General Counsel Say Their Companies Have a Renewed Focus on Fighting Systemic Racism
Hiring, cultural awareness and personal experiences focus of CLI roundtable

by Julia Cardi

The Center for Legal Inclusiveness, as part of a weeklong summit, held an in-house counsel roundtable discussion Aug. 12 focused on how the spring and summer’s attention on systemic racism has prompted discussions about racism and diversity in the panelists’ companies.

WilmerHale partner Gina Rodriguez moderated the panel, which included Michael-Bryant Hicks, general counsel of animal pharmaceutical company Elanco; Nancy Lipson, general counsel of mining company Newmont Corporation; and Josh Widoff, chief legal officer of the Black Creek Group, a real estate investment management company.

Lipson said the summer has brought attention to the company’s lack of training for cultural acclimation for employees who come to the U.S. from other countries. Newmont has mine sites outside the U.S. and so has “expat” training for employees who go work in foreign countries.

“What we heard was some really candid feedback from some of our inpats about what it’s like to come to the U.S. from a place like Ghana and suddenly experience racial discrimination or tensions that were not experienced in Ghana,” Lipson said. “And it really made us think about, why aren’t we doing a similar type of training and considering similar types of hardships for folks who are coming here?”

Hicks said people at his company have been having more open conversations with each other about personal experiences they have had with discrimination at work and in their communities. That the conversations are happening is remarkable, he said, because he has come to expect people to not relate to his experiences or deny them. For example, Hicks said white colleagues typically have told him that he has probably misinterpreted microaggressions such as instances of getting followed in stores, so he had learned to avoid having such conversations at work.

“What that’s caused me to do as a professional and as an adult is shut down, because once you deny my experience, we’re not really having a conversation at that point. So, I’ve been surprised that just the opposite has been happening lately.”

Widoff said people at his company have also been having more open conversations aimed at understanding systemic racism.

“What has resulted specifically in our company is some very meaningful conversations around personal experiences that people have had and instances in which they have experienced racism themselves, and allowed those of us who have been more fortunate in our lives … to hear those stories and to better appreciate that perspective,” he said.

Of course, talking about fighting systemic racism is different than actual concrete efforts to do it, and Rodriguez asked the panelists what companies can do to make noticeable progress.

Hicks said the common practice of hiring using people’s existing social and professional networks tends to slow down efforts to improve diversity in companies’ upper ranks because people’s acquaintances tend to look like them.

“That incidentally can happen even if people aren’t being purposely racist or discriminatory against anyone,” Hicks said. “You probably don’t know as many non-white attorneys as you know white attorneys, and so that means that organizations are going to recreate themselves in the image that they currently are.”

Hicks said Elanco has a lot of market power due to its size and can use that to influence other companies it works with to improve their diversity and inclusion. He already vets diversity of outside law firms the company hires, and he said he is working on evaluating the diversity of the company’s vendors.

“You do something like that, and then you’re starting to talk about something that’s meaningful to the lives of non-white people,” Hicks said. “Companies like Elanco … spend a lot of money in communities where they operate. They spend money on accounting firms and investment banks and law firms, and they buy all kinds of inputs for their business.”

Lipson said she sees two broad categories: diversity and inclusion in employment, and also making sure people of color or from other marginalized groups have their basic human rights for everyday life. Companies should have social and community efforts to make sure they are addressing the latter, she said.

“What can entities be doing to make sure that we’re improving those circumstances for the historically disadvantaged in those basic human right categories?” she said. “So, I see at as two-pronged versus just your classic ‘D & I’ work.” Lipson said Newmont works to tap into local supply chains in the company’s “host” communities to make sure their local economies benefit from the company’s presence. For example, she said at a mine site in Ghana that has required resettling some communities in order to use the land, the company has implemented a program to make sure women heads of household receive compensation as well as the men for use of the land.

“Our understanding was, if we did that, then it behooved the community in a different way and it benefitted the family in a different way,” Lipson said. “And we had a high take rate.”

This article appears in the Aug. 17 issue of Law Week Colorado. To read other complete articles from that issue, order a copy online. Subscribers can request a digital PDF of the issue.