Listen Closely: These Are the Business Travel Experiences of Our Colleagues of Color

” ‘I’m sorry, sir, that space is reserved for first-class passengers.’ Why was I told that when none of the other passengers [were]? There were lots of other first-class passengers boarding at the same time. I can only presume it was because I am Black.”

“After I had traveled with the team to London, different parts of Europe and Mexico City …  I had been working toward this meeting with the client for several weeks. I was the lead point on the account for all the deliverables [for a meeting in Colombia] … but about two weeks before the meeting, when everyone was booking travel, I was told I couldn’t go. At first, I was confused. I thought I had done something wrong with my work. Digging in a little bit more, it turned out that it was too much of a risk for someone who looks like me to go on this trip.”

“The significant rise in Asian-American and Pacific Islander hate crimes really has concerned me and gives me more anxiety. Probably the most anxiety I’ve ever felt before, especially since a lot of these actions are mostly random, and they can take place anywhere and in public and in broad daylight. It’s caused me to think twice about business travel arrangements, where I never thought a lot about those things before. … Sadly, it’s kind of affected me in a mental capacity that I’m still trying to work through.”

These are the words of three seasoned business travelers. The first is Universities Space Research Association chief human resources officer Eric Weaver, who is Black, speaking about an air travel experience while representing his organization on business. The second is Acquis Consulting practice lead and Indian-American Hansini Sharma, speaking about an experience at different employer in which a decision to exclude her from a business trip, made without consulting her, was based solely on the color of her skin. The third is Bizly chief strategy officer and third-generation Japanese-American Kevin Iwamoto, who has decided to speak out about the lack of representation, microaggressions and discriminatory behavior surrounding business travel, specifically after the recent proliferation of racist treatment and random hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Speaking out about race issues hasn’t always been the default position for business travelers—or business travel industry leaders. Indeed, it’s not the default position even now. But more employees are looking for work environments that take diversity, equity and inclusion seriously. Business travel suppliers have made some strides in their awareness of these issues, and it’s time for travel management to become a larger part of the conversation and level-up practices.

If the above experiences as described by a diverse group of business travelers don’t move a company’s needle toward the right thing, there could be a listening problem, which is addressed below. For now, let’s look at some numbers.

Forbes just this week projected that, while the latest U.S. jobs report showed more people are returning to the labor market amid a rebound in hiring, the job market would remain tight through this decade. That means employees can be choosier about where they work. 

Also evolving in the coming decade is the diversity of the workplace. According to a study by startup and technology company recruitment specialist BuiltIn, 37 percent of working-age adults in 2020 identified as minorities. The study estimated that by 2044, groups traditionally seen as ‘minorities’ will reach majority status in the U.S. population, a shift that also will impact diversity in the workplace. In other words, business travel populations are getting more diverse. 

A recent Glassdoor survey found that 76 percent of employees and job seekers look for a diverse workforce as an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers. That percentage rises to 80 percent for Black and Hispanic job seekers. Nearly half of Black and Hispanic job seekers and employees have quit a job after witnessing or experiencing discrimination at work. 

Check Sharma’s experience with her former employer: She said that experience of business travel exclusion based on her appearance as a woman of color, “stuck with her over time.” When she moved on from that position, she’s been sure to consider employers “that ask me the right questions,” she said. “When I think of my employer now, first of all, this would never happen. Second, they’re the kind of company that asks the questions: ‘Are you comfortable? Do you feel like you have what you need and the resources you need to make this trip successful? In your professional opinion, is this the best way to handle the situation?’ Those types of questions empower me to make the right decision for the business and for myself and for us all to be successful.”

It’s important for the person making this decision, especially if they’re in a position of influence and power, to be honest with themselves about why they’re doing something. These small things adding up can impact the trajectory of someone’s career.”

— Acquis Consulting’s Hansini Sharma

She said she eventually came to view the issue as one of opportunity. By blocking her from participating in that client trip, her former company took away an early-career opportunity to prove herself. 

“It’s important for the person making this decision, especially if they’re in a position of influence and power, to be honest with themselves about why they’re doing something,” she said, particularly if it takes on a pattern. “These small things adding up can impact the trajectory of someone’s career.”

It’s one thing to put parameters around internal decision-making about travel. It’s another to understand and mitigate potential behaviors when business travelers are in environments outside of the company’s control. Travel managers rely on their suppliers to deliver the right experiences to their travelers, but how can they monitor issues like Weaver being questioned about his right as a first-class air passenger to the dedicated overhead bin space? Or, in another example shared by Iwamoto, the assumption by a hotel provider that because of his last name, he should receive a Japanese-language newspaper, rather than the English-language version—despite the fact that his hotel registration information and status as an elite traveler clearly outline that he is American? 

Much of the DE&I conversation in managed travel has circled around supplier sourcing. Because the travel experience largely depends on these suppliers, travel managers are looking at how to ensure their suppliers internally support a culture of diversity while educating and training their frontline staff to look more deeply at people as individuals without making assumptions based on race or color or last names—because judgments about “what a person is” inevitably will be mired in bias:

“Some people say I don’t look Black, and sometimes I am not perceived that way from appearance,” said Weaver. “People think I’m Latino at some point or other … but I have two African-American parents and four African-American grandparents.” The complexity of unconscious bias described here—about skin tone, attire, speech cadence, accents and who-knows-what-else—creates a topsy-turvy environment of confusion and just one more minefield for business travelers of color to navigate. Weaver is not alone. “Similarly to Eric,” said Sharma, “people often tell me I ‘don’t look Indian.’ I’m not entirely sure what they might think, but I’ve encountered that a lot in both my personal and professional travels.”

A culture of honoring diversity—not just accepting it—could be the path forward. In a corporate environment, that may translate into recognizing that companies that create diverse executive teams, and then actually value the input of those diverse members, perform better than those that don’t.  

According to a 2018 McKinsey report, diverse companies are 33 percent more likely to have greater financial returns than their less-diverse industry peers. A 2018 BCG report found that companies with above-average diversity at the management level generate innovation revenues 19 percentage points higher than companies with below-average such diversity.

Diversity culture at that level is more likely to cascade throughout the organization, and more travel managers are looking at accessing partners that have embraced it. Managed travel suppliers like American Airlines, American Express Global Business Travel, Delta Air Lines and others have recently made high-profile promotions or new hires to drive more diversity through their organizations. 

Corporate travel has not been the most forthright in talking about DE&I, particularly around issues of color. When I look at other travel managers or go to certain conferences, there’s not a lot of ‘me’ walking around. Why is that?”

— ICF’s Carmen Smith

ICF global travel manager Carmen Smith, who is Black and who has been deeply involved in her own company’s diversity, equity and inclusion conversations, is eager to see change in the industry. 

“Corporate travel has not been the most forthright in talking about DE&I, particularly around issues of color,” she said. “When I look at other travel managers or go to certain conferences, there’s not a lot of ‘me’ walking around. Why is that? Most people who travel have a very broad outlook; they are usually diverse in thought. When it comes to business travel, it seems to be the opposite. It seems to go in the vein of normal corporate behavior and normal corporate thought. And there are ceilings in place.

“So being a Black female, I’ve always tried to be an ambassador; in any position I’m in, I’m transparent but want to have those honest conversations. I’ve not always been allowed to have those conversations, though, because I was perceived as the so-called ‘angry Black woman.'” Smith is hopeful those biased perceptions are changing and that companies and partners will be more receptive to the issues she brings to the table, whether about race and diversity or any number of critical issues. “I’m glad the industry is talking about this now; but for me, it’s been a lifetime.” 

For travel managers, she said, listening and being receptive to the experience of traveling colleagues is the first step toward evolving their programs. The second is to advocate for the required changes. 

“ICF—like many organizations—has created employee community networks: Black, women, Latino, LGBTQ,” she said. “One thing we can do is talk with these individual communities. We want to hear about their experiences as travelers, and what are some of the challenges. By talking to them, it gives a different perspective. It goes beyond just business travel issues like, ‘I missed my flight.’ Rather, it digs into whether they have challenges in certain countries, or were they met with opposition with a certain supplier, or put in a motel in the worst part of town, or with no amenities within walking distance? Reaching out to these communities adds an extra layer of due diligence.” Doing so also might alter perspectives of how to keep travelers productive and supported while on the road, she added. 

Sharma agreed with the idea of focusing on the supplier set—at least partially. However, policy and individual traveler empowerment, she said, also should come into play.  

“We’ve talked about personalization in travel for years. When I think about issues that are coming to light now [but] have existed forever… it’s important for travel managers and businesses to think about who they want to be and how they want to personalize travel [in ways that] look beyond the dollar. What are your goals here, and how do we accomplish those by being true to a bottom line?” she said. 

“Obviously that’s important, but what are changes that we can make now to help travelers make the choices they want to make to feel comfortable doing the work that they need to do? Is that a really strongly sourced program? Maybe. But maybe it’s a no-source program. Maybe it’s working with suppliers who give you the flexibility of all the things that are important to travel managers: insight into their data, compliance, things like that, but also offer the traveler the opportunity to choose what makes them feel most comfortable. The trick is for travel managers to understand trade-offs in a more strategic sense.”

Like Smith, Sharma advocated for expanding the perspective beyond just travel and that may need to happen before looking at the supply side for solutions, she said. “What are your financial goals? Operationally, what are your goals from an HR perspective? Your DE&I goals? If you’re not sharing the messaging in a way that resonates directly with your company ethos and code, then the suppliers can’t be held to that standard.”

DE&I isn’t the purview of travel management alone, but it must be included as part of the corporate strategy in working toward a more equal future. In the meantime, the psychic burden of advocating for equity and inclusion within a travel program can’t be shouldered by our colleagues of color alone. Because it’s not just our culturally privileged colleagues (read: white) that don’t want to talk about it—only 58 percent of white employees think diversity levels are an issue within their organizations, according to Glassdoor. Often, our colleagues of color don’t want to talk about it either, lest they be tagged as complainers, problem starters or, worse, not believed. The travel management practice needs to give them the space to come forward to promote proper duty of care for a more diverse workforce.

“Business trips have been filled with things that on surface seem very minor, but when you aggregate them all, it really becomes a problem,” said Iwamoto. “Culturally, we are taught not to make waves and not to say anything, but I’ve been changing as I get older, and I’ve been taking more of these trips and running into more of those incidences. Like it or not, we have to speak up and things have to change.” 

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