Guest Post by Karen Matterson
As we mark the anniversary of last year’s most poignant and pivotal event, the egregious murder of George Floyd, I honor his memory by reflecting on the “awakening” that ensued. While many found themselves sequestered in a pandemic lock down, the haunting prime time images provoked reactions that inspired action. Some took to the streets, despite the risks, to protest peacefully for change. The corporate sector also responded with several companies committing to real change by implementing initiatives to address systemic inequities. For many businesses, DEI was already embedded in the strategic ideals.
This searing event, however, seemed to provide the needed momentum to move beyond trendy jargon to actual policy change.
A few days after this tragedy, my likeness was cast in its respective ZOOM square along with my executive level colleagues as we gathered for a meeting. My body was there but my mind was struggling to join me. My usual sunny disposition was shrouded in a dark countenance, unable to rise above the profound pain. As a mother of two smart young black men, wife to a loving black husband and daughter of a proud black father, I could not shake the image of some irrevocable injustice being hurled at them, simply because of their brown skin. My cohorts were engaged in lively casual pre-meeting chatter: weekend reviews, dinner plans and virtual party planning. There was no mention of the weighty event that endlessly consumed all media feeds.
As the only BIPOC seated at the table, there was no check in on how I was feeling. Maybe no one felt brave enough to launch a discussion. Usually confident and rarely lost for words, I could not find my voice. It was as if the sadness had stolen my speech. I eagerly pressed the red exit button as the meeting ended.
Within a couple of hours, my moroseness transitioned to agitation. I had to do something, say something. I reached out to some of my colleagues to share how I was feeling. I expressed my disappointment that we had not taken that opportune time to broach what this shattering event signified for us individually. Could this serve as a catalyst to allow us to reflect deeper on our own biases, attitudes and behavioral influences? More so, what would we do as a leadership team to address the concerns of our employees? How could we take this unprecedented moment in time to re-evaluate and accelerate our DEI plans within our community of employees, strategic partners and clients? This is when I realized that for some there was a detachment, a lack of empathy, an almost indifference to the issues marginalized communities face that compels the need for DEI strategy and actions.
Many in corporate leadership can spout off the compelling reasons for DEI, thanks to the numerous educational resources: diverse talent creates diverse ideas and innovations, helps to attract and retain that talent, increases productivity, enhances corporate brand, leads to better understanding of diverse customer bases and improves earnings potential.
If a company is truly vested in achieving the benefits of DEI, it must permeate the culture like vigorous cellular DNA. It starts with passionate and committed leadership and is supported by inclusive and engaged employees throughout the organization. Can this be achieved without Empathy? Just as the lack of empathy has perpetuated racial inequities, it will also impede the DEI quest. It has been proven through several studies that although some are innately born with it, Empathy can be taught. The capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their perspective can become a learned skill. In 2017, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, Tim Cook, Apple CEO, addressed the MIT graduating class and underscored the important role empathy will play in building their careers. At that time, only 20% of US employers offered Empathy training. Current statistics remain similar. I am convinced that in order to achieve transformational success as a diverse, equitable and inclusive organization, empathy skills training should be employed as a requisite tool. Otherwise, DEI could become another low priority, check off the boxes, trendy initiative that does not yield vital and sustainable change.