How can business make sure Diversity & Inclusion stays top of the corporate agenda? Learnings from Google, Salesforce and SAP

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett June 23, 2020
The killing of George Floyd has put Diversity & Inclusion firmly on the CEO agenda, but how is the tech sector responding in terms of meaningful and lasting change?


The killing of George Floyd in the US has put Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) firmly up to the top of the corporate agenda. Since Floyd’s death and the ensuing Black Lives Matter rallies around the world, every CEO across every business sector has gone out of his or her way to be seen to make a stand on inclusion and addressing long-overdue grievances and workplace imbalances - and the tech sector has a lot of ground to make up on that front.

But will the current focus last? As Toby Mildon, a D&I expert and author of Inclusive Growth, notes:

Organizations that had previously taken their foot off the accelerator have put it back on. But the results have been mixed. Some have responded by putting money into campaigning charities, but what worries me about that approach is they may not be looking at, or addressing, bias in their own workplaces. So I’m currently a bit sceptical as to whether this will all stick. I’m concerned that it’ll just be a flash-in-the-pan for a few weeks, but ultimately will be short-lived.

Floyd’s death came at a time when D&I could all too easily have become a casualty of the COVID-19 crisis and its economic aftermath, sliding down, and possibly off, the corporate agenda. There is some precedent here - Corporate Social Responsibility was a hugely public and essential ‘to do’ item for most organizations prior to the global financial crisis, at which point ‘look what we’re doing’ was replaced by an uncomfortable, if expedient, silence in all too many cases. Could the same thing have happened to D&I?  Might it yet?

According to Stephen Frost, Chief Executive of specialist D&I consultancy Frost Included, the impact of the virus so far has been “a tale of two halves”. He describes the market as being clearly divided into three key categories – a stratification that had already taken shape well before the COVID crisis.

  • The first group consists of companies that undertake what he describes as “Diversity 101”. Their activities are mainly compliance-driven, which includes undertaking gender pay gap reporting.
  • The second category - 'Diversity 2.0' - comprises of organizations that make a lot of marketing noise, but do little of real practical meaning beyond the inevitable PR initiatives.
  • The third, and unfortunately by far the smallest, group, is made up of ‘Inclusion 3.0’ companies who embed D&I in all of their decision-making processes and, in fact, everything they do.

As a result, Frost says:

The impact of COVID-19 in the first two categories has led to D&I activity either being cancelled or postponed, or it’s fallen off the agenda completely as it’s seen as an additional cost. But the third group, the minority, has doubled down on it as they realize now more than ever the value it has in informing better decisions.

How to drive change

Mildon has another concern - that organizations will expect their employees of colour to be the ones to drive change of their own volition:

The danger is that if the senior leadership team is predominantly white and male, they’ll lean back on their old biases and see it as the responsibility of their ethnic minority workers to fix the problem when that shouldn’t be the case. For example, if there aren’t enough women at the top of the business, most companies set up a career development program and assign them a sponsor to boost their confidence. They don’t look at the culture of the organization and say ‘We’re not good at flexible working, which may be contributing to holding you back’. The same applies to race and ethnicity. It’s about bias within the system, but no one’s talking about that. They talk about how individuals should adapt.

Frost agrees that if the current focus on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign  moves on, D&I, particularly in relation to race, could again be at risk of falling out of the priority list for Diversity 101 and 2.0 companies. He says:

When the noise dies down, the D&I activities of those in the first two buckets could well die down too, although it’ll make no difference for those in the third. The problem is that for a lot of organizations, what they’re doing and saying doesn’t stack up. So Adidas and Nike have put out some great marketing, but their executive teams are mostly white, while Ben & Jerry’s is doing some extraordinary things, backed up with policy changes.

Tech tested

So how does the tech sector stand up to scrutiny?  In common with other industries, leaders in the technology field have expressed their horror at recent events and made various internal and external pledges to tackle a problem that has blighted the US and other countries for too long.

Google is a case in point. At present, Black employees only make up 3.7% of its US workforce, a percentage that isn’t acceptable to CEO Sundar Pichai, who has now committed to a 30% improvement over the next five years: 

First, we’re working to improve Black+ representation at senior levels and committing to a goal to improve leadership representation of underrepresented groups by 30 percent by 2025. To help achieve this, we’ll post senior leadership roles externally as well as internally, and increase our investments in places such as Atlanta, Washington DC, Chicago, and London, where we already have offices. We'll take the same approach across regions, using site and country-specific plans to recruit and hire more under-represented Googlers in communities where the social infrastructure already supports a sense of belonging and contributes to a better quality of life. 

Second, we’ll do more to address representation challenges and focus on hiring, retention, and promotion at all levels. To help direct that work, I’m establishing a new talent liaison within each product and functional area to mentor and advocate for the progression and retention of Googlers from underrepresented groups. I’m also convening a task force, including senior members of the Black+ community at Google, to develop concrete recommendations and proposals for accountability across all of the areas that affect the Black+ Googler experience, from recruiting and hiring, to performance management, to career progression and retention. I’ve asked the task force to come back with specific proposals (including measurable goals) within 90 days.

Over at Salesforce, the company put in place a Chief Equality Officer 4 years ago in the shape of Tony Prophet. Just a few days before Floyd was killed, Prophet’s role was proactively expanded to become that of Chief Equality and Recruiting Officer within its Employee Success organization. According to the official announcement:

In his expanded role, Tony will help guide our global recruiting initiatives with an inclusive lens at every step, while continuing to lead the Office of Equality towards our mission of Equality for All.

In the words of CEO Marc Benioff, who has been outspoken about his concerns around systemic racism, equality is a core value and one that needs to operationalized:

Tony Prophet has had such a huge impact on the company. We recently had the vision to have a greater impact, that he could also run recruiting and that equality and recruiting be connected. This idea of pipelines and all that becomes very amorphous when we can actually say our equality programs and our recruiting programs are one integrated program.

And there is a job to do there. Even for a company whose established D&I credentials are as solid as Salesforce’s, there’s a lot more to be done, according to its own published equality data. As per the most recently available report (2019), some 61.6% of Salesforce’s US workforce is white, followed by Asian & Indian on 25.6%. Black or African American employees make up only 2.9% in terms of race and ethnicity representation, while 2.8% are multi-racial.

Another company that is trying to effect positive change is SAP. The company has, for example, pledged to double its “representation of African American talent in three years”.

According to the last figures that the vendor published about the ethnic make-up of its workforce (2016),  68% of its employees at that point were white, while 23% were Asian. Some 4% were Hispanic/Latino, 3% African American and 1% American Indian/Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders or people of mixed heritage respectively. So-called ‘minority executives’ made up 21% of the total management population.

Although it is currently unclear what targets have been set to boost representation levels of minority groups beyond the African American community in North America, Chief Diversity Officer Judith Williams says:

We recognize there are under-represented groups in many geographies and are building a plan for how we’re going to address that…We know that it’s not just about hiring. We are investing in the talent from under-represented groups that we already have in our ranks, making sure that they are visible to leaders and that they have opportunities to develop and progress to management.

The company is focusing on three key areas in a bid to make a difference and so is:

  1. Creating an “inclusive career journey” by ensuring there are “focused efforts to attract, retain and motivate a diverse talent pool”;
  2. Making leaders accountable for building an “inclusive culture” and recognising those who act as role models;
  3. Ensuring its software is accessible and inclusive and its supply chain is diverse.

Other initiatives to support employees of color, meanwhile, include providing access to grief and stress counsellors worldwide via the company’s Employee Assistance Program in the wake of George Floyd’s death. SAP also held a virtual Town Hall meeting on 4 June attended by Williams, North America president DJ Paoni and North America D&I lead Margot Williams to provide its North American employees with a “space to come together, share experiences and acknowledge our collective grief”.

A new Speaker Seminar Series has also been organised to continue the “conversation with our leaders and experts who can contextualize the experiences of People of Color”. In North America, the Series will start with three sessions on ‘Stress and Communities of Color in the time of the Pandemic’, hosted by Dr David Williams, Professor of African American Studies at Harvard University and chair of the Depart of Social and Behavioral Science at Harvard’s School of Public Health, although speakers will vary on a regional basis.

My take

The killing of George Floyd may, for the time being, have put D&I back on the corporate agenda - and if any organizations were not paying proper attention to the issue, they certainly are now,  in a race and ethnicity sense at least.

But, as Frost points out, the current “bifurcation” - between those companies that have embedded D&I notions into their company culture and decision-making processes and those that have not - is only likely to become more marked as a post-COVID recession bites and corporate priorities shift to fiscal survival.

But for any company tempted to re-categorise D&I as a ‘nice-to-have’, it is worth bearing in mind the findings of a recent McKinsey & Company’s report entitled ‘Diversity still matters’ which finds:

Gender and ethnic diversity, inclusion and performance, go hand in hand…Over the past five years, the likelihood that diverse companies will out-earn their industry peers has grown. So have the penalties for companies lacking diversity.

As a result, it concludes not only is D&I the morally right thing to do, but it also gives employers “a better chance at recovery” – and given the potential scale of the feared recession suggested by some economists, that can only be a good thing.

Above all, actions speak louder than words. Or as SAP CEO Christian Klein has stated bluntly :

Condemning racism is not enough. We must be vigorously anti-racist…Listening is not enough – clear actions need to follow.

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