For The Hershey Co., the decision to participate in something like #BlackOutTuesday on social media would normally go through multiple committees. 

But 2020 inspired a different approach. 

The event — which was done in response to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor — asked everyone to post a black square as a photo on June 2, 2020.

“A suggestion came to us from our [internal] African-American business resource group that The Hershey Co. should join this moment. And that was really a bold ask,” explained Alicia Petross, v.p. talent acquisition/diversity & inclusion/employee experience for The Hershey Company. “Typically, a decision of that type, we would talk with a few executive committee leaders. And I have to say, in that moment, we didn’t. We believed in that decision so squarely, that we said, ‘We’re going to do it.’ We did it. And then we informed people afterward. And it was interesting.” 

The Hershey’s brand Facebook #BlackOutTuesday post alone had 2,300 reactions, and 861 comments. While the Twizzlers brand Facebook post had 396 reactions and 174 comments. 

However, the candy company’s social traffic did take a hit. 

“Many consumers questioned why an iconic confection brand would get in the middle of this social unrest,” Petross said. “But we felt it was important to take a stand, and I’m very proud of how that idea was generated and how we really, in that moment, lived our values around inclusion.”

While photos of black squares are important and served a symbolic purpose, the real work for diversity and inclusion comes later — in actions. Here, Hershey has worked hard to put its ideals into practice. 

The company had been working internally with eight employee affinity groups to create a more diverse and inclusive atmosphere. The events of 2020 then made those efforts even more urgent for Hershey.

Many consumers questioned why an iconic confection brand would get in the middle of this social unrest. But we felt it was important to take a stand.

– Alicia Petross, v.p. talent acquisition/diversity & inclusion/employee experience for The Hershey Company

“We really leveraged the power of these groups after the death of George Floyd,” Petross said. “I think that has been a catalyzing moment for the Hershey company, but honestly, for many organizations and for many of our peers across CPG.”

So in an effort to really address diversity, Hershey gathered 70 leaders across the entire company and took the time to really listen to what employees suggested they do. 

“We simply asked them, ‘How do you want the company to stand up?’ and ‘How do you want this company to be remembered as we look back on the events of 2020?” Petross said. “That gave us such a far richer landscape of options to kind of think about in terms of a commitment statement.”

Hershey eventually created a list of five commitments including: 

  1. Continue to uphold our inclusion practices across our organization

  2. Better understand and learn more about our black employees and persons of color employees in our organizations. 

  3. To be better advocates for our black employees, specifically around advancing their careers

  4. Provide more resources for employees dealing with the emotional impact, and the wellbeing impact of dealing with systemic racism in America

  5. Shine a brighter light on how we show up in communities, and really work with some current partners in deeper ways and find some new partners who are also committed to fighting systemic racism

“Those things are very meaningful for us. I think we have had a significant amount of energy generated around that work, because those things do resonate with our legacy, our history of inclusion,” Petross said. “And they’re all things that we feel are pragmatic and attainable.”

But what do they look like in practice? 

One example was the company all-employee town hall held on Juneteeth, a June 19 holiday that celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. 

“We had a very open conversation about race in America,” Petross said. “It was brilliantly facilitated by a member of our commercial legal team, Laura Lacey. And she had a conversation that touched on topics like white privilege with Jason Reiman, who leads our supply chain, and with Damien Atkins, who is our general counsel.”

The topic was a surprise for some of the employees.

“The moment she asked the question, ‘What’s your interpretation of white privilege?’ You could have heard a pin drop over teams and over Skype. People were almost saying, ‘I don’t believe we’re talking about that at work,’” Petross recalled.

It was an important moment for the company. 

“Our level of comfort in talking about the tough issues that America is seeing being played out across social media, the tough issues that are happening around the globe, these are important conversations for corporations to have,” Petross explained. “That level of candor is exactly what our business needs. Because you know, we’re all human. We’re all experiencing these moments. None of us can really divorce those feelings from how we’re feeling when we show up at work. It’s a major impact to well being for employees these days.” 

Hershey also has added a new organization to its CSR giving portfolio, the Equal Justice Initiative. The group was chosen after employees suggested it.

“That organization is all about rectifying wrongful incarceration for blacks and other people of color. They also run a pretty gripping museum on the history of lynching in America,” Petross said. “Those two topics are not things that immediately spring to mind for consumers when you think about a global snacking organization or a company having the No. 1 share in chocolate. But we felt, again, it was important. We had committed to take a stand to fight systemic racism. This was an organization that employees felt strongly about and passionately about.”

The company also works to make sure that it's hiring a diverse staff. It has robust conversations with employees around career planning and development. And it works to identify internal talent early.

“We often find that for women and people of color, access is to roles which have a P&L responsibility, those can be the difference maker,” Petross said. 

For example, Kristen Rigg, who is SVP and chief growth officer at The Hershey Company, has been with the candy company for about 16 years. While she started as an intern, she has worked several commercial assignments that eventually led to the role she has today in the C-suite.

“We have a holistic approach to diversity and inclusion,” Petross said. “And that really means sitting with employees and talking about what’s possible and co-creating career moves with them.”

Aside from being the right thing to do, diversity also makes good business sense. 

“There are so many studies that show when organizations are gender and ethnically diverse, they tend to outperform their competitors. We believe that the more different voices we have around the table that feel as though their voice belongs and that they are comfortable enough to share their unique different opinions, that’s where we get real innovation,” Petross explained. “Our business and our workforce is all about finding these voices, bringing them together so that we’re putting more ideas on the table that result in products and services that our consumers love around the globe.”

Petross also addressed this topic during a recent Food Industry Summit webinar. For more information on their upcoming webinars about the food industry, visit their website.