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Creating a More Diverse Workforce Can’t Wait


BMO recently hosted a Diversity Panel discussion examining the issues behind the anti-racism protests sweeping the world and how we can promote healing in our communities. It was a frank and open dialogue on the stark lack of representation of Black employees, their experience, and how companies can effect meaningful corporate and cultural change.

Every day for nearly a month, people in the United States, and around the world, have been protesting against police brutality and racial injustices toward Black peoples. While there’s a long way to go before systemic racism becomes an issue of the past, companies must take meaningful action now to create more diverse and inclusive workforces.

That was the main takeaway from a recent BMO Diversity Panel, which was moderated by Deland Kamanga, Head of Global Markets, BMO Capital Markets, and featured Della Britton Baeza, CEO of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work, and Darrel Hackett, Head of U.S. Wealth Management, BMO Financial Group. 

Kamanga began the panel by saying discussions around race can be difficult but noted they’re important conversations to have. Start by showing support for colleagues, he said.

“Talking about race can be uncomfortable – people don’t know how,” Kamanga said. “But showing your colleagues support right now would mean so much. Speaking up, taking people aside, showing that you’re with them.”

All of the panelists acknowledged that there’s something different about the daily protests and the discussions around racial inequality from the conversations that have taken place in the past. Britton Baeza, who participated in the 1968 protests as a high school student and who remembers her father marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1963 March on Washington, said that what’s happening today is “beyond my imagination.” It’s different, she said, in part because people of all races and backgrounds are expressing their anger and turning out to protest.

Guardedly Optimistic

“It’s an amazing coalition of people – it’s historic,” she said. “Do I think this will bring systemic change? I am guardedly optimistic.”

Hackett also said he was heartened by the diversity of supporters, and thinks that the world is ready to start having meaningful discussions about humanity and social justice. However, for change to happen, people and companies will have to keep the momentum going.

“Here at BMO and in other organizations I’m involved with, the conversation is different,” he said. “What we need to do is make sure that this isn’t a moment that passes, and that we really rally and do something about it.”

Bush, who works with companies to help develop and improve corporate cultures, is also excited about the future. However, diversity isn’t something that happens overnight, and it may not be easy for some businesses to adapt, especially ones that haven’t taken inclusion seriously, he explained. 

“I’ve interacted with hundreds of CEOs, and some of them just met their Black employee resource groups for the first time and it didn’t go well,” he said. “If you haven’t been doing this, it’s a tough experience.”

Listen and learn 

While developing a more diverse workplace requires hard work, it’s something everyone can do, said Bush. It starts by creating a culture that’s safe for everyone – meaning that people, no matter their background or position in the company, should be free to share ideas without fear. No one should belittle someone for saying something wrong.

“Safety is what’s important,” said Bush.

Once people feel safe, companies can then start having what Bush calls “listening sessions” around race and workplace diversity. That then leads to more learning and then action.

“It’s a self-journey,” Bush noted about the listening and learning process. “We have to respect people on that journey, but there is an urgency. There also can’t be just one day of listening –companies have to build this in. Yes, they have to hit their numbers and sales targets, but they have to do this, too, because this is going to be the reason that they hit their business metrics.”

Britton Baeza cautioned companies to avoid the mistake of grouping all races and genders together. While diversity includes people of all different backgrounds, businesses can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to inclusion.

“This is a moment peculiar to Black people,” she said. “It’s what Black people have waited a long time for. You have to do these conversations separately.”

She thinks this generation of young people are becoming more empowered to effect change. Many of the Black college students the Foundation works with routinely express being upset and demoralized around how they’re treated and how they’ve been marginalized at school and at work, but they’ve been energized by the current outpouring of support. 

“They have well-heeled friends and others of different backgrounds who want this to stop,” she said. “They’re feeling that alliance and it’s giving them a sense of leadership. What we should say to them is, ‘This is your moment, you’re our future, be brave.’”

Change starts at the top

Creating a more diverse workforce is not, of course, a new idea, with numerous companies focusing their D&I efforts on gender equality. The push to have more, mostly white, women in the workforce has been positive, said Bush, as it’s given other groups a sort of template they can follow.

“If one groups finds a way to break through, we can all learn and follow,” he said.

While the mission for gender diversity is by no means accomplished, Bush said the world is turning its attention to Black workers and particularly Black women. “It’s time for companies to focus on what’s going on with Black employees,” he said. “If this group can have their situation improved, then the roadmap and techniques and approaches can be used for all underrepresented groups.”

Companies, he adds, need a plan to resolve the inequalities in their workforce. In many companies, there are no Black employees, which doesn’t make sense when Black people make up 12% of the U.S. population. The ones that do have Black staff, tend to not have any Black executives. 

“That’s the systemic part,” he said. “How come some people are hired, some people get developed, some people get promoted, some people get certain opportunities for expansion, and some don’t? There seems to be this problem. And so what does a CEO need to do? They can’t solve the executive team problem today, but what's their plan to solve it? Tell me, in 2023, is your team going to look the same?”

Change, said Bush, must start at the CEO level, and he is optimistic that executive teams can look different in three years than they do now. But they need to begin developing a pipeline of talent today. Companies must have a plan of action that covers everything from what universities they recruit students from, to where they set up offices to how they compensate employees and more. 

After talking to more than 150 executives over the last few days, though, Bush thinks changes can be made. “The CEOs I’ve spoken to are revved up about this now, but can they sustain it?” he asked. “We’re going to see, but I’m an optimist.” 

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