'Corporate culture had to go home': how the pandemic, protests could drive accountability in the workplace

Hattie Hill has more than 30 years of experience in workplace diversity strategy and is currently president and CEO of the T.D. Jakes Foundation.
T.D. Jakes Foundation

Hattie Hill has more than 30 years of experience developing global diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategies for corporations, nonprofit organizations and foundations, including IBM, Southwest Airlines and McDonald's. In recent years working with Women's Foodservice Forum, she partnered with Mckinsey to launch research projects about women's leadership in the food industry, which called for developing strategies and measuring progress to reach gender parity in the space.

Last year, she became the president and CEO of T.D. Jakes Foundation with a mission to improve education, workforce preparedness and job training for underserved communities.

With the perspective of her decades-long career, Hill says recent protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd and calls for action to dismantle systemic racism are spilling into the workplace in ways she's never seen before.

She tells CNBC Make It the coronavirus pandemic played a major role, as its upheaval of work and life changed the traditional contract between employers and their employees.

"You had this disruption to corporate culture — corporate culture had to go home," Hill explains. With the majority of U.S. professionals sent to work from home to prevent the spread of the virus, employees suddenly had more power in determining how work would get done. Leaders opened lines of communication to understand the new needs of their employees juggling work with household responsibilities, child-care needs, health-care matters and an entirely new way of living during a pandemic.

In order to keep company culture alive and maintain some semblance of morale, Hill says leaders had to demonstrate empathy in a new way: "Interestingly enough, in what are the toughest economic times for a company, people are coming together in a more human way."

So when protests erupted around the world in May and June, workers drew a direct line in expecting company leaders to take a stand on the racism it exposed in society, as well as in their workplace.

"The employees are asking them to fulfill a promise: to make the world more equitable," Hill says.

The missing accountability factor, and why things could change now

Hill is cautiously optimistic recent events could spark lasting change, particularly in her line of work. For 30-plus years, she's generally seen her DEI work isolated to a singular team, department or consulting group within an organization. Now, employees are recognizing that equity work needs to be an imperative across departments at all levels.

But for meaningful movement, Hill says leaders still need to do one major thing to meet their employees' expectations.

"I believe so many companies came out and said, 'OK, I'm pledging this money,' and that's great," Hill says. "But the next thing employees look for is: Are you an empathetic leader? Are you welcome to change? Are you willing to help company re-imagine itself?"

This accountability factor is an area where many companies falter, Hill says.

The next thing employees look for is: Are you an empathetic leader? Are you welcome to change? Are you willing to help company re-imagine itself?
Hattie Hill
President and CEO, T.D. Jakes Foundation

She approaches improving an organization's diversity, equity and inclusion through a three-step process. The first involves an assessment to identify where inequities lie and the barriers in place that cause them.

"What we're telling companies to do is start with their board of directors," Hill says. "They should be thinking, who is my consumer base? Do I reflect that in my board?" From there, organizations should take a look at whether C-suite executives, managers and then employees match the demographic makeup of the people they serve.

For companies responding to the urgency of the moment, Hill cautions that they need to follow assessments with strategic training and development to support people to encourage equity at the ground level. Training should address issues that are both immediate — like identifying and rectifying microaggressions in the workplace — as well as long-term, such as manager training to hire, develop and promote workers of diverse backgrounds.

The youngest-ever female trader on how companies can promote diversity on Wall Street
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The final and often under-addressed step is measuring goals and keeping leaders accountable to reaching them.

"Some people will do the assessment but not put a strategy in place," Hill says. "Some people will do that but never measure its impact. So at the end of the day, you're left wondering, 'Will we really accomplish any goals?'"

Measuring outcomes and holding leaders accountable to them is an ongoing process, and Hill says employees should feel empowered, sparked by current social movements, to make sure leaders revisit their goals and reconfigure strategies when they fall short.

Of course, only so much can be done in the workplace when systemic racism is built into social institutions including health care, housing, education and more. But Hill says the current moment, with many more people attuned to how they can make a difference in their day-to-day lives, could result in employees re-imagining how their employer plays a role in meaningful social change.

"I think what DEI did was start to address, for women and people of color, some of the systemic things in our culture that keep you from being successful. That process started years ago, but it did not move to the place of being a permanent change.

"The ladder is long," Hill says, "and we've come up and moved backward in some ways, or we've come up and stayed put. This time, there seems to be a concerted effort to move forward."

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