So your company denounced racism. Now what?

When large corporations issued public statements last summer condemning racism and committing themselves to advancing racial justice in response to George Floyd’s murder, the PR strategy drew mixed responses. 

Some consumers appreciated the affirmation of those values from their favorite brands; others questioned whether corporate pledges were authentic or politically expedient. It’s one thing to post a statement or send a tweet; it’s an entirely other undertaking to examine biases and cultivate a culture of inclusion.  

Locally, many businesses – including some of Milwaukee’s largest employers – joined the chorus of companies making public commitments to fight the region’s deep-seated racial problems.

Following through on those promises has looked different for each company. In interviews with BizTimes, a half-dozen employers shared their experience of taking steps to chip away at what some consider Milwaukee’s intractable racial inequities. Many said that process has looked like opening up discussions around race in the workplace, giving their diversity and inclusion teams more room to influence company strategy, investing in employee affinity groups and increasing accountability measures for their companies to meet DEI targets.  

Earlier this year, Bobby Griffin joined Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation in the newly created position of chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. When the national discussions last summer around race entered the corporate sphere, many businesses launched new initiatives from scratch; that wasn’t the case for Rockwell, which was at that point more than a decade into a concerted effort to build an inclusive culture, Griffin said.  

“This wasn’t a new space for us,” Griffin said. “So, we didn’t have to scramble and pull something together and think about where to go from here?”  

But the national crisis did highlight how slowly racial wealth and opportunity gaps are narrowing – and in some cases are actually widening. So, Rockwell leaders began asking how they could grow the scope and scale of the DEI work that was already underway.  

Griffin’s addition to the executive leadership is part of that strategy. Rockwell is among a growing number of companies that have chosen in the past year to embed a DEI leader in their executive leadership team; advocates say it allows those values to be championed at the very top of the organization.  

“It should be leadership-owned,” Griffin said, of DEI. “And having someone at the table to help leaders understand how exactly to integrate that is important.”  

Over the past year, Rockwell has set targets related to diverse representation at all levels of the organization, and those goals are tied to executive compensation. It turned to its employee resource groups to help develop its objectives. (The company in 2019 signed the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce’s Region of Choice pledge to increase African-American and Hispanic representation among its employees and managers over the next five years.) 

For many employers, the national reckoning around race revealed blind spots within their organizations.  

YWCA Southeast Wisconsin has seen a surge in demand for its workplace consulting and workshops over the past year, with requests coming from corporations, higher education institutions, health care organizations and individuals. 

“It’s exploded. It’s absolutely exploded. … I can’t even quantify the pace of requests for support last summer,” said chief executive officer Ginny Finn. 

The spike in demand prompted YWCA to add more offerings of its signature class, “Unlearning Racism: Tools for Action,” and add a new class called “Conversations on Race.” Beyond offering classes, Finn noted the majority of YWCA’s work is done behind-the-scenes, coaching and consulting employers on difficult issues related to their culture and biases.  

Trainings, consultations and internal conversations are good, but, Finn said, it’s important for employers to put into place accountability measures that ensure they are making progress toward what they have committed to publicly.  

“I don’t think anyone should be ashamed that progress takes time,” Finn said. “But if you’re going to be transparent enough to make a statement, you should be transparent enough to make your progress reports available to the public. Otherwise, that’s just grandstanding.” 

Often, employers with good intentions discover the process of developing a diverse and inclusive company culture is not linear.  

“This is really about change; and the same change they would bring to any business process – the thoughtfulness, the consistency, the willingness to check their assumptions and see how they’re doing – that’s really important,” Finn said. 

For Sussex-based Quad/Graphics, last summer prompted a period of self-reflection among its leaders. Joel Quadracci, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Quad, said he came to realize the company’s incremental efforts to boost diversity and inclusion wouldn’t be enough if it didn’t take a more holistic approach.  

“I’ve been frustrated over time at our lack of success at attracting and retaining people from the Black community in Milwaukee,” he said. “When you do self-assessment, you say ‘Why is that?’ And it’s, well, first of all, the commute is really hard, coming out to these plants. And secondly, you walk into these (plants), it’s a million square feet, and everyone’s white. It’s not inviting. It’s scary.” 

The first issue – a lack of reliable public transportation service between Milwaukee and Waukesha counties – is a longstanding challenge for the company. But the second issue – creating a welcoming environment for people of color – has become an area of focus this past year, Quadracci said. 

That has looked like the company investing in diverse business resource groups and Quadracci taking an active role in communicating with them. He’s aiming for honesty, he said. 

“That was one of my initial asks: ‘this is not just a feel-good group,’” he said. “It also has to advise me on not just policy but also approach and everything around it.’” 

Particularly for professionals of older generations, the trend of employers hosting conversations in response to the racial unrest of 2020 has flown in the face of cultural mores that discourage discussions of race, religion and politics in the workplace.  

“These are the types of conversations that, in the past in most organizations, weren’t encouraged,” said Griffin. “… But the line between things that are happening both inside and outside the organization has, for any company, blurred these days. Organizations have come to the realization that – to the extent that these issues impact employees, employees bring them to work – these conversations need to be had, but people don’t know how to have them.”  

Advocate Aurora Health last year began hosting “Real Talk” conversations – virtual, small-group meetings for employees to discuss how they were coping with Floyd’s murder, the protests and the global pandemic. Two of the Milwaukee- and Downers Grove, Illinois-based health system’s markets – Kenosha and Wauwatosa – saw significant civil unrest in their communities last summer.

Over 2,000 Advocate Aurora employees participated in the conversation series. 

“It was facilitated conversations, a place where people could share their feelings, from all sides of the spectrum,” said Cristy Garcia-Thomas, chief external affairs officer. “It was a place where trust and listening and seeking first to understand was front and center. At the end of the day, people bring their whole self to work. They’re bringing the issues of what’s happening in our society and our world, and they needed a place to have a conversation about that.”

Advocate Aurora also launched inclusion councils, representing about 500 employees, who serve as the “eyes and ears” of their local communities and ultimately help drive the system’s diversity, equity and inclusion strategy in those markets, Garcia-Thomas said. The co-chairs of those local councils sit on the system’s inclusion council, which is co-led by CEO Jim Skogsbergh and Garcia-Thomas. 

Quad has tried to shift the tenor of discussions about inclusion in the workplace, from conversations that leave white people feeling defensive to instead focusing on how they can be allies to Black coworkers, Quadracci said. 

“That has been really well received because it does take that whole emotional aspect out of it,” he said.  

While there are strategies to mitigate discomfort, DEI leaders say imperfect and sometimes awkward conversations should be embraced if they bring to light issues that have long been experienced by many in the workforce but until recently have not been addressed publicly.  

“The good thing about the statements and other public conversation is that we – and we, in particular, being white people – are getting more comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Finn said. 

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