Can We Talk? Opening up Challenging Conversations at Work

What does authenticity mean in the workplace? What does inclusion look like for an entire corporation? In the summer of 2016, executives at Macy’s, Inc. addressed these questions head-on in the wake of racially-charged events that unleashed emotions across the country. Macy’s executives stepped up to address difficult questions, including how a large corporate entity expresses commitment to its employees during times of racial violence and cultural division.

Macy’s, Inc. President and incoming CEO Jeff Gennette, along with other senior executives and national employee resource group leaders, launched a series of national conversations called Can We Talk? to address the impact of societal race issues on employees.

Beginning in July in the New York City offices, Gennette invited employees to the inaugural Can We Talk? The event was a candid conversation to directly address the impact of recent, racially-charged incidents affecting society at large. Over 400 employees attended, with reservations filling up within minutes of the invitation. “It's extremely important to me to ensure that Macy’s is a safe and inclusive place where everyone feels comfortable coming to work, every day,” said Gennette, who felt a strong commitment to this dialogue space in the corporate sector. “This is part of our company policy, but more than that, it’s about fostering an environment where people feel encouraged to be themselves. Starting Can We Talk? dialogues is a critical step to enabling open conversations about the different cultural and societal issues that impact all of us.”

“The objective of the session was to create a forum where our Macy’s family could engage in a dialogue about highly sensitive topics in a way that was non-judgmental, frank and open, with the goal of achieving a greater mutual understanding of these issues,” said Bill Hawthorne, senior vice president of diversity and inclusion strategies for Macy’s, Inc. Gennette, Hawthorne and other executives led the session along with Dr. John F. Gates, an expert in creating inclusive workplaces for multi-national corporations.

Can We Talk? conversations spread across the nation as Hawthorne and other senior executives travelled to meet with associates across Macy’s. That effort meant a lot to employees. “We were seeing tragic events on a weekly basis. It was a heavy burden we were carrying in our personal lives,” said Rory Scott, associate product manager for in San Francisco and co-leader of the San Francisco chapter of the ONYX employee resource group. “Can We Talk? was that broader response from the company saying, this is a new reality and we need to address how it affects our employees. People are still affected in the office by events that happen outside the workplace.”

For Scott and co-leader Lauren Anthony, Can We Talk? was a sign of Macy’s support of them as individuals. “It was a big thing for us to see our senior leaders up there. To see that response coming from the top down, from executives, from senior management,” said Anthony. Derrick Brown, co-leader of ONYX MST in Atlanta, added, “Can We Talk? was the spur that got our ERG going. When Bill Hawthorne and Chris Meier came to speak with us, we heard, ‘we’re committed to you.’”

Can We Talk? provided an inclusive space for employees to honestly express concerns around events going on outside of the office. The dialogue was about bringing personal authenticity to the workspace. “You need to bring your whole self to work. It’s difficult to be in the office if you’re hiding what’s in your heart,” said Anthony.

For corporations, understanding what words like “authenticity” and “inclusion” mean in the workplace are more important now than ever before. Can We Talk? was Macy’s way of deliberately expressing its value of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. “Macy’s had already been working on these issues, but the talks were a public sign that the company was going to be open and address these issues head-on,” said Brian Turner, ONYX MST co-leader. “We didn’t have to have these conversations behind closed doors. We could have them in the hallways.”

At the end of the day, “It highlighted the importance of community; we can’t do it by ourselves” said Byron Neal, ONYX MCCS co-leader in Mason, OH, and senior manager of omnichannel operations at Macy’s. In more ways than one Can We Talk? rhymes with, Can We Walk? Can we walk in solidarity as a company and community? Can we walk in owning the commitments we so often talk about? Can we support our employees and create opportunities for them to be their authentic selves? And the answer was, and is, yes. We can.



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