Until recently, Thomas never felt he could share his
concerns with colleagues. But now Accenture’s leaders
are encouraging employees to discuss sensitive topics
such as racial or religious discrimination—subjects once
considered taboo in the workplace.
Julie Sweet, group CEO of Accenture North America,
and Ellyn Shook, chief leadership and human resources
officer, kicked off the discussions with a town hall-style
webcast called Building Bridges in 2016. That spawned
smaller sessions in various regions, including one in New
York that Thomas facilitated.
“It was definitely refreshing to see at the highest
level the senior leadership sponsoring a conversation
about this,” Thomas says. “Once it happened, I felt
With Americans more divided than ever on racial and
religious issues, a growing number of corporate lead-
ers are recognizing that societal tension and discrimina-
tion can have a significant negative impact on employees
when they’re at work.
Accenture is one of more than 300 companies whose
CEOs are coming together to create ways for workers
to feel more comfortable sharing their personal experiences—and to gain a greater awareness of others’ perspectives. By encouraging employees to have difficult
conversations, they hope to build trust and encourage
compassion so that all workers feel more included. The
companies are sharing their ideas and practices through
the website CEOAction.com.
“We truly have an unwavering belief that our diver-
sity makes us smarter and more innovative,” Shook says.
“So, taking a very broad view of diversity is a very impor-
tant business issue for us.”
U.S. corporate leaders have recognized for years
now that changing demographics make it necessary
to expand their markets. By 2044, more than half of
Americans are projected to belong to a group other
than non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Cen-
“What we’ve seen in our company is that when we
create an environment where all people feel like they
belong, you truly start to see people flourish and perfor-
mance both at the individual and the organization level
also flourish,” Shook says.
Thomas’ earlier belief that he couldn’t share his true feelings at work is hardly unique. About 78 percent of black
business professionals say they’ve personally experienced discrimination outside of work or fear that they or
their loved ones will. Yet 2 out of 3 surveyed report being
uncomfortable discussing race relations at work—and
4 out of 10 black employees say it is never acceptable at
their company to speak about experiences of racial bias,
according to a report by the Center for Talent Innovation
released in June 2017.
That silence can be devastating. Those black professionals who can’t share their life experiences at work are
more likely to feel isolated—and are almost three times
more likely than those in other racial and ethnic groups
to intend to leave their employer within one year, says
Laura Sherbin, co-president at the New York City-based
think tank focused on global talent strategies.
“You certainly don’t forget about the safety and
the security of your family during the hours of 9 to 5,”
In addition, avoiding the issue creates another layer
of difference between the employee and his or her colleagues. “If the emotionally painful incident is top of
mind for you, and the CEO doesn’t so much as mention
it, … it means they don’t value you, your family and what
is critically important to you,” Sherbin says.
Even if someone else raises the issue of racial discrimi-
nation, many black employees don’t feel free to openly
express themselves. “They still feel they have to edit
themselves,” she says. “If they’re editing this, they are
also editing other aspects of themselves, including their
contributions to work.”
Studies have shown that companies with greater
racial, ethnic and gender diversity perform better
ike many black parents, Rah Thomas goes to work each day worried about
whether his 13-year-old son is safe. The highly publicized police shootings
of several unarmed black men over the past two years weigh heavily on
Although he has taught his son how to respond if stopped by police, he
recognizes that something could go wrong.
“These things are going on in society, and then you have to brush it off and go to work,”
says Thomas, 36, who is a managing director at Accenture’s Operations business in the
New York City area. Unlike his white colleagues, he says, “I don’t have the luxury of just
shutting it off.”