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Taft Communications and NJBIA recently hosted a virtual webinar on how communications can promote racial equity in the workplace. 

And the theme of “words matter” was a constant in the important hourlong discussion – even if some of those words aren’t easy to broach and not all subsequent actions have yet arrived.  

“Change is a journey,” said panelist Allison Banks-Moore, chief diversity officer at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. “You know, this is not a sprint. This is going to take some time. We’ve been experiencing this over decades and decades, but we’re at a tipping point now.  

“So why not take advantage of that, so we can leverage it and really do some good? We can turn this all around if we start talking to one another and begin that conversation. But not to just check a box and say we’ve had the conversation. It’s got to be ongoing. This is something that has got to be sustainable.” 

The fifth annual New Jersey State of Diversity study, conducted by Taft Communications and NJBIA and released over the summer, revealed there is still much work to do and ground to cover when it comes to racial equity in the workplace. 

The study found there were marked increases in how often workers overheard things at work that might be considered offensive to certain groups. 

Additionally, 74% of respondents said they strongly believe employers should play a role in promoting racial equity. 

Co-moderator Sheila Cort, from Taft Communications, asked what managers can say when they struggle to find the words to discuss racial inequity in the workplace. 

“It can be a stumbling block,” Banks-Moore said. “People are very cautious about what they should say and they shouldn’t say. 

“Some of the counsel that I give is that if you have a friend, a co-worker who has an ill parent, or a relative or someone has passed away, you would go to them and say, ‘I just want to let you know, I’m thinking about you, I care about you and if you want to talk, I’m here for you.’ So what’s the difference? There is no difference. 

“The recipients of all the social injustices right now are hurting. So you may not be able to empathize with what they’re going through, but you can reach out to them and you can say to them, ‘I’m thinking about you. I care about you. If you want to talk, I’m here to listen.’ And that’s really very important. That’s the first connector. That would eliminate that stumbling block. You’re just being human. You’re talking from the heart.” 

Panelist Ryan Haygood, CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, echoed Banks-Moore assessment that honest conversations need to be more than checking a box. 

“We should aspire to have constant conversations, even those uncomfortable conversations,” Haygood said. 

Haygood said he has been “heartened” by the rise in conversation of racial equity in the workplace of late, comparing the time to when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book, ‘Where Do We Go from Here – Chaos or Community?’ in 1967. 

He said this is a moment to “organize ourselves to move those words into actions, in a way we build community and steer clear of the chaos.” 

“If there’s a picture, it is that we’re all standing on a foundation and the foundation is cracked,” Haygood continued. “And those are cracks of structural racism and it’s through those cracks that our communities are experiencing real earthquakes.  

“The challenge is now how do we move those conversation into actions in a way that we build community in our places of employment, in the broader community and the broader societal level, in a way that fills in those cracks and to build a new foundation?” 

NJBIA President and CEO Michele Siekerka, who also co-moderated the panel, said she has been encouraged by more businesses who are “stepping in” to be transparent in their desire and ability “to learn, be engaged and involved” in improving their diversity and inclusion. 

She asked Rina Desai, director of financial planning and analysis at Panasonic, what promising new approaches businesses can take, and have taken, to improve racial equity in the workplace. 

“One of the most important things to realize is there has been a shift in D&I,” said Desai, who also serves as vice chair of NJBIA’s Diversity & Inclusion Council. “And it’s a new way of thinking, and now, more than ever, innovation and communication go hand and hand with D&I initiatives. 

“Some organizations are making bold moves. Take a look at Starbucks. After a racial incident at one of their cafes, they shut down completely for one day, costing a million dollars. At Panasonic, we have completely revived the D&I, using multiple strategies focused on communication, education and continuous listening.” 

Desai added that, at Panasonic, there’s a constant commitment to communication of its stance on racial equity and communications around D&I. 

“We relaunched our (Employee Resource Groups) and all those ERG leaders now sit on an employee council that has a seat at the table with the executives and really can represent the underrepresented,” she said. “And we engage with an external management company to ensure our talent practices, our anti-bias, as well as continue to educate our leaders and employees.” 

To view the entire “Words Matter” webinar, click here.