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Talk about diversity and inclusion is easy. These companies are putting in the real work

Many organization have issued statements of solidarity with communities of color. These employers are making important, fundamental changes.

Efforts to make companies more equitable have gone “way past the business case,” says Sara Nochur, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

In the year after the police killing of George Floyd, many employers across the region issued statements of solidarity with the Black community, assuring the world that the country’s racial reckoning had reached the corporate floor. Some employers urgently introduced programs to make their workplaces more equitable, recognizing mere statements of support were not enough. Now, some of the region’s best employers are going even further, setting specific goals, measuring their progress — and holding themselves publicly accountable for the promises they make.

Rocket Insights, a Newburyport-based software firm, wants 40 percent of its managers to be female or nonbinary by 2023. Rapid7, a cybersecurity firm of roughly 2,000 employees headquartered near North Station, established an ambitious goal: be 50 percent women and people of color by 2020. When the company fell short by less than 1 percent, it chose not to round up when publicly disclosing results. VA Boston Healthcare System now screens for what it calls “cultural humility” — such as critical thinking about one’s own identity — in interviews. Robin, a local software company, started running two-week “diversity sprints” in which it interviews women and other underrepresented groups before any other candidates. Wayfair developed natural language processing tools to scan performance reviews for racially biased language.

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“Organizations are slowly starting to hunker down in terms of doing real work,” says Su Joun, who heads the Diversity@Workplace Consulting Group in Cambridge, “as opposed to donating and [making] fancy statements.”

Still, Joun says, there’s more work to be done. Companies that hire chief diversity officers must give them a budget and authority to make changes. Workers of color need to be actively retained and promoted. Notably, it’s crucial that these efforts aren’t seen as political. “Folks are not just looking at [diversity] from where they put their money as a consumer, but where they work as an employee,” she says. “The demand is there.”

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Cambridge Internet company Akamai Technologies recognizes that measuring progress on diversity requires specific targets. Khalil Smith, Akamai’s vice president of diversity and inclusion, says the company previously shared how many women, Black, Latinx, or Asian people it employs. Now the company publicly reports how many reach the C-suite. “I’ve seen quite a bit where your call center is incredibly representative of your population, and then the higher you go throughout your organization, the less diverse or the less you see underrepresented talent,” Smith says.

Frank discussions have resulted in specific actions at Akamai. The company has stripped its job postings of unnecessary qualifications, such as long lists of programming languages not used in a particular role. The company’s annual diversity reports show how many women and workers of color reach vice president or higher. Eleven employee resource groups — which represent workers of different races, sexual identities, and genders at the company — are given $10,000 apiece to manage their operations, along with another $10,000 from the company’s philanthropic arm to award community grants. And at nearly every board meeting, diversity and inclusion staff members hold the company accountable for company goals, discussing their work with the company’s directors and top leadership, recognizing that without high-level focus, any strategy to tackle diversity and inclusion could fail.

“Lots of organizations have hired a new chief diversity officer or stood up a new office . . . but they didn’t give them a seat at the table,” Smith says. “[Here] it really is woven into the fabric of the way that we conduct our business strategy.”

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At Alnylam Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, this past year was about history, accountability, and metrics. Sara Nochur, the company’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, says Alnylam had always advocated for a more equitable workplace, but educating workers on the history of racial oppression in the country was paramount. “We had an employee base that was quite woke already, but needed more attention,” Nochur says. “[A] more concerted effort to really make people think about it and think about it actively.”

The company brought in consultants, held speaker series, and actively fostered difficult discussions around slavery, redlining, allyship, workplace triggers, and the concept of “woke.” Nochur says that dedicating time for extensive discussions on race wasn’t simply to increase revenue or attract job candidates, but to make people aware of their privilege and accountable for their actions. “Nobody ever asked whether there was a business case for white males to be CEOs all the time,” she says. “It’s way past the business case. It’s the right thing to do.”

Gathering the right kind of data is also important. To get a better understanding of their workforce, Alnylam officials set about surveying its workforce about their ethnicity, sexual orientation, and race. In a global company that spans 1,700 workers and multiple continents, roughly 70 percent of workers agreed to share information. This allowed diversity and inclusion officials to analyze, set, and assess benchmarks on gender parity, pay equity, and women and people of color in upper management. Yvonne Greenstreet will become the company’s new chief executive — and first Black CEO — at the beginning of next year.

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Meanwhile, the company has also ramped up efforts to increase diversity in its pharmaceutical trials. Understanding that clinical trials for the Black community carry loaded meaning — specifically because of unethical tests done in the Tuskegee study in the early and mid-1900s — the company engaged with community leaders, partnered with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ diverse client population, and worked with patient advocacy groups to build trust. “How can we be in this business, talk about patient centricity and so on, and not pay attention to making sure that there’s diversity in clinical trials?” Nochur says.

Company officials at The Hollister Group, a staffing agency in Boston, recently started grappling with how much work they had to do — and made progress quickly. At the beginning of the year, only 1 percent of Hollister’s workers were people of color. The company set a target of getting to 10 percent by the end of the year. Now, 20 percent of the 55-person workforce come from diverse backgrounds, company officials say.

Michael Raimondi, The Hollister Group’s vice president of human resources, says the journey required them to reexamine commonly held practices in hiring, most notably deemphasizing employee referrals. “This is something that’s really uncomfortable in a recruiting space,” he says. “Referrals are like the best thing. They’re gold, right? Everyone wants referrals, but when you’re trying to create a diverse workforce, and you don’t have a lot of diversity, getting referrals usually means that you’re not tapping into [different] networks of people.”

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At the same time, Raimondi says, learning from experts in the DEI space made his company think deeper. Bringing on workers of color is important, but what’s equally pressing is making sure diverse hires don’t feel “tokenized” — or that they were hired simply because of their race. Recruiters are encouraged to tell hires how their skills will help the company’s bottom line, and not pressure workers of color to advise the company on its diversity, equity, and inclusion work. “We want [employees] to feel welcome and secure but also don’t want them to feel obligated to have to do that,” he says.

Leaders at Philips North America, the Cambridge-based international health care technology company, aim to have 30 percent of their senior leadership positions gender diverse by the end of 2025. Executive team members review gender goals monthly. “While there is always work to be done,” Lauren Gohde, the head of diversity and inclusion at Philips, said earlier this year, “I’m proud of our ability to embrace our differences and seek diverse experiences.”

For Surface Oncology, 2021 was a year of progress. Lisa McGrath, the senior vice president of human resources, says that, as of the fall, five of the year’s 12 hires were non-white. The cancer-focused biotech company based in Cambridge also brought on Denice Torres, a Latinx board member.

But Surface Oncology wants to do more, McGrath says, specifically increasing the number of diverse employees who come from nontraditional paths, such as those without Ivy League degrees. To that end, it has partnered with the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation’s apprenticeship program. It also partners with Cristo Rey High School in Dorchester, looking to expose young children to careers in biotechnology who might not otherwise know much about the industry.

“I want these kids to see all these opportunities and maybe . . . redirect their career paths into biotech,” she says. “You size your dream to what you know.”


Because of a reporting error, a reference to the Tuskegee Institute syphilis study was corrected.




Pranshu Verma can be reached at pranshu.verma@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @pranshuverma_.