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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Executives share thoughts & actions on social justice

When George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25, his death sparked outrage and protests across the United States that have continued through the summer.

Unlike earlier deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement, Floyd’s death launched nationwide soul searching and broader recognition that the United States suffers from systemic racism.

While traditionally reticent to take on controversial social issues, government contractors have not been isolated from the increased awareness and anguish over the impact racism has on society and the business world.

Executives from a spectrum of GovCon firms have shared in interviews how their companies reacted and the actions they have taken to address social justice issues at their companies. For many addressing systemic racism is both a moral obligation as well as a business imperative.

“This is not a time to be silent,” said CNSI CEO Todd Stottlemyer. “You need to speak clearly and unequivocally about social and racial justice; it’s just the right thing to do.”

Stottlemyer has been very active on his personal social media accounts talking about racial and social justice, including his view on how the U.S. cannot live up to the words in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution until the country addresses those issues. He is not alone.

“It’s an issue that kind of transcends all,” said Viraj Gandhi, CEO of Paradyme Management. “That’s why it is important for every industry to tackle it.”

When you can consider the diversity of the GovCon workforce, social and racial justice issues become personal very quickly.

“We recognize the disproportionate negative impact of recent events on our African-American colleagues and our communities -- they are significant, disheartening, and frightening,” said Leidos CEO Roger Krone.

I focused on three main questions in my interviews with executives. Why the issue is important to government contractors? What are companies doing? How do they make sure the actions will have a lasting impact?

The comments by Krone, Stottlemyer, and Gandhi on why social justice issues are important were echoed by all of the executives I spoke with.

Maximus CEO Bruce Caswell also shared that employees expected to hear from their leadership. “They want to understand what we are doing to stand with them to address these issues,” Caswell said.

Axiologic Solutions initially put out a statement supporting social justice on social media and the company website. “We had several employees reach out and say, ‘Is that all you are going to be doing?’” said Tom Stauber, a managing partner at Axiologic.

Step one for many was to simply listen and to facilitate conversations across their company. I was told these conversations should not be senior leaders talking to the company, but leaders listening.

“We spent the first couple weeks holding listening sessions with our employees to give them an opportunity to share what was on their minds,” said Michelle O’Hara, chief human resources office for Science Application International Corp.

For senior leaders to just listen can be a challenge but listening is important. “Focusing on the listening was a bit hard because your initial reaction is to want to act quickly,” O’Hara said.

“You have to understand your employees are scared, especial your African-American employees,” said Charlene Wheeless, who has run marketing and communication operations at several large companies, mostly recently for Bechtel Corp. She now is an independent consultant.

For many companies, other actions either moved forward in step with the listening sessions or quickly followed them. Companies either created new diversity and inclusions groups or bolstered existing structures. The rolex of these groups ranged from mechanisms to continue the conversations to groups that will recommend for actions companies can take.

“Don’t just say great things, but look at your practices, your policies and the unspoken practices around your paths to success,” Wheeless said.

Companies are taking several actions in light of what executives are learning via these listening sessions. These include training for employees, managers and senior leaders. In the case of SAIC, the board of directors will be taking some of the same training.

Other activities include finding ways to support employees who want to get more involved in community activities and organizations that address social justice issues. Corporate giving is also being reviewed by many companies as are relationships with historically black colleges and universities.

The concept of unconscious bias was raised by several executives and even in the short months since Floyd’s death awareness seems to be increasing. There is a need for training in that area because often well-intentioned people don’t understand how their words and behaviors are interpreted.

Like several of the companies I spoke with, SAIC is launching an education program focused on micro-aggressions, unconscious bias and racism in the workplace. The training is starting with 2,400 of SAIC leaders and managers.

“We want to create a baseline understanding of the issues because we’ve learned that everyone seems to be at a different level of understanding,” O’Hara said. The training will roll out to all employees and the board.

“We’ve hired an outside advisor to help educate and advise both management and the board,” O’Hara said. “We see this as being a shared accountability and responsibility for advancing inclusion and diversity just as there is around business and finance.”

There also is agreement among the executives that diversity is good for business.

“We have to truly live out that value statement around diversity and inclusion where people, anybody, would want to be part of my company and really believe that they do belong,” Stottlemyer said. “It's not only an imperative because it's the right thing to do. I also think it's very good for my business.”

O’Hara points to research that has shown diversity fosters creativity and innovation. But along with diversity, inclusion is critical. “People really need to be given an opportunity to be heard, to participate and to have opportunities,” she said.

That is one of the lessons from the conversations on race that the companies have started. “We have to ensure that we are creating an environment where employees feel that they can voice concerns about hard topics,” Caswell said.

Making a culture of inclusion permanent is something all of the companies voiced concerns about. Executives spoke about the need to bring more minorities into senior management ranks but that takes time. Many of the changes will take time as well. But they also recognize the need to be intentional.

“You have to have a process and culture that is always pushing on these issues,” Axiologic’s Stauber said.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Aug 13, 2020 at 9:43 AM

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