Seeing the people who aren’t there.

I’m old enough to remember leaders who felt totally justified in dismissing discrimination and other vital social issues as, “not my job.” There was a sense not only of entitlement but actual indignation that these “bleeding-heart” issues should be raised in a business context.

The history of American business is rife with union-busting confrontation, blatant discrimination against women, and outrageous acts of violence directed against people of color. Gay rights and non-binary gender identity issues weren’t even mentioned, except in derogatory epithets. The 1960s brought federally-mandated Affirmative Action programs, but too many businesses saw this as an exercise in checking the box on quota compliance. Few of the people in charge understood that investing in diversity was both a socially and fiscally responsible action.

Perhaps more troubling is the simple fact that none of them saw themselves as acting in a discriminatory way. We can surmise that it’s because, while they treated “everyone” equally  —“everyone” they saw in the board room and executive parking spots looked a lot like them. And thought like them.  And sent their kids to the same alma maters. They were blissfully unaware of all the people who were missing from their field of vision.

Recently, I’ve noticed an increasing number of articles about Employee Resource Groups (ERG) and other corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. This is encouraging, because it signals a sea change in how businesses are thinking about personal, corporate, and social responsibility. Hopefully, we are seeing a new era in which all business leaders make it a priority to remove barriers to equity and inclusion — especially rooting out unconscious bias in the system. Frankly, our stakeholders are insisting on it.

This is where the insights of ERG members are especially valuable. Our people represented by these groups are keenly aware of discrimination, stereotyping, and other forms of marginalization based on personal experience. They can help us expose and address issues that might otherwise be ignored or tolerated. About a year ago, Freeman launched our IDEA initiative — making inclusion, diversity, equity, and action a priority. The first action item was to learn what was important to our people — what kinds of resources and initiatives THEY needed. So before we formalized anything, we conducted a thorough survey. And I’m pleased to say that, as a direct result of employee feedback, we are launching unconscious-bias training, which will be rolled out to the entire organization by the end of the year.  This addresses the fundamental problem of not seeing the problem.

We also established employee-led ERGs, or in our organization, Freeman Interest Groups (FIGs). Technically, the first of our ERGs formed over 10 years ago — our Freeman Women’s Development group. Today, employee-led groups focus on the topics our people told us they were most interested in: Black History Month, Pride, and Parenting. It’s encouraging that these groups supported each other during the darkest days of the pandemic, and are now focused on the future.

With June being Pride Month, our FIG group has focused on creating communications resources that illuminate the inspirational history of LGBTQ+ activism and a vision for the future. Our Pride FIG is also sharing deeply personal stories with the larger Freeman community as a way of bringing everyone into the experience and fostering understanding and solidarity.  

The effort to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion in any organization requires ongoing vigilance and — here’s the operative word — action. It took ten years of committed work for Freeman to make the Forbes list of America’s Best Employers for Women, and no one is hanging up the “Mission Accomplished” banner yet. But I am confident that progress with our Pride group and other FIGs will accelerate more rapidly because of what we’ve learned.

This Pride Month, I hope we all feel empowered to speak up for marginalized persons and take time to understand their priorities for today and their vision for the future. As members of a FIG or as allies, we can champion their cause and add the strength of our voices to theirs. This is how we accelerate progress. Social progress. Fiscal progress. Sustainable progress. That’s everybody’s job.

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