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Gloria Johns headshot

How is DEI Changing Companies? We Asked Three CEOs

To gauge the influence of DEI in the workplace, 3p recently interviewed three CEOs of companies that work with CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion.
By Gloria Johns

In terms of workplace relationships and employee-employer interactions, today’s work environment looks and feels nothing like it did in the early 1900s, especially considering the increasing focus on DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion). And the leap from the past to the present has often happened at the pointed end of a sharp stick in the form of labor laws.

For example, in 1910 as many as 1.75 million workers in the U.S. were between 10 and 15 years old. But in 1916, the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act not only set minimum age limits for young workers but defined what safety conditions had to be in place and introduced overall better protection for minors.

In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was introduced and “collective bargaining” became a part of daily vernacular for management and worker alike.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 served as a broad blanket of protection for almost any form of prejudice based on race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or national origin.

In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act established safe standards in the workplace, and Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 “prohibits discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities from application to termination, and all privileges of employment.”

As a result of these and other workplace restrictions, the labor force of today is more diverse and better educated, and working conditions are safer than ever.

But against the backdrop of a nation of laws and workplace programs that are now much more comprehensive than a collection challenges for human resources professionals, challenges remain. For example, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was intended to abolish wage disparity based on sex, yet women still only make 83 cents for every man’s dollar earned.

And when programs and laws fail, the fallout can be spectacular with a financial cost of noncompliance at least equal to the human tragedy. According to a study published by the Society for Human Resources (SHRM), in 2017, the top 10 employment-related complaints had a combined value of $2.72 billion.

But at the intersection of the law and the latest trend in employee relations is the effort from corporations to “do the right thing.” To that end, the CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion is the largest CEO-driven business commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace and a model for an actionable response. Some 2,000 CEOs representing 13 million employees across 85 industries have pledged to engage in concrete action that seeks to reverse not only workplace inequalities but societal ills as well.

We can attribute the creation of DEI programs in part as having been inspired by shifts in societal norms, and in some cases even tragedy. Generally speaking, the 1960s saw an America less tolerant of discrimination, and many DEI leaders can point to the murder of George Floyd in 2020 as a catalyst that propelled their employee base toward introspection and change.

But a statement from Tim Ryan, CEO Action Co-founder and PwC Senior Partner, is relevant for the future. “Being outraged with action is not enough. We need to roll up our sleeves and help each other make progress.”

And therein lies the difference between mere laws and creating a work environment that seeks to elevate the social conscience—an initiative corporations didn’t pretend to undertake in the past; rather, being willing to overlook an employee’s interactions with racist social groups as long as there was a clear delineation between workplace comportment and, say, membership in the KKK.

As an example of the overlay between corporate responsibility and response to current societal events, on March 5, CEO Action published a CEO Action statement — one of many social commentaries — on recent LGBTQ+ legislation. Representing the 2,000 CEO signatories, the statement reads, “Recent legislation against the LGBTQ+ community across the US undermines years of progress in the fight against discrimination and achieving equality. As business leaders we must collectively do more to address societal issues that continue to impact our people and our communities. CEO Action remains steadfast in our pursuit to cultivate a more diverse, inclusive and equitable future for all. We will continue to work with our signatories to build a world where people can live openly in their truth without fear.”

In terms of the influence of DEI in the workplace and by extension, the community, TriplePundit posed questions of effectiveness and sustainability to three CEOs of companies that are participating in CEO Action. The following are the responses from Colleen Keating, CEO at FirstKey Homes; David Scorey, CEO at Keolis North America; and Jeffrey Solomon, Cowen’s CEO.

3p: How do we ensure that DEI Programs of today don’t become half-measures or failed attempts of workplace equality laws and programs of the past?

Keating: It starts with DEI being embedded in a company’s culture and clearly demonstrated in words and actions across the organization. When we stop thinking about DEI as a “program” and recognize it as an imperative that’s woven into the very fabric of our company then DEI can’t be a half-measure or a failure.

For our goal of furthering DEI to be successful and sustainable, we must acknowledge that it is, at its core, an evergreen work in progress, with ongoing conversations about unconscious bias, conscious inclusion, equity and belonging.

Scorey: We are looking around the corners of the transportation industry and we see changes that we want to be at the front of. That means building teams of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and talents that will help get us there. However, we have to take this a step further and ensure they feel supported and valued. This is where the CEO Action pledge comes into play: it’s another way to hold ourselves accountable.

Solomon: Cowen approaches DEI, as it does all of our core business functions such as finance, legal, human resources or marketing, through a strategic lens. In our view, to achieve the greatest impact, DEI should be embedded into all aspects of a company’s business.

3p: How do we gauge whether or not corporate DEI programs have a positive impact on their local communities and beyond?

Keating: Aligning a company’s offering, its values and mission with the right strategic community partners is at the heart of making a meaningful, positive impact in our local communities.

Scorey: We directly serve the communities where we operate every day. For instance, the fact is that 55 percent of overall transit riders are women, but most networks’ service patterns cater heavily towards the majority-male, 9-5 commuter. What might those service patterns look like if a working mother designed them? Representation matters, and it can have major impacts on how companies operate. Keolis Transit America – our bus operations subsidiary – was recently recognized by Keolis Group for having one of our industry’s highest percentage of female employees across the globe.

Solomon: Systemic change happens through metrics, accountability and deep leadership engagement. From our perspective, this is an opportunity for organizations to take a fresh look at their strategic goals and financial objectives to see if they are reaching their full potential. It’s an exciting journey, and while we are in our early stages, we know we are on the right path alongside the 2,000-plus other organizations who make up CEO Action and are dedicated to impacting meaningful change.

3p: How do we approach the concept of “hard work” that is inherent in a successful DEI program with a workforce that has been programmed for instant gratification?

Keating: We refer to our DEI commitment as our “DEI Journey,” which by its vernacular, suggests that we are progressing and furthering our mission, while neither short-term nor going to provide instant gratification.

Scorey: As executives, we need to be highly visible in our DEI efforts, approach these initiatives with a long-term perspective, and accept that lasting change takes time. Richard Branson has a line that sums this up nicely, and that is: “There are no quick wins in business – it takes years to become an overnight success.”

Solomon: To truly incorporate DEI into an organization’s DNA, there needs to be a focus on culture and systemic change. Culture change happens through education, awareness and honest dialogue.

Image credit: Yan Krukov via Pexels

Gloria Johns headshot

Gloria Johns' career has included her work as a columnist for Scripps-Howard, Gannett and Tribune News Service. She writes for the San Angelo Standard Times and the West Texas Angelus. Previously she was a special features reporter for San Angelo LIVE! Gloria also has nearly thirty years of award-winning grant writing experience for federal, state and county funds to support social, medical, educational and arts projects. She has enjoyed a successful career in telecommunications and nonprofit management. "Gloria is a Purdue University graduate. She has also attended Angelo State University for graduate courses and studied Texas Family Law at Sam Houston State University. She lives just on the edge of the Chihuahua desert in west Texas.

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