June 25, 2020
US Chairman and Senior Partner PwC and Founder, CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion
Senior Vice President of Strategic Alliances and Outreach, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Over the past few years, the U.S. has been engaging in difficult discussions regarding systemic racism, inequality, police brutality, and more. It’s no surprise that talking about race is uncomfortable for many, eliciting emotions ranging from fear to guilt, but that shouldn’t stop others from speaking up.
Good leaders put their emotions aside to open up conversations around important topics like race. For everyone to feel safe and supported in the workplace, they must first be heard and validated.
Leaders Must Encourage Uncomfortable Conversations
In the summer of 2016, after the police shootings in Dallas sparked controversy around the nation, many people started having real conversations about race. At the time, Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman and senior partner of PwC, as well as founder and CEO of Action for Diversity & Inclusion, realized his team was hesitant to speak on the matter.
“Despite being very progressive on diversity and moving the needle, our people … weren’t comfortable talking about what was happening in our country.”
However, that didn’t stop him from pursuing the necessary conversation. While many considered it a “risky” and “bold” move, Ryan decided to shut down the firm for a day in July of 2016 so employees could gather in small groups and open up discussions about race.
“We learned more on that one day than we have learned in our 160-year history,” he said, noting how important it is to start these conversations and continue having them — even when it’s uncomfortable.
“We learned what it was like to be the mother of a Black young man and [teach] him how to be pulled over the right way,” Ryan said. “We learned that some of our own Black professionals carried a PwC business card with them in the event they were pulled over so they could show they afforded the car. We learned that some of our employees didn't feel safe in our offices because of the way people looked at them when they were walking out to go to a softball game in Central Park.”
Personal anecdotes like this can help others better understand the effects of racism, whether blatant or unconscious. Especially in the workplace, where employees deserve to feel safe and supported, it’s important to have these conversations and allow underrepresented groups a voice to speak their truth.
“It’s foundational to really make sure we understand what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes,” Ryan said.