In recent weeks, several of the state’s most powerful chief executives have felt compelled to speak out in response to the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests sparked by the killings of Black Americans.
At the same time, a number of them have committed to new efforts aimed at recruiting more diverse groups of leadership candidates, in addition to better supporting the advancement of people of color in their own organizations.
Whether those efforts produce actual change will be revealed over time. The dearth of diversity in the top floors is not new. Experts say it is not a problem that will be quickly solved.
“We’re dealing with literally decades of white privilege in American corporations — and it’s hard to break through that privilege,” said Fred McKinney, a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Quinnipiac University and a member of the state’s Minority Business Initiative Advisory Board.
Similar initiatives in past years have yielded modest results, contributing to generations of racial homogeneity in executive echelons, experts said.
“If you don’t have a pipeline of Black professionals and executives coming up in a company, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the top person is a white man,” McKinney said.
Scant diversity at the top
Twenty-five of the companies on this year’s Fortune 1,000 list of the largest publicly traded firms in the country are headquartered in Connecticut.
Their names will be familiar to anyone who follows the markets or business news.
Something else about them will likely ring familiar as well: They are primarily led by white men.
In that they are no different than most other large companies in the U.S. Business Insider reported in July that only three Fortune 500 companies in the country have a Black CEO — a total equal to only 0.6 percent of the chief executives in that group. In comparison, 13 percent of the national population is Black, according to the most recent Census data.
In Connecticut, a couple of Fortune 1,000 firms have diversified their top positions.
Norwalk-based Frontier Communications is led by Bernie Han, who is Asian-American. He was hired as CEO last December, having held a number of senior-level roles at Dish Network in the past decade.
Frontier did not make Han available for an interview, but it provided a statement from him.
“At Frontier Communications, our leadership embraces diversity because we recognize a culture of inclusion is critical to achieving business goals and building a stronger organization,” Han said.
Stamford-based Synchrony’s Margaret Keane is the rare woman among the CEOs of the state’s Fortune 1,000 organizations.
Frequently interviewed about the significance of being a woman who leads a Fortune 500 company, Keane has not shied away from speaking publicly about Synchrony’s response to the events of the past few months.
“Our country is awakening to the need to meaningfully address racial injustice and equality,” Keane said on an earnings call in July.
Hearst Connecticut Media reached out to all of the state’s Fortune 1,000 companies for this article. More than half did not respond or declined to comment.
Diversity and inclusion strategies have yielded gains at some companies. Data provided by Synchrony and Bloomfield-based Cigna, for instance, show that their workforces’ racial and ethnic demographics are in line with state and national rates.
Those firms and a number of others in Connecticut’s Fortune 1,000 cohort have earned accolades for their efforts to diversify their workplaces.
Rhonda Nesmith Crichlow, who was hired in 2016 as Stamford-based Charter Communications’ chief diversity officer, said the firm in the past few years has made “substantial strides advancing diversity and inclusion.”
That “includes improving diverse representation at our senior leadership levels beyond the executives who appear on our website,” Crichlow said. “We recognize there is more work to do, and we remain committed to furthering our progress.”
But a number of HR experts also see a long road ahead for programs aimed at making executive ranks more heterogeneous.
“When you look at all these very successful firms and very little diversity at the top, that, to me, is indicative of a lack of execution in the last five years, 10 years to ensure that their population had a level of diversity,” said David Lewis, founder and CEO of Norwalk-based HR services firm Operations Inc. “The only organizations that you could cut some slack for would be ones who could show that they did cultivate a good population of diverse candidates, but before those people were tapped to make it to the top position in a division or in a company, some other company came knocking and poached them away.”
Crichlow and her counterpart at Cigna, as well as other executives interviewed for this article said the largely white composition of their companies’ most senior positions is not symptomatic of discrimination or bias against minority employees.
“There are so many factors that go into it — from what’s the job and what’s the availability of talent,” said Susan Stith, Cigna’s vice president of diversity, inclusion and civic affairs.
Others offer different assessments. Black employees in the corporate sector often feel marginalized and overlooked and encounter “subtle racism,” according to Guy Fortt, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Stamford branch.
“Many Black professionals say it’s harder for Black employees to move up the ladder, while white professionals don’t realize how different the workplace is for Black professionals and how much harder it is for them,” Fortt said.
Pledging to make changes
Acknowledging that their workforces are still not diverse enough, a number of the state’s Fortune 1,000 firms have rolled out new initiatives in the past few months.
In July, Cigna announced the launch of its Building Equity and Equality Program, a five-year undertaking that executives said would expand and accelerate the company’s efforts to support diversity, inclusion and equality for communities of color.
Among the changes, Stith cited the implementation of “diverse candidate slates.” Such a practice would help to address the gap between the 34 percent of all Cigna employees who are ethnic minorities and the 10 percent representation for that group among executive/senior officials and managers.
“Diverse candidate slates will focus on how do we bring into the interview process more diversity,” Stith said. “We will look at that within a certain level in the organization, and that becomes our pipeline to build to those more senior ranks because you’ve got to start somewhere.”
Synchrony recently formed a senior-level committee to focus on diversity and equality issues across all areas of its business.
“We were very focused coming into this year on Black and Hispanic leadership. And particularly Black. … because we don’t have enough,” Keane said in an interview with Time. “We’re doing a lot of soul-searching … We get all these awards (and could say) ‘we’re great.’ But, like, let’s look at the numbers on some of these things and how we make a difference. We have to double down on all this right now.”
Other Connecticut-based Fortune 1,000 companies that have recently signaled that they would do more to tackle racial inequality inside and outside their organizations include Hartford-based The Hartford, Stamford-based Pitney Bowes, Stamford-based United Rentals, New Britain-based Stanley Black & Decker, Norwalk-based Xerox and Norwalk-based Booking Holdings.
Signaling the growing focus on diversity, a number of Fortune 1,000 firms in the state and country have appointed chief diversity officers in the past few years.
Following in the footsteps of the likes of Charter, Cigna and Synchrony, Greenwich-based XPO Logistics in July named one of its top HR executives, LaQuenta Jacobs, as its first chief diversity officer. She is not related to the company’s CEO, Bradley Jacobs.
HR executives see diversity efforts as necessary to supporting employees’ well-being and catalysts for critical thinking and a broader range of perspectives in the workplace.
“I’m an African-American woman, I’m a certain age and grew up in a certain community,” Stith said. “That’s part of who I am — but there is so much more. … The other part of the reality is that people make decisions about where they work by your diversity and also how inclusive you are.”
Many firms also see their employee diversity as vital to forging strong customer relationships.
“We have to understand our customers and relate to them and understand their perspective,” said Craig Pintoff, United Rentals’ chief administrative officer. “Doing that through a diverse workforce is one method. That’s part of the customer service and respect of the communities we serve.”
Staying the course
If companies commit to their new programs, executives said those initiatives could make a major impact.
“This is a movement, not a moment,” Stith said. “We’re showing that there’s momentum behind the words that we say. These are not just words; these are real actions. And we’re going to show our employees and our external clients and customer stakeholders exactly what we mean when we say those words.”
HR experts such as Lewis caution that it could take considerable time to see real results.
“It’ll take five years for you to be able to look at this,” Lewis said. “If you see that there is a greater level of diversity in that (executive) population — visually, perception wise and in reality — I would then argue, at that point, that’s demonstrative of actions that came as a result of (the response to the death of) George Floyd.”
Nationwide demographic forces could also drive change when today’s youth move into the workforce.
White students accounted for slightly less than half of the population in public elementary and secondary schools, while Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander pupils’ shares have increased in recent years to, respectively, 27 percent and 6 percent, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Black students comprised 15 percent of the total, down slightly from their percentage in 2000.
“I’m optimistic about the beliefs, understanding and experience of young Americans — white, Black, brown and Asian Americans,” said Quinnipiac’s McKinney. “They realize that the best positions in American corporations should not be reserved for white men and that these corporations can do better.”
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