by | Sep 22, 2017 | Blog

By Dr. Tony Byers, Principal Consultant, and
Howard Ross, Founder & Principal Consultant


It’s no secret that we are living in a time of tension and even outright discord around issues of diversity and inclusion, which can have an impact on employees and organizational cultures. In some cases they occur as challenging circumstances that can impact a company’s public brand, as in the recent case of the memorandum on women in tech penned by Google employee James Damore in August. In other cases, they result from the reaction of employees to more public events, as in the march on Charlottesville and subsequent murder of a protester by a white supremacist.

Many organizations are searching for the best way to respond to these events, either to show support for impacted employees or to reassure both internal and external stakeholders as to their core values. However, sometimes their response is not met with the impact that they hoped the message would achieve. Often this has resulted in these diversity emergencies derailing organizational efforts to support diversity and inclusion.

What is the best way to handle a #DiversityEmergency? Click To Tweet


What is the best way to handle a diversity emergency? Each circumstance has its own unique qualities that warrants its own appropriate response, and there are several important things to keep in mind that can help.

First, and most importantly, act, don’t react. Often when faced with intensely emotional circumstances, there is a natural human tendency to want to act fast. However, in these circumstances there can often be unintended consequences. The best approach is to put together a strategy for dealing with the issue. This strategy should include:

1. Gather Information. Make sure you get as much information from different sources before jumping into action. In our era of bifurcated media, the story may occur vastly differently from one source than another. Be sure you are dealing with the facts! And be aware of how different parties may view the same facts. Gathering information also requires having courageous conversations, and it’s imperative that leadership is visibly involved in these courageous conversations.

2. Tap Diverse Stakeholders. Get input from diverse stakeholders so that you have a good sense of how they have been and might be impacted by the event itself and by your response. Keep in mind that one person cannot speak for a collective group, though their thoughts may help you see things differently.

3. Be Values-Driven. Your values should be a guiding light in times of stress, so make sure to look to them now. All of your communications and actions should be aligned with your values. It also helps to have a clear commitment to integrity and clarity.

4. Be Ready for the Response. Generate scenario thinking as to what possible reactions you might encounter so that, as much as possible, you are prepared for whatever impact your statement causes.

It is critical to realize that any communication, including none at all, is a message to your employees and the marketplace. Silence, in the face of major public issues, leaves both employees and the public to come up with their own interpretation of the company’s point of view. On the other hand, these instances create an opportunity for leaders to make their values and their company’s values clear.

Advice from D&I experts @HowardJRoss and @DrTonyByers on navigating a #DiversityEmergency Click To Tweet

Dr. Byer’s recent experience at Starbucks illustrates this.

After seeing students protesting across the country against racism and learning that some of the protesters were employees of Starbucks, CEO Howard Schultz had the courage to ask himself and his management team: what is our role to contribute to the conversation? And what can Starbucks do to impact the conversation on race relations within the U.S.?

In response, the Race Together campaign was born. The intent was to make an impact on how the country viewed and discussed race relationships. They outlined four key steps for the leadership of Starbucks to execute.

Gather Information & Tap Diverse Stakeholders
They emphasize the importance of genuinely understanding the perspective of others before engaging in conversation across race. They accomplished this via courageous conversations with employee resource groups (ERGs) and by learning about the experiences of the others inside and outside the organization.

Be Values Driven
At Starbucks, they valued leaders who were self-aware and sought to grow both personally and professionally. Therefore, they asked leadership to develop some awareness of their personal biases. It was important that each of them had an authentic “personal story” of their connection to race and difference. Leaders spent time reflecting on difference and their own emotional connection to their own stories of difference and discrimination.

They also crafted discussion guides, built intentional relationships with similar value-based organizations, and developed a careful and deliberate plan of execution.

Be Ready for the Response
Leadership was aware of the fact that some people would not be happy about the act of writing on coffee cups and it could have financial implications. They reflected on the role and responsibility of corporations questioning whether a company can do good and do well at the same time. The organization consciously decided to make a company values-based decision and continued with the campaign in spite of the criticism. 

Continue to Gather Information
The point is not to issue communications and campaigns and leave it at that. Starbucks’ leadership knew the company had a commitment to the process of listening over responding. The campaign expired, but the company’s commitment to listening allows it to continue to be a good partner to staff, customers, and other organizations looking to positively impact race relations in America.