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5 Ways Companies Are Responding to Escalated Racial Tensions & Social Unrest

When i4cp Chief Diversity Officer Board Chair and call leader Jacqui Robertson convened our weekly Diversity & Inclusion Action Call—the 11th virtual gathering hosted by i4cp to help businesses and their D&I leaders respond to the COVID-19 pandemic—it was immediately clear this call was different.

To the more than 430 business leaders and diversity professionals in attendance (watch a recording here), Robertson noted that the calls had consistently centered on psychological safety and human connection as organizations sought to minimize stress and keep their employees safe during the health crisis.

In a week when the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis made painfully clear that, in communities of color, safety continues to be denied and disparities continue across social, judicial, and other facets of life, Robertson declared i4cp “compelled to shift the call agenda” to respond to this additional crisis.

“Your voices and insights will help us support organizations as we all try to bring about meaningful and sustained change,” she said. “As we try to help individuals and organizations make sense of and respond constructively to the current social chaos.” Accordingly, Robertson opened the meeting to attendees, asking to hear their voices on three critical questions:

  • How are your organizations responding to this unrest?
  • What are you doing in your organizations to support your employees and your communities?
  • What can we do to impact real change?

Those questions elicited responses that spoke to organizations’ immediate actions, and then looked at long-term efforts toward effecting lasting change.

What Companies Are Doing Now

An instant poll during the call found 64% of attendees reporting that social unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death caused additional stress and drained concerned employees’ productivity. Further, 40% said their organizational cultures obliged them to address the unrest and take a stand. 

  1. Making statements. Company leaders are issuing statements (internally and externally) to reinforce organizational values about treatment of others, zero tolerance of bias, equality and inclusion, etc. Some CEOs are using video to deliver their messages and encourage employees to support each other.

    Other strategies:
    • Messages from CEOs are being followed up by other leaders reaching out to their team members. One company planned follow-up messaging from the chair of its Executive Diversity Council.
    • One company chose to host a Day of Understanding. Another is observing Black Out Tuesday and encouraging employees do something positive for their communities.
    •  An organization’s leadership is considering developing a Diversity & Inclusion C-Suite listening tour.
    • Said one attendee: “First and foremost we are acknowledging the stress and impact of this terrible situation on individuals and are opening up conversations in team meetings to allow for conversation.”
  2. Starting conversations, even if—especially if—it’s uncomfortable or awkward. Many call attendees acknowledge the sense that “there’s no right way to approach the topic of racial tension, but that not trying to have a conversation isn’t right.” One CEO said he might not get the words right and might stumble, but asked for “some grace” to share thoughts and converse.
    • Leaders (and others) need to understand that they don’t have to be perfect – there’s not one right way to engage in conversations – it’s more about listening and being willing to have the dialogue.
    • Some companies are providing conversation guides to help leaders and others start and participate in conversations about racial issues.
  3. Keeping group sizes in mind. Organizations are finding that group discussions about racial tension are most constructive when they move from larger to smaller numbers of participants. The more intimate nature of a business unit or work group can be more conducive to meaningful conversations.
    • One company hosted a town hall and then broke into small groups of 8-10 to provide unstructured space for open, honest dialogue.
    • One attendee’s firm chose to conduct an open forum for employees to share their thoughts and feelings.
    • An organization’s HR team is hosting small group discussions and the company’s focus is on providing safe environments in which people can feel comfortable speaking.
  4. Harnessing the power of Employee Resource Groups. One company brought together all of its ERGs to meet (virtually) with the CEO to discuss ideas and share thoughts honestly. Crowdsourcing potential strategies from such groups offers a way to collectively brainstorm. In many companies, African-American/Black and diversity ERGs are assuming leadership roles. Other ideas offered by attendees: 
    • A CEO is hosting a check-in with multicultural ERG members. This may be as simple as asking how people are doing.
    • A company’s Passages BRG (African American and People of Color) is holding a Brave Space discussion open to all.
    • Organizations are enlisting ERGs to help facilitate communications with employees.
    • Another’s Black Organizational Leadership ERG (BOLD) with the help of an executive scheduled an informal conversation with the CEO about the current social unrest and how it is impacting black employees. 
  5. Applying tools and resources. Companies are leveraging all the resources at their disposal to help people develop the skills they need to interact more constructively. In one organization, the CEO sent an internal message along with an Inclusion and Diversity learning series. 
    • An organization opted to send D&I resources along with its internal communications.
    • Multiple organizations are leveraging their EAPs, and some are conducting webinars and offering counseling.
    • An internal CEO message to all employees was sent along with a race and racism conversation guide to be shared with all managers to lead discussions with their teams

Resources shared by participants:

What Companies Are Doing to Sustain Long-Term Change 

A second poll during the Action Call asked about organizations’ community outreach and support in response to the pandemic and/or social unrest. The greatest portion of participants (41%) said their companies were providing donations or other forms of giving. Sixteen percent reported sharing services and/or physical resources.

Many companies are still struggling to formulate long-term strategies to drive lasting change. Some of the ideas offered:

  • Acknowledging that real change requires an ongoing commitment. There will be no one-and-done solution to address inequality.
  • Recognizing that multiple strategies will be needed. Said one attendee, “We are forming an Advisory group with internal and external partners to determine what action to take after sponsoring a Day of Understanding. We are admitting we don't have the answers, but don't want to stop with heartfelt messages without [taking further] action.”
  • Organizations are inviting employees to sign action pledges
  • One company has extended its employees opportunities to join ERG virtual coffee breaks throughout the summer.
  •  A firm in the Minneapolis area shared this: “We signed the CEO Action Pledge and will be joining 26 organizations in the Twin Cities condemning the murder. I co lead the Twin Cities D+I Roundtable and will be hosting an event on June 18th inviting community leaders to respond to how best we can take action in our organizations.”
  • Providing time off for employees on election days and time off for reflection or to take action for social justice.
  • “Use our platforms in recruiting, D&I, Talent Management, L&D and work to remove bias from those systems. Increase the opportunities we provide underrepresented populations, and per Ken Frazier, get people to do more than what's required.”
  • Taking action through governmental agencies/representatives and through community organizations: Human Relations Commissions - many cities and county governments have commissions with city volunteers set up to eradicate hate and build equity within local communities.  

Tracey Walker of RSM shared her organization’s Allies in Racial Understanding and Inclusion:

  1. Take action to create moments of the “valued community” that includes fellowship between whites and people of color not based on accomplishing a task but allowing the practice of our 5 Cs [Caring, Courage, Collaboration, Curiosity, Compassion]
  2. Serving as a collaborative leader with AACE members while working for institutional understanding
  3. Working on my personal interaction with AACE and other ENG members so that my behavior does not reflect unconscious bias or my privilege blind spots
  4. Giving and getting peer support from other white allies
  5. Intervening when you witness racially problematic statements/behaviors
  6. Persuading white non-allies that racism is an important issue and that they are part of the solution
  7. Managing your own learning path as an ally through CDI participation and learning consumption
  8. Making lifestyle/personal choices that reflect your passion for racial equity
  9. Supporting racial equity efforts with money or time
  10. Managing your online presence, team communication

Finally, an attendee underscored the need for multi-faceted strategies:

“Real change requires a structured approach and the ADKAR model Awareness Desire Knowledge Ability Reinforcement (Prosci Model) works well. We have begun to introduce the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI to build awareness and determine desire to change. We use the CEO Action for D&I toolkit and partner with a 25 year veteran working in the D&I space to build knowledge. Our EBRGs support ongoing education and networking to enable ability and reinforcement. There is not a silver bullet or one time activity that will enable change.”


From CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion:

Business can ACT ON making change happen: We know there is no single formula for improving diversity and inclusion that is applicable to every company, industry or environment. However, we believe that openly sharing these actions in a spirit of collaboration will allow organizations to achieve their diversity and inclusion goals faster than any organization could achieve on its own.

Here are some examples.  

A select list curated by i4cp of companies and links to their responses & support of the protests


Visit i4cp’s Coronavirus Employer Resource Center to access resources as well as a recording of the call. 

Carol Morrison
Carol Morrison is a Senior Research Analyst and Associate Editor with the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp), specializing in workforce well-being research.