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Black Lives Matter: A Business Imperative

Listening and leading with responsibility

Zeta Smith, CEO Sodexo Seniors North America

As we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this month, I reflect on the impact his dedication to the civil rights movement has had on our society and to my own life and career. January 18th is also a national Day of Service in the U.S.; a day to remind us all to continue to do the hard work of serving our communities.

Recently, I had the privilege to moderate a virtual discussion about the Black Lives Matter movement, to discuss with representatives from companies who are leaders in their respective industry. This movement is important to me; it’s personal. And I am impressed with hearing from these leaders – some representing Sodexo partners – to understand how essential this is to all of us. We are in a unique time, with more motivation than ever to uplift our voices and gain insight.

Our panel included leaders in the D&I space: Paul Francisco of State Street; Gerri Mason-Hall, formerly Sodexo’s Chief Diversity and Sustainability Officer; Chris Michel from Bloomberg Americas; and Sarah Wilson from SmartRecruiters. They each shared unique perspectives about what their organizations are doing to respond to Black Lives Matter and to encourage a diverse workplace and an overall more inclusive market environment.


Why is this important?

It is a business imperative to get this right. For many Black people, this is literally a life-or-death issue. This is an everyday issue. The realities of what happen in cities across the US and around the world affect our people, our customers, and our workplace. Paul Francisco said it so well: “If we are going to have thriving organizations, we must be sure the most vulnerable populations – and our colleagues – feel they can succeed, that they can belong, and that they are visible in our organizations.”

Gerri Mason-Hall added that our teams are a reflection of the societies in which we operate. And there are insights to gain from every country in which Sodexo operates. Though we may see changes in unemployment, the fight for talent is real. So, if we want to attract top talent, we must create an inclusive environment and sense of belonging.

30% of Black People are prepared to leave their organizations in the next year. – Society for Human Resource Management

Further, new generations of investors are entering the market and have newfound priorities. Investors want to know the organizations they’re investing in are taking a stand on social justice issues. We have an obligation to show empathy, to acknowledge what’s happening, and to make sure people are heard.


What are these leading organizations doing?

It’s important to remember the roots of the issue are deep and systemic and corporations are part of the system. If we’re not part of the change, we’re part of the problem.

At Sodexo, we have been focusing on diversity and inclusion for many years, leading an ongoing conversation on the specific practices required to foster inclusion. George Floyd’s death was a pivotal moment around the world and was a catalyst for us to double down on our initiatives. We started with transparency – listening to our teams and to the global conversation and communicating our understanding. We’re increasing representation, measuring that representation, and making sure we are attracting and retaining talent. Through tools like Voice, Sodexo’s program for easing access for employees to voice their needs and concerns, we anticipate and act on behalf of our people. We’re asking ourselves how we can increase that sense of belonging and earn trust from our employees. Ultimately, it’s a matter of the investment, where we are committing resources and efforts.

As Gerri explained on the panel, we’re currently grappling with the hollow middle. Like many organizations, Sodexo has made strides in diversity at the executive level, with 40% women and 40% POC in executive leadership positions in North America. And we have great diversity among our frontline staff. However, retaining the diverse makeup of our middle is a major concern. We need to continue to build that pipeline and retain talent. We’re focusing now on investing in development opportunities and advancing within.

Regarding this hollow middle, Paul at State Street explained how they’re stepping up with a ten-point action plan. They’re looking at their talent acquisition process and implementing a sponsorship approach aimed at facilitating access to opportunities for Black employees. He made it clear that their approach is voluntary for participants. It’s critical that programs do not tokenize people.

On the subject of easing access to opportunities, Chris at Bloomberg described their partnership with the Fortune Society, which exists to ease entry for those who have previously been incarcerated. The program opens doors to the corporate world, where the cohort can be exposed to working in an office setting, leading projects, and presenting to their colleagues. Through the program they’ve seen participants go back to school for PhDs or hold on to corporate jobs, even outside of Bloomberg.

To that end, it’s critical to understand that real change requires work that extends beyond the walls of a single organization. Sarah Wilson explained that SmartRecruiters created an anti-racism plan. They provide the platform for organizations to hire employees to drive significant impact beyond their own hiring. SmartRecruiters provides recommended hiring practices to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion. They have also launched a program to circle back with applicants who weren’t matched initially to provide feedback and offer a better opportunity during the next application.


Looking Forward

“The time is always right to do what is right.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

We’re proud of the progress we continue to make. However, there is still a lot of work ahead of us.

We must continue to be the company our team members, clients, customers and investors need us to be. To foster a sense of belonging, encouraging our people to bring their whole self to work, we continue to invest in programs that uplift our Black employees.

The war for talent is real and we need to focus on the hollow middle with programs that open doors and ease access for our talented people to get the opportunities they deserve. We need to build the confidence of our Black team members and expand their network, ensuring they are exposed to those spaces where they can provide incredible value.

Sodexo has been recognized repeatedly for our DEI progress, and the accolades are appreciated; but, as I said before, this is personal. I know we have the tools in place to make real change. And we must continue to help each other overcome barriers. The fight for inclusion never stops.

January 14, 2021

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