Deloitte: Listening, Learning, and Taking Action Against Systemic Bias and Racism
As the world’s largest professional services organization, Deloitte built its brand by helping Fortune 500 clients solve some of their most complex challenges through the innovative thinking of its diverse workforce. While Deloitte has had a longstanding commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion in both the workplace and communities, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery—among many others—have highlighted how much work is still ahead to help build a truly inclusive and antiracist society.
In the wake of these tragedies, Deloitte intensified its focus on confronting racial inequities and rooting out bias in its communities. Deloitte’s leaders first acknowledged the grief and trauma experienced by Black employees related to the events, then began the hard work of listening, learning, acting, and evolving together.
In the words of Deloitte’s US Board Chair Janet Foutty and US CEO Joseph Ucuzoglu from an open letter they wrote to Deloitte professionals in June:
As an organization deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, Deloitte stands against the legacy of systemic bias, racism, and unequal treatment that continues to plague our communities. You have our unwavering commitment that our intense focus will not fade as the news cycle shifts—Deloitte is in it for the long term, and we will do the hard work to change the unacceptable status quo.
One critical step Deloitte took in order to amplify efforts over the long haul was forming its Black Action Council, co-led by David Harrison, senior partner, Deloitte Risk and Financial Advisory, and Kavitha Prabhakar, principal and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, Deloitte. Its mission: to architect and execute Deloitte’s long-term strategy to advance its Black colleagues and communities by developing and sustaining a culture that stands against racism for its people, its firm, and its communities.
Prabhakar, who has been with the organization for more than 20 years, says that taking the first step of simply acknowledging the gravity of the situation has been incredibly meaningful:
Starting in June, Janet and Joe led a series of candid conversations—”Safe Space” sessions—that gave us the opportunity to come together and acknowledge systemic inequities. We continue to have these listening sessions today, because it’s not as if those inequities and injustices have just ended. We also organized moments of reflection for all of Deloitte where a senior leader shared their perspective, followed by an eight-minute, 46-second pause. Those early actions inspired a significant response—we received hundreds of notes by members of our Black professional community who felt seen and heard. So many said it would’ve been too difficult if they had to act like nothing was wrong inside these walls. It was important for us not to expect that of our people.
Important, indeed. Catalyst’s Emotional Tax studies, which examine the experiences of Asian, Black, LatinX, and multiracial employees in the United States and Canada, found that these professionals pay an “emotional tax” at work when they feel they must be on guard to protect themselves against bias. Emotional tax is the combination of feeling different from peers at work because of gender, race, and/or ethnicity, and the associated effects on health, well-being, and the ability to thrive at work. These experiences can be particularly acute for people of color who fear being stereotyped, receiving unfair treatment, or feeling like the “other.” Employees who feel on guard are most likely to want to leave their employers, and the loss of this talent is deeply detrimental to organizations. To begin the process of undoing this emotional tax, Catalyst found that leaders must listen, learn, and team up with employees, and hold one another accountable for being inclusive leaders.
Deloitte is doing just that. Besides acknowledging the heavy toll of widespread injustice and creating an opportunity for reflection, the company actively listens to its Black community in order to better understand what it is doing well as an employer and where it needs to make changes. But that kind of listening requires a particular mindset, says Prabhakar:
Active listening requires us to truly digest what people are saying without quickly moving to sweeping generalizations. Simply absorbing the rawness of what’s being shared was a critical first step. We talk about empathy as walking in other people’s shoes, but my definition of empathy is walking in others’ shoes and remembering to take off your own shoes first.
The Black Action Council consists of 12 senior leaders and more than 75 staff, 50% of whom are Black and 50% of whom are women. Prabhakar notes this is because “the challenges a staff person faces are very different from those a leader faces; recognizing and understanding that to do better we need to meet the distinct needs of our people.”
Only after an extended period of connecting with and listening to Black employees across a range of levels did the Black Action Council begin to formulate a plan, always remembering their focus on “action.” Deloitte designed and executed on a set of “down payments”—which inspired swift action, building momentum, and building trust, while analyzing the data and associated root causes that would shape their long-term strategy for lasting, sustainable change in the organization.
While the end goal is a fully engrained culture of systemic equity and allyship, the organization understands that this will take time, focus, and accountability. In the meantime, Deloitte has invested in a series of immediate-term actions meant to underscore its commitment to racial equity.
Just one example: Deloitte’s contribution of $10 million and many pro-bono hours of work to a variety of organizations focused on fighting for social justice, equal employment, wealth equality, and educational opportunities in underserved communities. The organization’s longer-term actions in service of the larger goal include reexamining the talent lifecycle—for example, recruiting and hiring practices, evaluating its relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and rethinking how best to hold leaders and one another accountable for driving change. These efforts already appear to be making a difference: this fall, Deloitte welcomed the most diverse group of new hires in its history.
Deloitte’s ability to make such marked progress in a matter of months is because the organization sees diversity, equity, and inclusion as a business imperative and a critical pillar of the firm’s core strategy, not just a talent strategy. Focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion promotes innovation and business growth and creates an environment in which people can connect, belong, and grow. At Deloitte, it drives who they are as an organization: a social enterprise with purpose and a desire to have an impact. Prabhakar, for one, is exceedingly proud of how her organization has responded:
The situation is not unique to us…most companies in corporate America face this challenge. I am really proud that Deloitte moved from symbolic action to deliberate, sustainable actions focused on improving equity. We recognized that when you are an organization of this size and scale, you not only have work to do in looking inward, but also in the role you play in society.
As for Prabhakar, she is grateful to be able to bring the most authentic version of herself to work every day. “I am seen, heard, and valued,” she says. As a woman, minority, and immigrant, she strongly feels she would not be where she is today without the mentors and sponsors at Deloitte—where she has spent her whole career—who had dreams for her that were bigger than the dreams she had for herself. As for what’s to come, she finds hope in the organization’s commitment to be vulnerable, dedication to change, and drive for greater societal impact. She explains:
While we have had strong results in the past on fostering an inclusive culture, we still have much more to do, and our ability to set the tone from the top, and to be nimble and agile to address new challenges, is what gives me hope and confidence in our future. We will evolve and innovate!