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How to build a more human workplace

Members of the Fast Company Impact Council convened to discuss companies’ renewed commitment to inclusion amid a racial reckoning.

How to build a more human workplace
[Source images: Lyubov Ivanova/iStock; freestocks/Unsplash]

This article is part of the New New Rules of Business.

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Back in June, the Fast Company Impact Council—a diverse, invitation-only group of founders, executives, and creatives from across industries—came together to share their insights. In a series of breakout sessions moderated by Fast Company editors, members discussed how they are navigating a global pandemic, economic recession, and calls for equity and social justice amid a racial reckoning.

In this roundtable discussion, led by staff editor Julia Herbst, leaders championing equity and inclusion gathered to talk about cultivating a more human workplace and prioritizing a renewed commitment to diversity. The participants in the session included Edith Cooper, founder of Medley and former global head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs; Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global; Leighanne Levensaler, EVP of corporate strategy at Workday and managing director at Workday Ventures; Tony Prophet, chief equality and recruiting officer at Salesforce; and Jeff Titterton, CMO at Zendesk. This excerpt from their conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

Arianna Huffington: There are some fundamental problems in the way we work and live that have allowed us to ignore the warning signs, both about systemic racial injustice, but also about the two crises that were predating the pandemic: the skyrocketing increase in chronic diseases and mental health problems and the growing inequalities. All these three perfect storms are connected, and they have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

There’s been a lot of emphasis since the murder of George Floyd on listen, stop, pause, reflect, be empathetic. Well, all that stuff is what goes out the window when we’re exhausted, depleted, and burned out. So I’m really eager to use this moment as a crucible moment. It’s a moment of trial and a moment of huge losses, but big changes don’t happen without a catalyst. There’s too much inertia. So now we have an opportunity to use this moment to really change the world of work. We must measure and improve our human capital in companies with the same intensity as we measure our financial resources. We have all been paying lip service to putting people first and bring your whole self to work, but really we haven’t been doing it.

Edith Cooper: The one thing that I would say is almost a game changer of potential is that leaders are expected to be human beings. Tony, we first met [when] you came and spoke at a Goldman Sachs conference. It was for innovators and builders, and we were there to really start to get people to think about diversity. It was also [after] the most recent killing of Black men, and I tried to get our leaders to come out and talk about race in a very, very public way. And it was very uncomfortable. I’m not saying that disparagingly against leaders at Goldman Sachs; at the time, I was one of the leaders of the firm. It’s only to suggest that the comfort level that we needed to have the conversations and the dialogue was just not there.

What’s different now is if you look at the statements that are coming out of CEOs around the world, it’s all about being direct. “We do not support the killing of innocent Black people.” “We are anti-racist.” “We believe that in order to be great, we’ve got to create an environment where everyone can perform to their potential, and we’re going to put our personal [credos], our platforms, and our money behind it.” But fueling all of this is this real instinct or let’s just say, greater awareness that leaders have to really project a sense of responsibility and commitment to humanity. It’s no longer going to be good enough to just drive to the bottom line.

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Jeff Titterton: I have to admit I actually have a lot of fear that we are not going to make progress. I have that fear because I’ve been around the block enough and been in America my whole life; I’ve been in tech my whole career. We’ve seen some gross inequities within the industry, and I see a lot of lip service paid to change. I have some fear that what’s going to happen is there’s going to be a lot of comments and a lot of ‘Oh yeah, we really care about the world,’ and then we will go back to our lives. So I’m really interested in: Can leaders, CEOs, and C-suite people actually commit to change? I’m hoping we can continue this moment. If we all invest and say, “Let’s actually take OKRs around this [and] measure our results and report back publicly over and over again until we get it right,” I think we can make some change.

Tony Prophet: I actually feel more hopeful than I have maybe at any point in my life. I’m old enough to remember the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and that moment in history—the Civil Rights Act and folks getting the right to vote. I really feel like this is the moment we’ve been waiting for. I don’t feel fearful that the moment is going to be wasted; I honestly believe that this time is different.

And to the broader question [of] what it takes as leaders: It’s like any business imperative. You have to be data-driven. You have to set targets, and you have to put resources against it. You have to measure these things to be transparent on a regular cadence—and that’s the way you would drive forward any business initiative.

Edith Cooper: I would agree with your optimism, Tony, and not because I haven’t done the due diligence to know better. It’s because if I think back 30 years ago, I am certain that you and I wouldn’t be sitting on this call.

I’d say that it’s really important for us to hold ourselves accountable to data, but also not to ignore the other things that create environments where certain people excel and others don’t. One of the real positives of this energy and angst and gut-wrenching dialogue has been that people are paying more attention to Black people. And one of the things I’ve heard throughout my career is that people feel invisible because they’re not in the same lane as the majority. Well, now they find themselves sitting in conversations talking about the experience of being Black and what the company should do. I think it’s incredibly positive.

What’s really going to be important is that we take these opportunities from conversation to actually being intentional, to continue these commitments going forward. If you’ve not met these people before, and now you felt like you bonded, circle back in a month and talk to them about what they’re doing with their job. Talk to them about their professional aspirations. And when you go to your next Zoom call—we’re all going to calls [with] other like-minded senior people—look around. If it’s all people that are exactly like you, ask yourself the question: “Why is that? And what can I do intentionally to make this an inclusive conversation, so that I can continue to broaden my perspective?”

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Leighanne Levensaler: There is no quick fix. We need to make steady progress. But part of that work to be done is to inspect and evaluate every single talent practice and every single workplace practice. Whether it’s pay equity or career mobility, or how people get promoted [and] connect to learning experiences, we have created systemic racism throughout our human capital practices. We need to inspect all those practices to ensure there’s equity [and] fairness in the process—that we can signal on skills, instead of pedigree or who you know.

I think about it, and in order to work with the federal government, you have to do a ton of work to be FedRAMP-certified, and that includes inspecting all your processes for different reasons. Why can’t we do the same amount of work to ensure that all of our colleagues have a fair shake? We explore all our practices to do business in certain sectors. Let’s explore all our practices from a place of humanity and inclusion.

Jeff Titterton: What do you all feel about unconscious bias and rooting that out? I think one of the things I’ve heard from my Black colleagues a lot is less around the overt racism and a lot more around the death by a thousand cuts—I get left out of this meeting, I get left off that promotional schedule—that is really hurting their careers and their ability to join leadership.

Arianna Huffington: We need the big picture. But as Jeff said, very often the battle is lost in the human interactions. And I feel very strongly that we need to put the humanity of every employee and every employer at the center of this. What is kind of promising now is that we have data. There is a clear connection between our levels of stress and anxiety and our productivity, and even employers who don’t care about their employees care about performance and the bottom line.

[At Thrive, we’re] focusing on that resilience and building what we’re calling a mental resilience dashboard. You can see when someone is burnt out and stressed, and you can have all the predictive analytics of how it’s going to affect performance and work results. But it starts with our humanity, and we’ve never before brought together the human layer with the data layer. And ultimately, to Jeff’s point about unconscious bias, you need to have all the policies [and] all the structures, but you also need to change hearts. Why [do we have] this whole emphasis on learning and listening and studying and reflecting? Because we feel that’s going to have a real impact on how we show up for others.

Edith Cooper: What unconscious bias basically says—and this is a very watered-down, simplistic view—is that everyone has preconceived notions based upon the environments that we’ve lived in and the societies and perspectives that are ingrained in our brain cells. And what unconscious bias training and development does is start to unpack that.

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[At Goldman Sachs], we took the entire firm through it over a two- or three-year period. The one thing I would suggest is that there still needs to be a follow-up with respect to specific things that people should do to change their behavior. Because if you get it, you’re already incorporating it; you’re looking at your team differently or making sure that everyone’s included in the conversation. If you don’t [get it], you desperately want to know: “What am I supposed to do differently?” And so you’ve got to not only have these big, broad conversations but then follow up. We called them booster shots. You can call them whatever you want—you just have to do it.

Tony Prophet: It starts with self-awareness. We all have unconscious bias; I have unconscious bias. I think everyone [should] begin by admitting it, and it’s not any single identity that we need to focus on. It’s truly on all of us. We’ve worked to have a foundation of informing people and raising awareness about these unconscious biases. Part of breaking them down is shining a light on them and becoming aware of them. But then what does it practically mean? We have a couple of training modules [at Salesforce]—one that was preexisting, on inclusive hiring—to inform people of how bias creeps into the hiring process. The second one we just launched last week [is] about inclusive promotions: How do biases creep into the promotion process? Rather than the broad concept of exposing and acknowledging your own unconscious biases, what does it really mean in action? Shortly before this moment, we embarked on a journey to have a third party come in and to look at the entire process all the way from hiring, to professional development, to promotions, to pay.

This is really a moment where we have to strive for unity. You see the divisiveness in so many platforms across the world, in real life and online and in social media. And those sorts of things when they seep into any institution are a cancer. And so it’s critical as we go through this, that we do it in a way we’re trying to strive for unity to bring people who aren’t as far along in the journey, to bring them along as allies and to do it in a nonpartisan way, and then to do it with humility. Part of humility and transparency for Salesforce is that we put our data out there—and it’s certainly not because we think we’re anywhere close to the finish line.


Read more insights on the New New Rules of Business from Fast Company’s Impact Council members here:


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