“I knew I was having difficulty focusing on work with everything going on in the country and knew if it was a struggle for me, it was a struggle for others like me,” says Ricaye Harris ’05, director of diversity and inclusion for Spartanburg-based Milliken & Co.
Harris talked to a few colleagues and started planning weekly roundtable discussions for May and June focused on race after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Then, a video of George Floyd’s death made the news.
According to Harris, the first virtual roundtable drew 75 participants. The conversation was scheduled for an hour, and it exceeded the allotted time. Word spread about the event, and the following week’s meeting had more than 200 participants, including company executives. Tears were shed as associates discussed experiences with racism, and the meeting once again lasted longer than planned. As the series continued, there never seemed to be enough time and participation was so high that the software nearly crashed. A diversity and inclusion roundtable is now held monthly for Milliken associates.
“For whatever reason, 2020 is different,” says Harris. “It’s not just minorities attending these roundtables. It’s always been one particular group pushing the agenda; 2020 has forced us to stand still a little bit, and because of that, we’ve been forced to see events that happen around us.”
Jil Littlejohn ’01, director of inclusion and diversity with Hubbell Inc. in Greenville, S.C., led a discussion on how to discuss disruptive events in the workplace after Floyd’s killing. She opened her remarks with the 200 attendees by making it clear that she was emotional. She had just explained Floyd’s death to her bonus son.
“2020 has been a doozy of a year,” says Littlejohn. “It’s been exhilarating, it’s been exciting, and it’s been draining. The world woke up and decided we were behind.”
PREPARING TO LEAD
Harris began her career in human resources at Milliken after graduating from Wofford. Three years ago, she was a corporate recruiter and suggested a need for the company to do more diversity and inclusion work. Milliken’s leadership supported the endeavor and began exploring and benchmarking with Harris. She became the company’s first director of diversity and inclusion in 2019.
“It was good to see Milliken had made strides before these events,” says Harris. “It was good for associates to see that we were being intentional about this work. Today, there are financial costs if we don’t get this right. People recognize if you want to maintain your competitive advantage, you have to invest in this work.”
Littlejohn began her career in accounting at Milliken and supported diversity and inclusion efforts with the company. She later led the YWCA and Urban League of the Upstate while serving on Greenville City Council for 10 years, including five years as mayor pro-tem.
“I feel all of my life’s work has been around this work,” says Littlejohn, who is also Hubbell’s first director of inclusion and diversity.
Corporate diversity and inclusion work continue to evolve after beginning in the 1960s.
“When you look back at the D&I space, a lot of companies started out of compliance issues and evolved to where people have diverse workspaces and again a place where employees want to feel they belong.”
Harris expects companies to continue investing in diversity and inclusion efforts by reviewing policies and recruitment. It’s also understood that many people are watching corporations, especially after organizations made statements supporting diversity during the events of the summer.
“I think we’re going to see accountability increase,” says Harris. “A lot of companies made statements, and in the next six to 12 months, people are going to be like, ‘loved the statement and appreciate the words, but now what?’ We have to be intentional and have to be accountable. I look for companies to get serious and have strategies.”
Littlejohn says the need for accountability should force companies to acknowledge the long-term commitment to diversity work.
“You can’t force it on anyone,” says Littlejohn. “The main thing is to create an environment where your workplace is inclusive and allow individuals to learn and grow and make sure any discrimination is frowned upon. Extend yourself grace and allow room to make mistakes. Stay in the game.”