When the killing of George Floyd by police in May set off national protests, employers responded by making Juneteenth a company holiday, rolling out more unconscious bias training, and convening emotional virtual town halls about race. Some organizations went even further, however, introducing bold programs to make their workplaces — and the world beyond their offices — more equitable. The best employers have long promoted diversity and inclusion, but Floyd’s death has ushered in a sense of urgency to reverse racism.
Boston law firm WilmerHale in June launched a racial justice reform initiative to pair lawyers with nonprofits doing anti-racism work. Mark Fleming, a Boston partner and co-chair of the initiative, says lawyers at the firm have worked on racial justice issues before, but never on so coordinated or large a scale. Floyd’s death, Fleming says, moved lawyers and partners to ask themselves: “What can I do individually and what can we do as a firm?”
Across the country, 119 lawyers, including 26 in Boston, are part of the initiative, and together they’ve already logged more than 5,600 pro bono hours. Among higher profile projects: Helping the group Lawyers for Civil Rights represent Marvin Henry, a Black man who accused members of the Needham Police Department of racial profiling in an incident that left him handcuffed and, he says, “extremely shaken and distressed.” (Henry was cleared of wrongdoing, and investigations into the Needham police response are ongoing.) A team of WilmerHale attorneys also advised the US Conference of Mayors on a blueprint for police reform that was released in August.
Beyond lending their expertise, the firm’s employees raised more than $250,000 for three organizations on the front lines of racial justice: the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Vera Institute of Justice. “The trick is making sure that we’re putting our energies and resources toward initiatives that will have the greatest impact possible and do the most good,” Fleming says, and that “everyone who wants to be engaged in this work has an opportunity to do it.”
At HealthEdge Software, a health technology company in Burlington, employees began looking at language in internal communications that could be hurtful. Glenn Mullen, vice president of operations, saw how some big tech companies in the wake of Floyd’s killing were reevaluating programming terms such as “master” and “slave” that refer to the relationship between primary and secondary processes. HealthEdge did not use master/slave terminology, but the company did use “master” and “master list” to refer to primary source information. The tech company has since replaced “master” with “customer environment” or “documentation repository.”
“We really wanted to change the approach and the vernacular,” Mullen says. “We want to have a culture of inclusion.”
The company, which formed an employee group called “I Belong” in June, didn’t just stop with IT lingo, but looked at language used throughout the company. The result: “Guys” has been replaced with the more gender inclusive “folks” or “people.” “Man hours” has become “resource hours.” And the phrase “grandfathered” — which has its origin in post-Civil War laws that prevented Black people from exercising their right to vote — is now replaced with “freeze.”
Before Floyd’s death, many companies shied away from talking about race and structural racism because it was too uncomfortable, says diversity consultant Jackie Glenn, who previously served as EMC’s global chief diversity officer. That’s starting to change in this period of racial reckoning. Glenn says some companies are having what she calls “courageous conversations” about white privilege, white fragility, and systemic racism. “Now everybody is leaning in,” Glenn says. “They are sitting in this discomfort.”
The shift is happening as more employers realize that diversity isn’t some feel-good corporate movement. Rather, research indicates a diverse workforce, especially at the executive level, is better for the bottom line, and Floyd’s killing has only energized employees to demand their companies take diversity more seriously. “It’s a business imperative. It’s not a social nicety,” Glenn adds. “People are open to listening about the lack of racial diversity and how not discussing it can destroy their companies and their brands.”
At Sarepta Therapeutics, a multicultural employee group wanted more patients of color to participate in clinical trials. The Cambridge life sciences company makes a treatment for a rare childhood disease known as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and about 90 percent of its clinical trial participants are white, even though the disease is no more prevalent among white people than other races.
Companies have long struggled with recruiting patients of color to participate in drug trials, in part because many communities of color lack access to health care and may not know about the trials. Another factor is socioeconomic, because patients may need to miss work or have flexible schedules to participate. At Sarepta, participation in one of its Duchenne trials takes at least two years and requires spending a day each week at a designated center for an infusion that can take two hours, followed by discussions with doctors. “Participating in a clinical study is extremely burdensome,” says Ian Estepan, Sarepta’s senior vice president of corporate affairs and chief of staff, who has been working on the effort to diversify clinical trials.
But as COVID-19 disrupted clinical trials, a path to removing inequities was revealed. Nurses started delivering the treatment to patients at home. Patients were also able to connect to doctors by telemedicine.
“A silver lining to COVID is that we have been forced to think about how to make these clinical trials less burdensome,” says Estepan, noting that data is still being collected on the viability of the new approach. “It’s laying the foundation to be able to change the way we conduct clinical trials.”
EMD Serono, MilliporeSigma, and EMD Performance Materials, divisions of Merck KGaA of Darmstadt, Germany, decided to add another dimension to their diversity work: Hosting a virtual summer camp, complete with T-shirts and counselors, to help parents in their Leaders of Color group who were working from home while taking care of children after their summer activities had been canceled because of the pandemic. Nearly two dozen employees volunteered as counselors at Camp LoC, which took children ages 4 to 14 on a journey around the world to learn about other cultures.
About 90 children participated in the weeklong August camp, which featured a daily live session, followed by independent activities. The camp was so popular it will be made available to all employees' children in North America next summer. “We wanted to offer parents a respite,” says Terrie Livingston, a medical director at EMD Serono in Rockland, who is Chinese and was also one of the counselors. “It was really fun.”
Malaisha York, a patient access and support manager at EMD Serono, enrolled her 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. “It was so mind-blowing to them,” says York, who is Black. Afterward, her daughter told her: “Mom, I want to go to Africa, and I want to go to China to see the Great Wall of China.”
Like other life science and drug firms, EMD Serono, MilliporeSigma, and EMD Performance Materials have also been working to diversify their workforces, particularly at the management level. Floyd’s killing sparked discussions on what more could be done, leading to a new program that identified more than 60 people of color with high potential, and paired them with top executives as sponsors.
“It really did strike a nerve on whether we have the right inclusive setup,” says Chris Ross, the interim CEO of MilliporeSigma in Burlington. “It became undeniably clear we need to do more and with some level of urgency.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.