An Uncomfortable Truth

John Saunders, FleishmanHillard president and CEO, shared the note below with global employees.

“I could share a list of every micro-aggression, every slur shouted from a passing car, every time I felt harassed, exoticized, tokenised, too dark, every time I had security guards follow me around a shop, every time I was randomly selected by police on the street to show my ID and asked if I had drugs on me.” – the words of Sean Gallen a young Black Irish designer and writer now based in Berlin writing in the “Irish Times” this week about his experience growing up in Ireland.

As I reflect on the tragedies of the past weeks, I am both furious and saddened by the shocking levels of racism that remain so rampant in 2020. Issues relating to race are a particular sickness in American society but also across the globe. Just think, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd who were mercilessly killed at the hands of law enforcement. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have had a lifelong love affair with America, but America is off the charts in terms of its levels of brutality and the number of those killed each year by police. All that said, the global Black Lives Matter protests that have taken place across the world this past month have highlighted that racism is by no means confined to America.

When it comes to this truly disturbing issue, words can be cheap, but what we say and what we do really matters right now. At FleishmanHillard, we have had a deep commitment to diversity. In some parts, we have carried out our mission. In too many other ways, our commitment got stuck in good intentions and we have not made the kind of progress to which we have previously committed ourselves. We allowed ourselves to become side-tracked by the daily grind of the business. Instead, our commitment and ambition to become the most inclusive agency in the world should have been at the epicentre of every business decision. In truth, it wasn’t and this makes me very uncomfortable – as it ought to.

A series of candid, intimate discussions with colleagues during the past week have left me deeply unsettled. The reflection in the mirror is clear – we must change. We must get better and we need to do it now. I want FleishmanHillard’s people to be proud. I want Black and Brown team members, and all our colleagues of diverse backgrounds, to be uplifted and to feel they are valued and truly at home here.

As a leader it starts with me. After a groundswell of brave and passionate grassroots efforts across our firm, lengthy discussion and careful reflection, I would like to share our initial commitments which are part of a larger, long-term and deliberate plan we are holding ourselves accountable to:

Beginning Immediately

  • Recognizing Friday, June 19, “Juneteenth,” as a companywide day off along with all Omnicom agencies. Colleagues around the world will show solidarity and reflect and engage on this day in 1865 that marked the end of slavery in the United States.
  • Chief Diversity Officer. While diversity is a priority for us ALL, we will for the first time in our 74-year history, make this a dedicated leadership role reporting to me and our COO, and working with leadership across our global network, including our Chief Talent Officer.
  • Active listening through regular firmwide #LosetheWhisper programs. We will listen more, so we can learn.
  • Challenging our clients, with dedicated counsel, to show up differently. We will be vocal on asking them to embrace an inclusive and progressive stance on issues happening in our world – not just in America and their role in solving them.
  • Continue our practice of analysing compensation for all diverse employees to ensure market competitive salaries are reflected in our 2020 cycle.
  • Senior Leadership will be held accountable for engaging in change as soon as they can, each time they can.
  • Our most recent Cabinet meeting was devoted in large measure to the subject of diversity. Our next one will have a single agenda item – Diversity.
  • Immediately, we will reignite our Alfred Fleishman Diversity Fellowship – strengthening our talent pipeline with exceptional junior level professionals.

And Moving Ahead

  • By July 15, creating a benchmark for our DE&I progress and consistent measurement against it.
  • Changing our agency’s face. We will require diverse talent on our largest client teams and diverse talent as client leaders.
  • Relentless focus on retaining and growing our existing talent by ensuring opportunities for advancement and promotion.
  • Dedicated funding and investments to fuel Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) hiring, retention, training and development.
  • We will move DE&I to the centre of our business – touching all areas from our Client Experience to our Business Development and beyond – treating it as critical and essential to our viability and license to operate.
  • We need critical mass. This requires strength in numbers and vested leadership cross-agency to drive DE&I forward – we will not have FleishmanHillard’s Black and Brown employees shoulder this load on their own.

More to Come

I do not have all the answers, but I know action is critical. And we have already started. We are also putting far more rigor to plans that already exist. We will measure, evaluate and have honest feedback cycles on what is working and what must be done better. This is not about platitudes, this is about our vow to be the change we want to see in the world – one step and one day at a time. Unlike in the recent past, there can be no pause button applied this time whenever we are caught up in the fog of daily business.

We will do all we can to rid America of its original sin – racism. But the rest of us have a lot to answer for too. That’s the Uncomfortable Truth.