Cisco’s chief people officer explains its plan to boost opportunities for Black employees as the tech giant reels from racial disputes: ‘We will not tolerate racism. That is absolute.’ (CSCO)

  • Cisco unveiled a plan to boost the representation of Black employees at the tech giant, as the Silicon Valley company grapples with a series of racial disputes.
  • “Where we have tremendous clarity as a company is around the fact that we will not tolerate racism,” chief people officer Fran Katsoudas told Business Insider. “That is absolute.”
  • The move follows the dismissal of a “handful” of employees who posted offensive comments about Cisco’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
  • Cisco also faces a new shareholder lawsuit that alleges that it misrepresented its track-record on diversity and another one that accused it of letting two managers harass a fellow Indian employee from the “untouchable” caste.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The protests for racial justice that flared up this summer following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have also jolted Cisco.

This was underscored last week when the tech giant’s shareholders filed a lawsuit accusing the networking giant of misstating its diversity record. On the same day, Cisco unveiled a new plan to boost opportunities for its Black employees.

Cisco vowed to increase its representation of Black employees in the entry-level to manager-level by 25%, and to boost the number of Black workers in director to vice president positions by 75% by 2023. As of last year, only 3.8% of Cisco’s US workforce, according to the company’s 2019 diversity report, and only 1.8% of its vice presidents and 2.2% of its managers were Black. Cisco also had no Black employees in its executive leadership team.

Beyond its internal work, the company is also committing $50 million over five years to increase diversity in its partner ecosystem, mainly by offering more opportunities to Black-owned businesses, with an additional $50 million to invest in startups with “diverse founders and leadership teams.”

Cisco’s chief people officer, Fran Katsoudas, said the new plan affirmed the company’s commitment to diversity and racial justice:

“Where we have tremendous clarity as a company is around the fact that we will not tolerate racism,” she told Business Insider. “That is absolute.”

Katsoudas, who is in charge of the well-being of the tech behemoth’s 75,000 employees, has had her hands full explaining and defending Cisco’s record and policies related to race.

The new program focused on improving Black representation was the result of extensive discussions, she said, including a meeting between CEO Chuck Robbins and 18 Black employees at the beginning of the year.

Top company executives “heard stories that we didn’t think represent the best of Cisco,” she said, and recalled a Black employee who said she was passed up for a leadership position twice. The woman’s supervisor even asked her to help the person who did get the promotion be successful, Katsoudas recalled: “What she said to us was, ‘When will I be good enough to be the leader versus the person that makes the leader successful?'”

Katsoudas unveiled the new goals as Cisco grappled with bitter disputes over race.

In July, the company fired some employees for offensive posts critical of Cisco’s support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The comments created a stir within the company and led to the dismissal of “a handful” of employees, a Cisco spokesperson told Business Insider.

“We have to respect the differences of our people,” Katsoudas said. “We’re a believer in full-spectrum diversity. What that means is that we want our employees to feel like everyone belongs.”

But she also stressed: “We’ll be clear with those lines that we don’t feel anyone should cross and racism happens to be one of those.”

Last week, a shareholder lawsuit filed by the City of Pontiac General Employees’ Retirement System alleged that the tech giant “publicly misrepresented Cisco’s success as an industry leader in top leadership diversity and as a company that effectively promotes diversity throughout its ranks.”

“In reality, there is a visible absence of African Americans in leadership positions across Cisco, including no African Americans on Cisco’s board,” the suit said. The complaint also said Cisco’s senior executive leadership team is “devoid of any African Americans” and pointed to a “noticeable lack of African Americans at Cisco extends deep into the Company, that is to the vice president, leadership and people manager levels as well.”

Cisco said in a statement that it was in the process of “investigating and evaluating the allegations,” but “rather than allowing the Board the opportunity to conduct its review and complete its work, the firm improperly filed suit. We intend to respond to this lawsuit in court.”

Katsoudas, Cisco’s chief people officer, also said Cisco plans to defend itself in court in connection with another lawsuit, this time related to allegations that it allowed two managers to harass a fellow Indian employee from the “untouchable caste.”

“We’re gonna see this one through,” Katsoudas said. “Our response to caste discrimination and all discrimination is very strong and we’re very clear on that.”

Got a tip about Cisco or another tech company? Contact this reporter via email at bpimentel@businessinsider.com, message him on Twitter @benpimentel or send him a secure message through Signal at (510) 731-8429. You can also contact Business Insider securely via SecureDrop.

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