Accenture North America CEO Julie Sweet remembers the day, in July 2016, when she realized a message to her employees wasn't going to be enough. It was after the shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota by police officers and after the shooting of Alton Sterling by police in Baton Rouge, La.
"We were hearing from our African American and Hispanic American employees about how hard it was to come to work -- I remember one said the silence was deafening," she recalls. And then Dallas happened, where five police officers were shot by a gunman. Though she sent out a message to employees, "I felt like it wasn’t enough. You can be diverse and hire a lot of people, but you are not inclusive if people don't feel like they can talk about the tough issues like race at work that affect their lives."
Within two weeks, she convened a virtual and physical meeting hosted via webcast and then led discussions in at least eight major cities, inviting all the firm's employees to have a candid conversation about race.
A young African American woman talked about the doubts she had about herself, and whether her hiring might have been about statistics, despite the company's meritocratic culture.
A white employee asked peers about the "Black Lives Matter" movement.
One black team leader described how nearly every other time he went on a business trip to Texas, he was pulled over by police -- and then had to show up at a client's location and pretend like everything was normal.
"For me, that was a pivotal moment," said Sweet, one that reminded her "how much I didn’t know."
Such open-ended conversations -- lacking of scripts or PowerPoint slides -- surfaced far more real talk about race than the typical bias training or sensitivity program, Sweet said.
Accenture is just one company that, since 2016, has tried to make race less of a taboo topic in the office. In the aftermath of the riots in Ferguson, as protests or shootings in cities like Charlotte, Baton Rouge, and Dallas occurred, and as the Black Lives Matter movement took hold, companies such as PwC, Duke Energy and Nationwide Insurance found their employees pushing them to do something, or say something, about the explosive and inescapable conversation taking place in the country about race.
Some have continued the forums, branching out into other tough-to-discuss topics. Others held talks in response to the 2016 protests but haven't repeated them. A few have added them after their CEOs signed a pledge started last year by organizations like PwC, Accenture, P&G and the Executive Leadership Council, a group that advocates for increasing the number of black executives in corporations.
Nicole Sanchez, CEO of Vaya Consulting, said she has had more interest from clients about having frank dialogues about race -- rather than merely talking about diversity and inclusion -- "in the last six months than I probably did in the previous 25 years."
Some companies, she believes, "have tried everything else and have just said 'let's go for the big elephant in the room.' " She credits the Black Lives Matter movement for helping to force the issue, even in the workplace.
When done well, Sanchez said, a direct conversation about race can have outsize effects.
But if there's little skill in facilitating the conversation, or if minority employees are made to feel like it's their job to educate their peers, it can backfire. (Recall the Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign as a corporate effort to talk about race that failed.)
"There’s nothing scarier for Americans to talk about in mixed company than race," Sanchez said. "It is extremely dangerous to throw people who are already vulnerable into a conversation where someone doesn’t have control."
At PwC, U.S. chairman Tim Ryan, who initiated the idea of the CEO pledge, said he too sensed a need to do more than email employees after the events in 2016, holding small and large group sessions across the firm. One black professional referred to his suit as his "cape," Ryan said. Some white employees asked if they should use the term "black" or "African American."
And several others pulled out their business cards and said they always carry them with them when traveling. "If I do get pulled over, I can pull it out and say 'I belong,' " Ryan recalled one saying.
"We'll teach unconscious bias training. We'll have a course for African American associates hoping they'll stay longer," said Shannon Schuyler, PwC's "chief purpose officer." But instead of thinking "we can program our way out of it, this is about having unplanned talk. How do we make this a part of our daily conversation and not this silver bullet solution?"
Executives know there's more to do. Sweet said that in a February meeting with her top 20 executives in Boston, one African American operations team leader asked the group how many of them had been to see the movie "Black Panther?" It was just after opening weekend, but when only one on the team said yes, she was struck by the divide, given it was such a major cultural event that in the black community.
"It was this moment of just awareness that the gap is bigger than we think," she said, noting that some executives have started hosting diverse groups of employees in their homes, or taking team members out for lunch without a work-related agenda. "We just need to spend more time with each other. There's no program or policy that's going to help us understand that."