At a time when the Trump administration announced (on Sept 4) that it was banning federal agencies from conducting racial sensitivity training related to “white privilege” and “critical race theory,” a growing number of Westchester businesses are trending very much in the opposite direction, making efforts to meet head-on the problems associated with racism, including discrimination, lack of diversity, toxic workplaces, turnover, and stifled productivity. New and robust antidiscrimination policies and updated employee-training sessions are focusing on such measures as hiring diversity and establishing respectful workplaces.
“This time, it’s different,” insists Wendy Wollner, founder and CEO of the global corporate training firm Balancing Life’s Issues, of the current response to racial discord. “There are very encouraging signs of hope and healing.” As her firm provides such training not only to corporations in Westchester but throughout the world, she can attest to this positive development firsthand. “Many people right now are asking, ‘What do I need to learn; how can I better communicate; how do I need to behave?’ People are really interested in learning the skills needed to create positive change,” Wollner says. And while antidiscrimination policies are inarguably the ethical way forward, companies with conscientious practices in this area also prove more successful in terms of the bottom line, Wollner points out. In other words, fairness is good for business.
Large firms, such as PepsiCo, are addressing a need for change. The company, headquartered in Purchase, has announced ambitious plans to invest some $400 million over the next five years “to address issues of inequality and create opportunity,” according to its website. PepsiCo’s Journey to Racial Equality initiative cites such goals as expanding its Black managerial population by 30%, in part through scholarship programs and recruitment at Historically Black Colleges. The company has outlined future plans that include investing millions to “strengthen Black-owned businesses,” and to dramatically increase “spending with Black-owned suppliers.” Funds will also be spent on supporting social programs for Black communities that help to counter “systemic racism.”
“If we really don’t see a change in how and to whom money is being distributed, then policies professing to care about diversity and inclusion are basically just lip service.”
—Dorcia Carrillo, Attorney
Such multimillion-dollar investments are certainly admirable but not required to make a difference. In fact, the Rye Brook-based Business Council of Westchester, with 1,000 members large and small, has teamed up with Balancing Life’s Issues to create antidiscrimination training and resources readily available online for free. Most notably, the partnership has produced a series of webinars addressing such topics as Fostering Inclusion in the Workplace, Unconscious Bias, and Coping with Civil Unrest.
“We felt it was an important thing to do,” says John Ravitz, the BCW’s executive vice president. “Businesses have been reeling from the pandemic, trying to re-emerge, then the subject of anti-racism came to the forefront with the murder of George Floyd. We wanted to do something more than just putting out a statement — we wanted a call to action.”
ENT and Allergy Associates, which has multiple Westchester offices, recently decided to make its longstanding position against racism and discrimination “more prominent,” as a direct result of tensions flaring across the country, says senior director of human resources Eric M. Saidel, SHRM-SCP, SPHR. “While our annual training has certainly been in line with state and federal guidelines, we wanted to go beyond that, to create an environment where these types of behaviors are less likely to occur.” Saidel adds that a reactive approach, by simply responding to complaints or incidents, is an outdated model. In fact, the multistate medical practice has created a new subcommittee of its board, consisting of physicians and staff, called the Committee on Diversity and Respect, which aims to improve the quality of care and encourage humane treatment more proactively.
Further, ENT and Allergy Associates’ commitment to supporting its employees will extend beyond office hours. “We now recognize that employers have some responsibility to those who are dealing with issues that may arise unrelated to the workplace,” Saidel explains, “such as their personal reaction to what’s going on in the world. There may be ways we can help, by giving them access to educational materials, resources, or support services.”
With some 46 locations spanning New York and New Jersey, ENT and Allergy Associates’ patients are a very diverse group who are better-served by a diverse and multilingual staff, he explains. “We want our patients to feel comfortable in our offices, seeing faces they can relate to and hearing languages they are more comfortable hearing,” he says. “This really does help our providers give the best medical care.”
The Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth) adheres to a similar philosophy. “With 10 hospitals across seven campuses throughout the entire Lower Hudson Valley, our patient population is quite diverse and inclusive,” says senior VP of human resources Jordy Rabinowitz. In terms of staff, “it’s important for us to mirror that and be sensitive to that,” he says. And while WMCHealth has a zero-tolerance antidiscrimination policy, Rabinowitz says recent events have led members of his department to “get out into the workplace and gently remind everyone that even though stress levels may be high, with racial tension in the streets, as well as COVID-19, we still have obligations to ourselves and to our patients to be at our best.” He notes with pride, however, that his network’s employees don’t need much reminding. “We have a workforce of over 10,000 people, and the vast majority understand these concepts implicitly. If you choose to become a healthcare professional, you are already empathetic and sympathetic, willing to recognize that people are different than you, but that doesn’t make them better or worse.”
Employee training is a priority at WCMHealth, and through platforms such as NetLearning and Workforce Academy, the local healthcare giant supplies its staff with myriad educational opportunities, both mandatory and elective.
White Plains-based attorney Dorcia Carrillo, who works largely helping to ink deals in the tech sector, emphasizes that promoting diversity extends beyond hiring. “We talk a lot about inclusion in hiring,” she says, “but I’d also like to see it more in who you’re doing business with, who you are selecting as your suppliers, as your legal team — those sorts of service providers also need to be diversified.” But solving problems of discrimination ultimately comes down to dollars and cents, according to Carrillo. “If we really don’t see a change in how and to whom money is being distributed, then policies professing to care about diversity and inclusion are basically just lip service.”
Carrillo also warns that it’s too soon to tell if real progress is being made, yet she remains hopeful. So, too, does Hephzibah Strmic-Pawl, a sociology professor at Manhattanville College and author of the recently released Understanding Racism: Theories of Oppression and Discrimination who teaches courses on race and racism. She fully supports the notion that antidiscrimination policies are good for the world and for business. “Including people from various perspectives lends well to success. You want people from a range of perspectives and [you want to] specifically recruit people from underrepresented communities. This starts a cycle of moving to a better place for everyone.”
Gale Ritterhoff is a frequent contributor to Westchester Magazine and 914INC.