When a law restricting transgender bathroom rights took effect last year in North Carolina, igniting a national backlash, Cynthia Bowman wanted Bank of America employees to do one thing: talk about it.

The Charlotte, N.C., bank — one of the largest employers in the region — found itself in the midst of a political firestorm after the law, known as HB 2, prevented transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identity. Bank of America was one of a long list of companies from across the country that formally opposed the measure, arguing that it discriminated against the LGBT community.

But beyond taking a public stance, Bowman, chief diversity and inclusion officer at B of A, said the bank needed to address the issue internally, too. She recalled having coffee at the time with an employee, a black lesbian woman, who said she was having a hard time “turning off” her feelings about the bathroom-bill debate when she walked into work.

“That comment really struck me,” Bowman said. It was a reminder of B of A’s focus on being "responsive to the issues that impact our employees," she said.

So Bowman helped to create a program known as “courageous conversations.” The idea is to create a more inclusive workplace by establishing an open dialogue — through online message boards and employee events — about sensitive political issues that are often hard to discuss in the workplace.

For instance, after B of A publicly objected to HB 2, the bank posted its position on its internal network, where employees could add or “like” comments.

“We allowed that to play out,” Bowman said, adding that while employees were mostly supportive, opinions ran the gamut. “People write their feelings … and you see our world looks very similar to the dialogue that’s happening more broadly.”

While the B of A initiative is aimed at engaging employees of all ages, it nonetheless illustrates how young people are reshaping what it means to support diversity in the workplace.

Staying mum about politics at the office used to be thought of as proper business etiquette. But millennial employees — generally thought of as between 20 and 36 years old — are pushing companies to open up a bit.

According to a 2016 survey from Deloitte, millennial employees — projected to make up 75% of the workplace by 2025 — are far more likely than their older peers to value working alongside people with a range of identities who openly express themselves in the workplace.

Asked how they define diversity, young people are also more likely to say they value an office’s mix of ideas and opinions. Older people, by contrast, tend to place more value on representation of minority groups.

Notably, millennials as a group are more racially diverse than previous generations. About half of U.S. millennials identify as white, compared with 75% of baby boomers, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Nearly a quarter of all millennials identify as Hispanic.

“For them, walking into an office lobby and seeing all types of people is a given,” the Deloitte survey said. “They are much more concerned with cognitive diversity, or diversity of thoughts, ideas and philosophies.”

What does that mean for the banking industry? In an effort to create more inclusive work environments, companies are opening up lines of communication, encouraging employees to share their opinions on some of the more important — and sensitive — political issues of the day.

“We live in a divisive world,” said Bhushan Sethi, a partner in the financial services practice at PwC, pointing in particular to the backlash surrounding executive orders signed by President Donald Trump. “I think more organizations are trying to be more comfortable trying to encourage their workforce to talk about these issues.”

Cynthia Bowman, global head of diversity at Bank of America
Input welcome: “Our belief is that if you open up the dialogue, you can create better empathy and understanding,” Cynthia Bowman, the chief diversity and inclusion officer at B of A, says of efforts to encourage tough conversations about social and political issues in the workplace.

At B of A, employees have embraced the “courageous conversations” initiative, according to Bowman.

In addition to its work on the North Carolina bathroom bill, B of A has also organized a number of discussions on race.

Last summer, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, B of A organized a forum in New York where employees from different racial groups shared their feelings about the string of shootings of black men by police and the unrest that followed in cities across the country.

Several thousand employees watched the event through a webcast, according to Bowman. After the event, a video of the conversation was posted on the company’s internal employee site, where more than 20,000 employees tuned in, she said.

“It wasn’t about taking a position either way,” Bowman said. “It was about opening up the dialogue, because our belief is that if you open up the dialogue, you can create better empathy and understanding.”

Additionally, after violent protests erupted in Charlotte last September following the shooting of a black man by a police officer, B of A hosted a public conversation about economic mobility in the city. Attendees included the local police chief, as well as senior executives from the United Way and local banks.

Bowman says she’s proud of the way B of A has encouraged employees to be socially conscious in a professional setting.

“I would say it’s continuing to change and evolve,” Bowman said of the “courageous conversations” initiative. “There is certainly an elevated amount of dialogue that’s happening outside of the four walls of Bank of America that you can’t deny.”

Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton

Kristin Broughton is a reporter for American Banker, where she writes about the business of national and regional banking.