Lee Jourdan, the retired chief diversity officer at Chevron

Lee Jourdan, the retired chief diversity officer at Chevron. — Photo for The Washington Post by Callaghan O’Hare

Days had passed since George Floyd’s murder, and Lee Jourdan, then Chevron’s chief diversity and inclusion officer and one of the highest-ranking Black executives at the oil giant, was struggling for the right words. “I’m scared,” he wrote at last in a company blog post. What he needed from his Chevron colleagues was “a collective recognition that racism exists” — including at work, “hidden behind titles and badges and smiles.”

Over the next year, Jourdan said he saw White senior executives striving like never before to understand what it’s like to be Black at Chevron. But he was disappointed with the results of Chevron’s efforts to increase Black representation at the company.

“It became a battle between how far do we want to lean into this and not wanting to turn folks off,” Jourdan, who retired from Chevron in May, said in an interview.

Eighteen months after the country’s leading businesses pledged to address racial inequality within their ranks, a Washington Post review of the 50 most valuable public companies reveals that Black employees represent a strikingly small fraction of top executives — and that the people tapped to boost inclusion often struggle to do so.

According to the analysis, only 8% of “C-suite” executives — the highest corporate leaders, often those reporting to the CEO — are Black.

At least 8 companies — Walmart, Nvidia, Cisco, Pfizer, T-Mobile, Costco, Honeywell and Qualcomm — list no Black executives among their leadership team as of December, according to information they supplied to The Post.

The percentage of Black executives in the C-suite equals or surpasses America’s Black population of 12% at 10 companies. Within that group, Black executives made up at least 20% of the C-suite at five companies — Merck, UPS, AT&T, UnitedHealth Group and Home Depot.

Fourteen companies declined to share the racial composition of their top executives.

“It became a battle between how far do we want to lean into this and not wanting to turn folks off.”

The review also shows that the diversity chiefs whom companies have increasingly relied on to foster inclusive workplaces and expand career opportunities for underrepresented groups are often not adequately empowered.

Only 13 companies include their diversity chiefs in top leadership, the review showed. Without that seat at the table, some current and former chief diversity officers say they have limited influence and authority to push through their initiatives.

Special attention needed

Diversity chiefs face pressure to create opportunities for all underrepresented groups, including women and LGBTQ employees. But many say special attention must be paid to Black employees, who typically trail other racial demographics in senior leadership ranks. Since Floyd’s death, more corporations are beginning to acknowledge the role racial bias has played in how Black employees are treated and evaluated, hampering their chances of promotion. However, some diversity chiefs and consultants question how corporate America will respond to an increasing public backlash.

“At the end of the day, I measure success by what’s happening with Black representation in these organizations,” said Rosalind Hudnell, Intel’s longtime chief diversity officer who retired in 2018. “If you have a chief diversity officer and their CEO has said ‘we care about Black lives’ and there are no Black lives in the C-suite, success has not been achieved.”

The Business Roundtable, which represents the CEOs of more than 200 companies, declined to respond on the record to The Post’s findings and instead pointed to its members’ efforts to advance racial equity since Floyd’s death, including “creating opportunities for employees of color to take on managerial positions.”

“Real progress has been made, and Business Roundtable CEOs know that much more is needed to close the racial wealth gap and address other inequities faced by communities of color,” the BRT wrote in November in the one-year update to its racial equity initiative.

Since Floyd was killed by police in May 2020, the 50 biggest companies have pledged nearly $50 billion toward racial justice causes, according to a previous Post analysis. Virtually all have reported to shareholders a renewed commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Mentions of “diversity” and “inclusion” in annual reports filed to the Securities and Exchange Commission jumped sixfold from 2019 to 2020, according to a Post analysis. In 2020, 46 of the 50 companies included at least one diversity-related word in their filing. Just 17 did so in 2019. The word “racism” did not appear.

Chevron added a “Diversity and Inclusion” section to its 2020 SEC report — but only in reference to promoting “neurodiversity” and supporting “women reentering the workforce” — not race.

A Chevron spokeswoman said the SEC filing describes measures intended to “further advance” the company’s diversity and inclusion practices.

While 27 of the 50 companies surveyed by The Post report tying a portion of executive compensation to diversity measures — with McDonald’s, Google, Procter & Gamble, PayPal, Apple and Wells Fargo having made the change since Floyd’s murder — few outline the criteria for determining such awards. Wells Fargo, for example, compensates senior leaders for increasing gender, racial and ethnic representation in executive ranks.

And while pay equity studies, a tool used to identify racial disparities, are now widespread, more than a dozen companies do not break out minority groups by race, confining their reports to White and minority employees. Company statements on having successfully achieved pay equity often mask gaps between how different minority groups are faring.

“Companies say they want to tackle systemic racism, but people are so uncomfortable talking about race,” said Mary-Frances Winters, whose consulting firm works with corporations on diversity, equity and inclusion. “Most of our clients do not want to talk about ‘white supremacy’ culture. They are most comfortable using terms like ‘belonging’ and ‘inclusion’ because they are nice terms.”

Treading carefully, and choosing battles

As millions took to the streets to protest Floyd’s death, Jourdan sensed momentum behind efforts to address systemic racism within corporate America — including at Chevron. To his surprise, the company tweeted “black lives matter” and proclaimed support for “all those seeking systemic change.” CEO Mike Wirth shared Jourdan’s blog post and urged employees to reflect on their biases.

“Here was an opportunity to really lock in our racial equity plan while everybody was still up in arms about what happened,” Jourdan said he thought at the time.

But he said he had to tread carefully, mindful that the energy industry was relatively conservative and more White than other sectors. Black people represent 4% of oil and gas workers. (ExxonMobil, for instance, is one of the corporate giants that doesn’t have a diversity chief. Instead, a spokesman said diversity is a priority that is spread throughout the company.)

And while some companies rushed to embrace Juneteenth as a paid holiday, Chevron does not grant employees the day off to mark Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, a federal holiday since 1983.

Every year, Black employees looked to him to get it done, Jourdan said. And every year, he was charged with explaining why the answer would be no. That did not change with Floyd’s death.

“I had to put the corporate hat on and I would say, ‘Chevron does provide a floating holiday so if it’s important to you, you can take it off,’ “ Jourdan said. “I would like to have seen Chevron give MLK Day as a holiday. It was never comfortable saying no to them, but I had to choose my battles.”

Chevron said it encourages employees to use their “personal choice” day for any holiday the company does not recognize.

Jourdan instead focused on changes he felt were more immediately deliverable — such as injecting a measure of accountability into the “diversity objective” long required of every Chevron employee as part of their annual performance review.

In the past, he said, “sometimes people would say they attended a Hispanic event and had some Mexican food.” Now employees can choose from a list of options such as joining an employee network representing different backgrounds or reading about critical race theory and other topics.

But his overarching objective was to give Black people a better shot at competing for top assignments and executive positions. Jourdan and his boss Rhonda Morris, the chief human resources officer who at the time was Chevron’s sole Black C-suite executive, started by getting White senior leaders to learn more about the routine biases Black employees face at work.

Jourdan recalled watching a video, along with top executives, in which one Black manager shared the hurt and embarrassment she felt while waiting in a conference room to meet with another manager, a White woman, who peered into the room several times before realizing that she was in the right place.

Black employees also met regularly with C-suite executives one-on-one to help them empathize with what it’s like to be Black at Chevron — “so they understand the head winds that we face that they don’t have to face,” Jourdan said. Often the only Black person in the room, Jourdan said he is always conscious of how negative stereotypes play into how he is treated by his White peers. “You have to prove that you are more than what they perceive a Black man to be,” he said. “You’re always starting in a hole.”

Chevron declined to make any White executives available for an interview. Wirth has said that Chevron is deeply engaged in internal discussions about understanding biases and assumptions about Black colleagues.

“What are the things that I may not be as consciously aware of as I should?” Wirth told the Milken Institute, an economic think tank, last year. “What should we be doing better inside the company to create opportunities?”

Rooting out bias in promotions

Jourdan faced more difficulty persuading Chevron to provide Black employees with official “sponsors” in senior leadership — mostly White men who could advocate for them, replicating the informal networks that have long benefited other mostly White men. “It’s a hidden path to success that people are not aware of and don’t have access to,” Jourdan said.

Jourdan was able to convince the chief financial officer to pilot a formal sponsorship program open to high-performing employees from all demographics. But many executives have yet to embrace sponsorship, seeing it as preferential treatment, Morris said.

“Sponsorship is something that could get someone’s back up, making our progress not as fast as I’d like it to be,” Morris said. “If you push something on someone, it’s not going to work.”

Jourdan and Morris have had other successes in addressing systemic racism. They persuaded Chevron to introduce stronger measures to root out bias in promotions. The company started by training and assigning “inclusion counselors,” neutral observers, to sit in on twice yearly job assignment and promotion meetings to listen for biases and help decision-makers avoid “group think.” If an employee was not shortlisted for a promotion because no one in the room knew that candidate well, the inclusion counselor may advise that the committee take the time to talk to someone who does.

In the past year, the company has built on this by examining racial disparities in project assignments, performance rankings, and attrition and promotion rates, and started mitigating for hidden bias. “Sometimes we look at the end game and say we’re being objective, that this is a meritocracy and we’re promoting so-and-so because they have high performance, worked on the right projects, networked — and all three of those things are influenced by subjectivity and bias,” Jourdan said.

Jourdan said he had pushed Chevron to publicly share promotion data disaggregated by race, but the company was not yet ready to do. Transparency would go a long way toward dispelling assumptions of the White male majority that people of color are getting all the promotions, he said.

“That’s where Chevron needs to go deeper — to make sure leaders really understand the root of those issues,” he said.

Morris said Chevron is on a “transparency journey” and shared candidate demographics and the names of colleagues who sit on job selection teams with employees during its 2020 restructuring.

What makes the difference?

Jourdan’s views about opportunity were shaped by his upbringing in Rowland Heights, Calif., in the 1960s and early ‘70s. The only Black people in town, he said, were the five members of his immediate family — his mother, a teacher and mathematician who computed numbers by hand for aeronautical programs similar to the women depicted in the movie “Hidden Figures”; his father, who rose from a shoeshine boy during the Great Depression to a logistician on President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars nuclear defense program; and his two brothers.

Despite his parents’ achievements, Jourdan recognized that skills and drive alone do not guarantee success. There must also be opportunity. “They were unicorns,” Jourdan said. “They worked very hard and did very well. So it is possible. But the stars have to align.”

A high school gymnast who was recruited into the U.S. Military Academy, Jourdan had worked at three other energy companies before landing at Chevron in 2003. He became a vice president leading Chevron’s business development in Southeast Asia, an opportunity he credited to a White executive who he later recognized had been his sponsor.

“What I’ve found makes the difference is someone has to create space for you — space that seems to exist already if you’re in the majority,” he said.

When he returned to Houston for a role placing senior managers around the globe, he asked an analyst to run the numbers on the dearth of Black leaders. He was so disheartened by the report that he packed his bags in the middle of the afternoon and went home. His wife urged him to do something about it, inspiring him to take on the role of diversity chief in 2018.

In 2019, at Jourdan’s urging, Chevron became the first major oil and gas company to publicly share disaggregated demographic data by employee rank and race, he said — information that was already being reported annually to the federal government. (Forty of the 50 biggest companies surveyed by The Post now release such data.)

Black employees represented just 3% of Chevron’s executive and senior managers, the lowest of any demographic, while minorities overall reached 19% of senior ranks. And yet, he said he was disappointed that the stark racial disparities revealed by the data did not immediately awaken the rest of the company to the challenges facing Black workers.

“When they saw Blacks were lagging, they didn’t consider that systemic racism or bias may have played a role,” Jourdan said. “It’s taken a lot for people to recognize what’s happening.”

Black employees in senior management inched to 4% by the end of 2020, when minorities reached 24%. And the overall percentage of Black employees at Chevron has remained at 8% since 2014. Chevron has yet to publish its 2021 figures but a spokeswoman noted that there are now two Black executives in the C-suite.

“I don’t know if I’ve made as sustainable of a change as I would have liked,” Jourdan said.

“Until you really start to hit value points like money and promotions, you just don’t move the needle.”

The Washington Post

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