurt people's feelings?We don’t say no to certain opportunities or people because it’s either uncomfortable, we don’t want to disappoint someone, or we think our future selves are magically less busy than our present-day selves, and a new obligation will somehow be manageable. These are valid reasons! Yet I would argue, in nearly all cases, the few minutes of feeling itchy and anxious before saying “no” are vastly preferable to giving a reluctant “yes” and then feeling resentful. It's almost always kinder to give a quick “no” than a half-hearted “yes.”Q: What are the hardest invitations to say no to?A person with a full calendar says “no” faster than a person who can fit almost anything into their schedule. Sometimes we accept invitations or opportunities because that specific time slot might be open at the moment, but we shouldn’t consider our time as “free” simply because an offer is extended. Getting clear on where you prefer to spend your time before the invitation comes your way makes it easier to deliberate what’s worth that time–or isn’t.Q. Many people in the HR profession have been suffering burnout after all they’ve endured while leading people through crisis after crisis since 2020. Do you have any advice for them about not trying to solve everyone’s problems–or how to set limits?Can you look at what is actually being asked of you, and then at what you have decided to give? We all want to achieve and, often, overachieve, and can forget that going above and beyond is not sustainable. Giving exactly what you are able to give in the moment can be the answer, even if that changes day to day or week to week. It’s kinder to yourself and the people you are trying to serve.Q. Being a good team player is highly valued in business these days, but how can workers set limits and still be regarded as a collaborative colleague?Communication is the holy grail. If you’re not going to be available one afternoon, tell someone. If your colleague’s non-urgent 8 a.m. Slack messages cast a pall over your morning, tell them–or don’t look at the messages until you’re ready to respond. Respect your own boundaries and remember that you have a choice over what you let into your day. And when you are working with a colleague, give them your full attention–the goal is to continue giving an unequivocal “yes” to wherever you are and whatever you’re working on at the moment, so that we can all do our best work together.Q. It’s easy to say yes quickly, but harder to craft a suitable no. What’s your advice about not procrastinating with an answer?Faster is kinder. Consider all the times you’ve reached out to someone with a favor or request. Getting a quick “no” might sting for a moment–then you move on. Waiting to hear back, however, ratchets up anxiety and can affect your other plans. If you know it's a “no,” say so right away. And if you're debating whether it's a “no,” here’s a hint: It probably should be.Q. Could you give us an example or two of ways to say no, but in a way that doesn't close the door on a relationship?We all have many things on our plates, and sometimes it’s fine to simply say that: I'm sorry that it’s a busy time right now so I won’t be able to join you / take advantage of this opportunity / work together on this project, but I hope you’ll keep me in mind of the future. That’s it.I also love to recommend other people, friends, and colleagues for opportunities. While you're politely declining, take one minute to think, “Do I know anyone who would love to say ‘yes’ to this?,” and then pass along their name. Share the wealth.Q. A lot of times we might say yes to an opportunity, then have regrets as the obligation approaches, but then it turns out we’re glad we did it for reasons we didn’t expect. Does this familiar sequence of emotions tell us anything about how to figure out how to make decisions?This happens so often! We dread going to an event yet meet a new and interesting person or make a business contact. Though I’d say this happens rarely. There are events and opportunities that pull us in, and those that push us away. If you have to force yourself to do something, and it goes well–fantastic! But was it really worth the days of “Should I cancel? Can I rope in someone else to go with me?” Why settle for that feeling, when we have the option to actually look forward to what’s on our calendars, instead of hoping a few items will magically disappear?Q. You describe in the book how to set boundaries by establishing the priorities you want to fence off from interference. What’s a good way to get started thinking about that?In recent months, I found myself blaming a few culprits as reasons why I wasn’t “doing what I wanted to do.” But when I looked at the boundaries I had created–or rather hadn't–around certain projects, I noticed there were zero fences or borders. My day would get chopped up into slivers by others, and it was entirely my fault. I was boundary-less. So you must start by answering the question: Where do I actually want to spend my time? Chunk off a section of your day, whether that’s 15 minutes or four hours, and actually make it a priority. Your boundaries will become a lot easier to maintain.Q. Does it help to make some commitments for yourself that you just won’t allow to be interfered with, like an appointment with a friend, therapist, or physical trainer? How does that pay dividends larger than the appointment itself?Author and playwright Kara Cutruzzula (Photo courtesy of the author)When we go to the dentist, we’re at the mercy of the dentist. Your time becomes your dentist’s time. But you can and should treat commitments to yourself with similar diligence. This isn’t about being harder on yourself. It’s the opposite: you are giving yourself the same focus and concentration as you would someone else. They’re worth it, but you’re worth it too. Q. People flake out on other people all the time, but you offer guidelines on how to “flake with grace.” Why is this OK to do, and an example of how to do it?Flaking is sometimes unavoidable, but there are ways to make it hurt less. Do it quickly, and do it with kindness. The most uncomfortable part of flaking isn’t saying, “Sorry I can’t do this after all,” but rather the billowing silence that preambles the flaking. When you know you can’t follow through, just be honest and tell the other person right away. Q. To be good at boundary-tending, one needs to respect other people’s boundaries as well. Your book offers some good advice about making the now-notorious request to “pick someone’s brain.” What should we keep in mind when asking someone for that kind of favor?Imagine a person texts you and asks if you'd like to go to a concert somewhere in a nearby state at some point in the future. They don’t explain the type of music or when or where; it's a vague, open-ended question. You wouldn’t know how to respond because you don’t have details. The same thing happens when you ask to “pick someone’s brain.” The other person doesn't have enough information to respond with a “yes” or “no,” which is why so many brain-picking requests are met with silence or long-delayed responses. So get specific! Do the work for them. What do you actually want to know? Why might they have the answer to your questions? Layer in these details in your request upfront and the person on the other end will be able to evaluate their own boundaries–and give you their own definitive yes or no.Q. How does this new book fit into your trilogy of books?Do It For Yourself is designed to help you work through a big project with reflective prompts and strategies on getting started and overcoming obstacles. Do It Today has more intensive activities like embracing percolation rather than productivity, and sharing the gifts that only you have to share. Do It (or Don't) is pinpointing a major issue: the feeling in our lives that there is too much to do and not enough time in which to do all of it. It encourages you to draw new lines around your time and energy to, ultimately, make it easier to do your most meaningful work.Q. And finally, we all need to rest. But sometimes, it’s complicated. What’s your advice about being more deliberate about this?Honestly, I’m bad at resting! I just worked for most of the weekend. But giving yourself an end date is always helpful. Maybe this is a busy period of your life and you have to accept that. Yet there is always some time on the horizon that you can look forward to–maybe it’s next quarter, or next year or, miraculously, next weekend. Build that into your schedule as downtime and be as strict with that boundary as you are with your other boundaries.Steve Koepp is From Day One’s chief content officer.(Featured image by MicrovOne/iStock by Getty Images)

Stephen Koepp | September 19, 2023

The Great Resignation Is Over. Will Employers Take Workers for Granted?

As the months of 2023 have ticked by, the Great Resignation has quietly lost something: its greatness. The worker resignation rate in June fell to 2.4%, essentially returning to where it was in June 2019. For employers who had been in a war for talent, the dramatic lack of turnover has brought welcome relief. But what does that mean for workers, who in 2020-22 enjoyed a wealth of new benefits, job flexibility, and employer concern about their well-being? Will employers start taking workers for granted?While HR experts say that most employers won’t be inclined to turn the clock back to 2019, workers will see a more miserly approach. In terms of total rewards, you could call it the Great Moderation. “Employee retention at all costs–in terms of very high salaries; PTO and other employee perks–is over,” Janine Yancey, CEO of the corporate-culture platform Emtrain, told From Day One. While she believes that job flexibility and pay equity are here to stay, “we’re moving into a time of scarcity, not abundance, which impacts the employee experience.”The Great Resignation’s obituary was written earlier this month, when the management professor who coined the term in 2021, Anthony Klotz, told Fast Company, “I believe the Great Resignation has largely come to an end.” Added Klotz, who is now a professor at University College London’s School of Management: “The backlog of quitting has certainly cleared, as has the turnover contagion and tight labor market it caused in its wake. People who had pandemic epiphanies and planned life pivots have enacted them; and in some cases, boomeranged back to what they were doing before.”Why They’re StayingEmployee surveys indicate that workers are motivated to stay in their jobs by a mixture of caution and the need for a calm stretch of time. The massive layoffs early in the pandemic, followed by the wave of austerity-inspired layoffs in the last year, have made workers less inclined to be job-hopping if they trust their situation.At the same time, they are overdue for some R and R for the sake of their sanity. “We are now in a time when stability and routine are supporting mental-health needs as many recover from the shock of unplanned life/work changes,” Laura Sewell, EVP of North American HR for the IT services consultancy Avanade, told From Day One. “It has only been in the past 12 to 18 months that more and more people have begun planning vacations, events, and other activities which were put on hold during the pandemic. As such, having access to paid time off through their employer offers them both the time they need and the financial backing to finally take those trips and plan the events. And you are less likely to switch employers when you are planning big, fun things outside of work in your personal life.”The incentive to switch jobs for higher compensation has eased as well, Sewell notes. “While the war for talent was raging, employees could often get 20%+ more by leaving their employer to join a competitor. Job seekers today may not find that same opportunity for significant increase in earnings, thus reducing a motivating factor for making that move.”Why Employers Are Tightening UpThe combination of high interest rates and slow economic growth have inspired companies to clamp down on spending as well as hiring. “2023 has been the year of massive downsizing across the board,” observes Yancey. “Capital is scarce and capital fuels business growth, so that will impact job growth. Businesses are focused on showing profitability first and foremost.”How will the austerity mindset affect employee benefits? That issue has caused tension between finance departments and HR leaders who just recently had been working overtime to create new incentives to attract and retain employees, including programs to support worker well-being and family caregiving. “We’re in this constant battle with finance,” said Ken Wechsler, VP of total rewards at Akamai Technologies, in a recent From Day One webinar on employee benefits. “We’re fighting for it, and I guess my colleagues on this call will also fight it. We might not get as much moving forward, but we will fight.”Benefits leaders are finding that they need to justify spending much more than they did in the recent past, said Todd Cowgill, VP of global rewards for Equinix, a digital-infrastructure company. “If you cannot tell what the return on investment of your program is, you will lose that program,” he said in the webinar. “You have to understand what the company as a business gets because of the program, what it costs, and what it gets back.”Which Workplace Improvements Will EndurePart of the reason for low turnover right now, Avanade’s Sewell points out, is the enhanced working conditions that were inspired by the hardships of the pandemic. “Over the past three years, inclusion and well-being have rocketed to the top of our people priorities. With this increased focus, employees are feeling better supported at work, have access to more resources and benefits to take care of themselves, and in general, most have greater flexibility in how and where they get their work done.”Despite well-publicized efforts by some major employers, notably in finance, to bring workers back to the office for a majority of the workweek, job flexibility is a value that has become well-embedded in the expectations of most workers. Asserted Emtrain’s Yancey: “I believe the need for job flexibility is here to stay and employer's obligation to create jobs with pay equity and a healthy, inclusive work culture is here to stay.”So is the inclination for workers to negotiate their terms. “Everything is in play now­–things I had never even thought of when it comes to total rewards,” said Akamai’s Wechsler. “We give employees the choice of where they want to work, and 90% of them have said they want to work from home. They’ll self-select. We make the effort to do things in the office a lot–but now a lot means quarterly. We know that most will not want to come, and some folks will want to attend an event because they get to go to the office.”  Trying to Reach an EquilibriumWhile turnover may be low at the moment, forward-looking employers know that future job shortages driven by an aging population and new attitudes toward work mean that they can’t forget the lessons learned during the Great Resignation. “It’s a new culture of work,” behavioral scientist Laurel McKenzie told Fast Company’s AJ Hess. “No one’s staying at organizations for years and years. The new culture of work is that people are willing to leave and find something better. There’s not a sense of loyalty to organizations anymore. People are more focused on taking care of themselves and finding organizations that will enable that.”Avanade’s Sewell says her company keeps close tabs on employee-engagement surveys to pick up on trends in employee sentiment. “We take nothing for granted. There will always be cycles, which can often be unpredictable. Our goal is to maintain the hearts and minds of our employees through all of the ups and downs and be prepared for what is ahead. By building loyalty now, we are creating a stronger foundation for whatever wave comes next.”In a book to be published next month, The Retention Revolution: 7 Surprising (and Very Human!) Ways to Keep Employees Connected to Your Company, workplace strategist and bestselling author Erica Keswin calls for a new paradigm in thinking about the relationship between workkers and employers. “The time is now to reconsider everything we know about the employee journey and why linear thinking is being replaced by the more human reality of cycles, revolving doors, and dynamic change.” Steve Koepp is From Day One’s chief content officer. 

Stephen Koepp | August 16, 2023

Older Workers and Technology: How They Approach It With a Different Mindset

Karen Fleshman is a 54-year-old CEO of a small workshop-facilitation company based in the world’s tech capital, the San Francisco Bay Area. Recently, a potential client approached her about creating some anti-harassment videos, but before they would award her company the contract, they wanted to see a sample. Fleshman’s expertise is content, not tech. To win the job, she would need to deliver both.“I was like, ‘Oh God, this is not something I can record on my phone,” said Fleshman. “I’m really going to have to work to make this look up to their standards.” Video creation and artificial intelligence is new territory for Fleshman—for the project, she’s teaching herself Descript, Loom, StreamYard, and—but resourcefulness comes naturally. “I’m not the most technologically proficient person to have walked the planet,” she said. “But I am a very creative person, and I’m also a very strategic person.”Fleshman is careful to not live down to the stereotypes about people in her age bracket when it comes to technological proficiency. “There is the assumption that I won’t be technologically proficient, so I’m trying to not play into the stereotype that I’m going to ask for help because I’m frustrated,” Fleshman told From Day One. “I try to do what Millennials do and look for a YouTube tutorial.”Most mid- and late-career workers know the preconceived notions counting against them: bad with tech, slow to learn, resistant to change. A survey by found that people 45 and older commonly cite their age as one of the most significant barriers to getting hired. If indeed “every company now is a tech company,” like the pundits declare, where does that leave older workers who are especially susceptible to the ageist stereotype that the older you are, the fewer tech skills you have and are capable of learning?Karen Fleshman, CEO of a workshop-facilitation company in the Bay Area (Photo courtesy of Karen Fleshman; featured photo by Gorodenkoff/iStock by Getty Images)  In some cases, Gen Zers and Millennials do outperform their older peers when it comes to tech. There’s data to support this. In 2021, the Urban Institute found that, generally, adults aged 50 and older have fewer digital skills than those under age 50, though the gap is not particularly wide. Simple exposure is likely to blame. If Gen Xers wrote their term papers at terminals in the university computer lab, Gen Zers dictated theirs to a phone that autocorrected their spelling and generated perfect MLA citations. “People say, ‘I want to hire digital natives because they’re more adaptable and more skilled with tech,’ but I’ve never seen any empirical evidence that that’s true,” said Paul Leonardi, a professor of technology management at UC-Santa Barbara and co-author of The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI. Yet in some cases, older workers aren’t given the opportunity to learn new tech skills because it’s assumed they either don’t want to or aren’t capable.  With the quantity and variety of technology available to the average consumer growing relentlessly, it’s becoming harder for anyone to be a true expert on the innumerable choices at hand. “So many of these technologies are new for everyone, not just the older folks in the workforce,” said Loren Blandon, the global head of learning and development for advertising agency VMLY&R. “We’re all on this learning curve together, so from that perspective, there’s an even playing field.”If more seasoned workers express resistance to new tools, it’s not on stubborn principle, but because they’ve seen tech trends before, said Heather Tinsley-Fix, a senior advisor at AARP, which offers a multigenerational skill-building platform. How many promising new ideas have been adopted only for them to be made obsolete or replaced just as quickly? “Whereas a younger worker who’s 20 years old, this might be their first or second change of processor platform,” Tinsley-Fix observed.Older workers pump the brakes out of judicious caution while “young workers charging ahead, and it looks like younger workers are better at this,” said Leonardi.The distorted notion that older workers look unkindly at change can do a lot of damage to a well-developed career. According to the study, hiring managers said that reluctance to learn new technologies is the No. 1 characteristic most likely to limit the success of job seekers 45 and older. No. 2 is the inability to learn new skills. In addition, hiring managers tend to think of workers under age 45 as being more “application-ready,” that they have more relevant experience and are a better culture fit.But those same managers fail to support their own beliefs. The same survey found that when asked about overall performance, 87% of hiring managers said that their older workers perform as well or better than their younger peers.Given the penalties for being “old” in the workplace, mid- and late-career workers worry about looking like the stereotype. “There’s this internalized ageism, where they’re afraid that they’re going to be perceived as slow and not able to do it better or fast enough,” said Tinsley-Fix. “If I don’t know how to do something on, say, LinkedIn, I will go to someone and ask them to teach me, but I will never admit it openly because I’m mid-career, and I don’t want people to know that I don’t know.”Kyra Sutton, who teaches at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, said the ability to use or learn new skills isn’t usually what divides the generations, it’s the format. Sutton is currently surveying her students about their learning preferences, and the unofficial results indicate that “those under 25 prefer mechanisms like TikTok and YouTube. People that are 45 and older still want technology, but they want it consumed in a different way. TED Talks or podcasts are very popular among that group.” Blandon at VMLY&R flagged something similar. “I think learning styles are more personality-based than age-based, but if I had to say where age differences emerge, it would be in attention span. For our entry-level folks, we need to come at them with short-form video.”Leonardi notes that motivation can also vary across generations. Older workers, he’s found, have less patience for learning things they aren’t interested in. Employers may be wise to have senior team members take on new tech that corresponds to a totally new skill they’re interested in learning. “Let your older workers surprise you,” Leonardi said. “Give them the opportunity to use a new tool not for the sake of using a new tool, but to expand their own knowledge, and they will have the motivation.”For many, interest is self-generated. “There have been times in this when I’ve become incredibly frustrated,” said Fleshman, the Bay Area entrepreneur. The video tools she’s teaching herself don’t integrate with each other, and the standards for video production are exceedingly high. “Because we have all these tools at our disposal, the standards of what things should look and feel like are so high. And then it’s me and my laptop.”Why, then, didn’t she just hire out the work? Wouldn’t it be easier to write the content herself and hire experts to do the video production? Because it’s new, she said. It could land her this new client, and now she’s considering recording other sessions and gating them behind a paywall. “I wanted to develop a new skill, and I wanted to see what these different things are capable of doing. I’m doing this on contract for another company, but I can apply this to my own. I’m excited about that possibility.” Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Quartz at Work, Fast Company, Digiday’s Worklife, and Food Technology, among others.   

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | July 26, 2023