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Racism, recession, coronavirus: How employers are addressing this ‘unparalleled’ era of employee anguish

June 19, 2020, 4:00 PM UTC

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A global pandemic, an economic implosion, and a national reckoning over systemic racism have created a brutal combination of stresses for Americans in the workforce—and new challenges for the companies who employ them.

“We were already facing an unparalleled time of concern for well-being. So there was physical, financial, emotional—and the civil unrest became almost a further catalyst to everyone realizing the changes required,” said Donna Morris, executive vice president and chief people officer at Walmart.

She and senior human resources executives at Salesforce and Chevron spoke Thursday at a Fortune Brainstorm Health virtual event on how employers should reimagine employee health and well-being in the current era. The conversation was moderated by Arianna Huffington, CEO of Thrive Global and cochair of Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference.

On the eve of Juneteenth, the holiday to celebrate the day in 1865 when slaves in Galveston, Texas, learned about their emancipation, the executives discussed their internal and external responses to the waves of protests against racism and police brutality. At Chevron, for example, senior leaders have been holding internal company discussions about the experiences of their black employees.

“These are conversations that many people have never had before in an open forum, but we’re getting comfortable having very uncomfortable conversations,” said Rhonda Morris, a vice president and chief human resources officer for Chevron. “And we also recognize that’s not enough.”

The oil and gas company has long had employee resource groups and dedicated outreach efforts to historically black colleges and universities, but Morris says its results are still insufficient. “We have to really hold the mirror up and look at ourselves, and what are we actually going to do differently that will drive a different outcome,” she added.

Walmart’s Morris noted that the protests and resulting looting of some of the retailer’s stores have complicated its discussions around employee health these days, especially for essential workers who have been going into stores during the pandemic and felt their physical safety was newly threatened.

“We embrace diversity within the company,” she said. “There’s that fine line between the true belief that people should have a voice and they should protest, but when that crosses over into increased safety concerns, that was really, really difficult.”

Jody Kohner, senior vice president of employee engagement at Salesforce, said the software giant has joined many other companies in observing Juneteenth this year. While the company has made it a floating holiday that employees can choose to take, rather than a mandated paid holiday, Salesforce is asking employees who are not taking the day off to minimize meetings “to create space for learning and for rest.” The company is also holding a related event on Friday.

“Our response was to try to pull people together, to focus on the whole situation, and to not try to create a one-point solution, but to hear many voices and create a sense of community,” she said. “We all can’t be well if we’re all not well together.”

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