There’s been a major shift in boardrooms lately: The topics of social justice and equality have dominated the discussion, said Michael C. Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work and a Workday board member.
Bush had joined Workday Co-Founder and CEO, Aneel Bhusri, and Workday Chief People Officer, Ashley Goldsmith, for the June 17 webinar, “Coming Together on the Path to Equality.”
After speaking with about 150 CEOs recently, Bush shared that all wanted to discuss how to lead during a time when so many employees are struggling with their mental well-being—a challenge that started with COVID-19 and intensified following the recent acts of violence committed against members of the Black community in the United States.
“CEOs want to help their people. And they know that by helping their people, they're going to make sure their organization is fulfilling its purpose in society,” he said.
In conversations with other HR leaders, Goldsmith said there’s a sense of urgency to ensure that everyone within their companies feels a sense of belonging, and to accelerate efforts to make their workforces more diverse. “CHROs are saying they’re not willing to tolerate the status quo any longer—they’re willing to take bold moves that are going to move us to a future that’s different from the present.”
In his opening remarks, Bhusri said Workday will always stand for what is right—inclusion, equality, and justice. “At times like this we feel it’s especially important to talk,” Bhusri said. “And as we all know, 2020 has been a truly unprecedented year. As leaders in business, we have a responsibility to use business influence as a force for change and a force for good.”
The panelists shared their ideas and suggestions on how to do that, with a focus on three areas: Start conversations across your organization, listen and learn from others, and take steps to drive measurable change.
It may not come naturally for business leaders to spark conversations about how people are feeling. Yet in order to help one another heal and find ways to drive change, that has to happen. “That’s where it begins—us communicating with each other—human to human,” said Bush.
In a recent blog, Bush shared how the video of George Floyd’s death impacted him personally and as a Black parent. He noted many people have experienced sadness, anxiousness, anger, frustration, and helplessness due to the pandemic, and those feelings intensified after the video emerged.
“All these feelings created something different—the need to start having conversations and connect with people, and not talk about deliverables, not whether they’re going to release a product on time, but instead, what was going on in their households,” said Bush.
One way business leaders are starting those conversations is to bring their workforces together in online town halls. Yet it’s critical that town halls don’t become one-way conversations where executives do most of the talking. Instead, invite others to speak candidly and share their perspectives, such as representatives of employee resource groups. “Those groups have a voice and have become a key source of support within a company,” Bush said.
A town hall where difficult topics are discussed with candor can be uncomfortable and involve people saying things imperfectly, including leaders. But that’s OK, according to Bush. “You've got to be a real person now, because these are things that real people are going through,” he said. “Saying something imperfectly is better than saying nothing at all. If you have a high-trust culture, people will certainly accept that. And if you don't have a high-trust culture, this is the beginning—being a real person.”
Goldsmith agreed. “Talking about race is something I think most of us feel is not the most comfortable discussion, and leaders are not exempt from that. But we have to have these conversations; our people need to see us trying even if we’re not perfect. So let’s get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Bhusri discussed an online town hall Workday hosted on June 5, where several employees shared their feelings and experiences with racial injustice.
“What I heard from a lot of our Black employees is they’re not OK right now. They’re going through a lot of pain. And in the workplace, many times they feel alone,” Bhusri said. “First and foremost, you have to listen with an open heart and open mind.”