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Diversity and Inclusion in Corporate America: A Conversation with Sheryl Battles

June 17, 2020 • History Factory

No one in America has been untouched by the protests and social movement spurred by the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. In our latest episode of History Factory Plugged In, “Workplace Diversity and a Decade of Disruption,” we sat down with Sheryl Battles, VP of Global Diversity, Inclusion and Engagement at Pitney Bowes, to discuss the fallout from the past few weeks, her hopes for the current movement, and why companies have the opportunity to shape our current dialogue. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.

Jason Dressel: Sheryl, thanks for joining us. We’re having this conversation on Monday June 8, two weeks since Memorial Day and the day that George Floyd was killed. So maybe we can just begin with your perspective on the last couple of weeks.

Sheryl Battles: It’s been a roller coaster of emotion the last couple of weeks. Unfortunately, the killing of George Floyd wasn’t new relative to American history and the history of African Americans, and it should not be acceptable as what is normal.

There was a piece of me that was very fearful. It reinforces that it could have been me. That it could have been my husband. That it could have been virtually anybody I know. I have a 19-year-old daughter. That could have been her. It felt like there’s this inability to still see African Americans as fully human. Because when you see someone as human, it’s virtually impossible to do something like what the whole world witnessed.

I’ve seen the hopeful side. I asked my daughter how she was processing this as she’s going into her sophomore year in college. And she stopped and she said, “You know, Mom, that’s what happens to black people in America.” And I said, “It is. But it doesn’t have to be.”

So, to see what has resulted after this tragedy, in terms of the ways that the world has reacted, not just across the U.S. but literally around the world, has been energizing and hopeful. But it is a very interesting time.

Jason: Based on your experience, how do you see this time being different than Ferguson five or six years ago, and what happened in Baltimore? Any thoughts on how this moment is potentially different and why?

Sheryl: There’s a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that was widely being tossed around a lot in the last week or so: “Ultimately, a riot is the language of the unheard.” I read this great article about how people are taking that quote out of context.

When he said the statement, he was simply saying, “Look, I hope the people who are condemning what they see in terms of this mob that’s out of control, that they are also condemning equally the underlying rationale for it happening.”

He understood in many ways the power of the visual, and the power of exposing the inhumanity and understanding that humans would react to it. When you think about the Birmingham Children’s March, where 1,000 children ranging from age 6 to high school peacefully marched from a church in Birmingham to try to get to City Hall, singing gospel songs. Unarmed children. The then-famous head of police, Bull Connor, turned fire hoses and dogs and policemen with batons to imprison about 600 of these children for five days. The images of these children being attacked, many feel, helped to move public sentiment to say, “Oh, my goodness, this just can’t happen. We can’t go forward this way.”

In many ways, that’s what I feel has happened here. That video, that eight minutes and 46 seconds of hearing him plead for his life and call his mom and just watch him take his last gasp. It’s hard to watch without an emotional reaction to it. And what I think is happening is that there not only has been this groundswell in the streets, but there’s also been when you think about Corporate America, in many ways.

Companies are the intersection where the average American is exposed to the greatest amount of diversity for the longest sustained period. That gives corporations a great opportunity, and it also gives us a great responsibility on how to set the tone. What we model in terms of treating one another really can make a difference.

The world is saying to corporations, “Where are you on this?” And you see, internally, employee activists saying, “We say our values are XYZ. Does this align with our values?” So we have seen companies come to the fore and say, “You know what? This is not acceptable. This is not who we are. This is not who we should be. This is not who we want to be.”

The New York Times had an article in essence saying that “Corporate America had failed Black America.” And listing examples of companies that had put out support statements and then contrasted it with their behaviors. So when you make those statements, on one hand, you absolutely need to be authentic. And it absolutely needs to align with who you are and where you want to be.

But on the other hand, no one is claiming to have this mastered. We’re all on this journey to be better, constantly.

Jason: As a person who has been a force for diversity and inclusion in Corporate America for a long time, what have been some of the most promising advancements that you’ve hopefully seen in the last few years?

Sheryl: The progression of understanding of, really, what is diversity and inclusion. We at Pitney Bowes like to say “diversity is our reality.” Almost 50 percent of our workforce in the U.S. are people of color and 43 percent of our global workforce are women. So, diversity is our reality, and inclusion is our strategic intent to optimize the talents of all.

It’s aligned with our business strategy, and we think it is essential to us successfully getting to where we want to go, whether that’s greater engagement, productivity, innovation, responsiveness to our markets. You’ve got to have those differing experiences and perspectives and voices to really move things and be disruptive in order to create great values.

Our company has this really interesting history, relative to this conversation, dating back to the 1940s. When our CEO Walter Wheeler was on the War Production Board for World War II, appointed by President Roosevelt. Part of what he had to convince other manufacturers to do was to employ African Americans, while about 30-plus percent of all males in the U.S. 16 or older were off to war.

He saw that the African American men and women that the company brought in had the same work ethic. They were as committed to quality. They were faithful in doing their job and helping others. And he said, “If this is what diversity is, then I want more of it.”

So, from the beginning, our history’s been really tied to this business value of having diverse voices in the room. He ultimately went on to testify in support of what became Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Equal Employment Act.

He was a consistent voice in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s for this is what needs to happen. And every CEO since him has picked up the banner—all the way through to our current CEO, who’s on the Business Roundtable, who just put out a statement. They’ve also formed a racial justice committee that he’s on. He’s on the Catalyst board, to advance women, as well.

So, this environment is what shaped my lens of what it should look like. And I definitely see people moving in this direction, but you have to have a holistic approach to it. It’s not a, “Oh, let me do this one thing and then everything will be great.” It’s really more comprehensive than that.

Jason: What other advice might you offer to any of your peers or leaders who may be working in organizations that haven’t done the work or haven’t progressed as your organization has with respect to diversity and inclusion?

Sheryl: We take a real systems approach to it. So it’s not an individual program or a resource group. It’s not any one thing. It’s everything, because whatever you do that supports diversity and inclusion just supports good people management. It’s really just thinking very holistically about, “What can we do to make this a better place for employees to be and learn and grow, and be the best that they can be, and help us be the best we can be?”

For the entire conversation, listen to History Factory Plugged In.

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