The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have sparked a national conversation about race and the systemic racism that overtly and covertly exists in many of our institutions, including housing. As with other justice movements in the past decade, social media has become a digital town square where information is exchanged and conversations are had.
While some of those conversations are productive, others quickly devolve into back-and-forth spats filled with misinformation, emotional outbursts, and in the worst cases, racist and discriminatory speech. Over the past few weeks, a handful of agents and professionals have lost their positions at some of the industry’s largest companies due to racist or homophobic social media posts.
Coldwell Banker President and CEO Ryan Gorman, eXp Realty CEO Jason Gesing, Redfin President of Real Estate Operations Scott Nagel, and RE/MAX VP of Communications Kerry McGovern shared how they’re shaping conversations about racism and the game plan for agents and staff who share bigoted ideas.
Keller Williams and Compass were unavailable for comment, but both companies have released statements condemning racism and doubled-down on their commitment to diversity, with Keller Williams CEO Gary Keller launching a task force and Compass CEO Robert Reffkin launching the ‘15 percent initiative,’ which challenges the company’s 15,000 agents to spend 15 percent of their budgets with Black vendors.
“I’d like to make one thing clear: Racism is wrong and Keller Williams stands with the Black community and wholeheartedly supports equality,” he said in an interview with Inman. “[We want] to eliminate any racial disparity within our company, our industry, and how we can lead the way in the communities where we live and work.”
Ryan Gorman: ‘Focus on perception, not just intent’
For Coldwell Banker President and CEO Ryan Gorman, the key to helping agents and employees thoughtfully navigate conversations about race is knowing who people are, inside and outside of the office.
“I think really good brokers know their agents as people, not just as professionals,” Gorman told Inman. “They need to [know them as people] to partner with them, to understand their ‘why,’ and know how to reach them in general.”
“With this issue that’s just so easily misunderstood, I think the understanding of their people is the most important asset,” he added.
Gorman said Coldwell Banker’s Agents of Change events have been a crucial part of building a more diverse and inclusive that values and learns from the experiences of others. Those events, he said, have spilled into the brokerage’s day-to-day operations where agents and staff are having difficult conversations about racism and discrimination, especially within the real estate industry.
“Some of the most impactful and honest discussions are the one-on-one discussions with a peer or a manager,” he said. “For those to be really impactful, you’ve got to have a good foundation of trust and mutual respect, without that, which hopefully we have with our agents and our staff, you can’t have conversations that get to a really honest place that have an impact.”
Although Coldwell Banker has intensified its commitment to diversity through a number of initiatives, such as the Coldwell Banker Diversity in Ownership Program, Gorman said there’s still room for improvement within the company and the industry, as evidenced by conversations on social media.
“So much is said on social media that would never be said in person, which can be good and bad,” he said of the catch-22 platforms offer. “The bad is obvious. The good might be that people get to a place of honesty, and you can perhaps hear someone that you wouldn’t have been able to hear them in person.”
Gorman said real estate professionals must take the time to focus on how their comments are perceived, not just their intent.
“One of our goals was to really help everyone understand how their comments are perceived,” Gorman said of a recent social media etiquette training for broker-owners. “Not what they meant, but how their comments are perceived and received, which is completely different.”
“If you’re making a comment on social media, you presumably want to be heard, so it’s important to understand how people are hearing you,” he added. “We have flipped that switch for people to help them understand that’s the focus.”
He continued, “If someone posts, ‘Thank you to all first responders for keeping us safe,’ that’s a pretty easily liked, hearted, and forwarded message. Unless it’s made on a post mourning the murder of George Floyd.”
“In that case, it would be perceived by many, if not most, as insensitive, and at worst, hateful. The context is really important, and that’s what we need to dive into.”
Gorman said he doesn’t want to stifle Coldwell Banker agents and staff’s ability to exercise their free speech, but there’s no tolerance for racist and discriminatory speech. As for the repercussions, the CEO said his team has several options in place including termination.
“If it’s determined that it really crosses the line, my personal view is that there aren’t good and bad people, but there are people who are misinformed or lack positive life experiences or fail to appreciate the lived experience of someone else, who are simply insensitive,” he explained. “When we talk about repercussions, it’s less about the person and more about the statement or the action.”
Gorman said some statements can be corrected with a genuine apology and changed behavior since some posts are rooted in misinformation instead of malice.
“Through many of our sessions through the Agents of Change events and Juneteenth events, we had people who said, ‘I’ve made some of the statements that you explained how you’re receiving them. You’ve really changed my perception,” he said. “That’s fantastic when someone can show genuine change.”
In other cases, Gorman said the post and comment can be so hurtful and hateful that termination is the only correct response.
“In some cases, it might be best to separate ourselves from the person, who has some growing to do outside of the organization and the company,” he said.
Moving forward, Gorman said Coldwell Banker is dedicated to raising awareness of racial issues, improving its network’s knowledge of these issues and launching additional initiatives to “drive diversity.”
“The switch that’s been flipped for me is focusing on the results,” he said regarding the brokerage’s diversity efforts. “Instead of focusing on the action or intention, what are the results? It’s less about what we try and more about what we get.”
“We need to step our actions pretty dramatically and to manage this like we manage every other part of our company, which is results-driven.”
Jason Gesing: ‘We’re not into interpreting meaning’
Despite working in a virtual world, eXp CEO Jason Gesing said that hasn’t stopped the company from having in-depth and meaningful conversations about racism and diversity.
“It’s certainly been beneficial during COVID, but one of the things it has always done is that it’s allowed us to work with one another in a way that those things that oftentimes will divide people are things that really don’t divide us,” Gesing said of eXp’s virtual world. “In fact, they enrich the culture, and they enrich the community, and I think from the very beginning we’ve stood for diversity and inclusion.”
“We have a really diverse group, and that goes a long way to fostering and supporting a culture of inclusivity and the tone for which we set throughout the organization,” Gesing added.
Like Coldwell Banker, eXp heightened its dedication to diversity and inclusion last year with ONE eXp, an initiative to support and foster an accepting and responsive work environment for its employees of various racial, ethnic and social backgrounds.
“On the staff side, dating all the way back to last year, we really have started to have conversations about race,” Gesing said while noting those conversations have grown and intensified since the death of George Floyd in late May.
Although those conversations have been largely positive, Gesing said eXp has a game plan in place for when agents or staff share ideas that could be seen as racist or discriminatory.
“There’s been a lot of divisive rhetoric at the moment, and it seems there has been for a few years now,” he shared. “One of the things we’re trying not to do is challenge anyone’s free speech.”
“We’ve got a company from all over, and I’m sure we’ve got people who vote all over the map,” he added. “But there is a line in the sand. That line is clearly, for me, when it starts to become about race or gender or sexual orientation or religion.”
“To the extent someone is making discriminatory comments, there’s a range of actions we can take, but oftentimes, it’s termination,” he continued. “We’re not going to terminate someone because they’ve said something that’s unpopular, and we’re not going to try to interpret meaning when meaning is unclear.”
“In fact, that’s probably the challenge every brokerage is facing.”
For posts where the “meaning is unclear,” Gesing said eXp has a protocol for reviewing the comments and determining the best outcome.
In a case where meaning isn’t clear, eXp’s cultural integrity group is responsible for reviewing the post, discussing it, and determining the appropriate outcome.
“It is tough,” he said. “One of the things we’ve decided through all of this is that we don’t want to have this in the hands of one individual alone who would make these calls.”
“I think if someone is uninformed, and they’re not being malicious, sometimes we can send a letter,” he said. “We’ve got this group that can reach out and have conversations, and we’re very much in touch with our agents.”
“So getting on the phone or getting in world in one of our campus offices and having a conversation is something we do on a variety of topics, and this would be no exception,” he added. “We’re not looking to terminate people, so whatever steps firms can take shy of that when there’s some question to motivation and whether or not there’s something that’s over the line, I think there’s other tools at our disposal.”
Going forward, Gesing said upholding diversity isn’t a “check-the-box item” and brokers must be committed to it for the long haul.
“When ONE eXp was launched last year, it was before George Floyd or any of that, and we’ve been having the dialogue,” he said. “I think it requires proactive leadership, and really a demonstration to the agents that you embrace people of all different backgrounds.”
“Brokers do have the responsibility to uphold their culture and protect the agents who are part of their organization.”
Kerry McGovern: ‘Continue the conversation’
Much like Coldwell Banker and eXp, RE/MAX said the events of the past months has pushed the company to doubled-down on its education and diversity efforts.
“As we are a franchisor and RE/MAX offices are all independently owned and operated, at LLC, we focus our efforts around continuing the conversation and providing education,” McGovern said in an emailed statement to Inman.
“We have been actively promoting NAR’s At Home with Diversity training to the RE/MAX membership in our weekly communications over the past eight months,” she added. “The course addresses issues of diversity, fair housing and cultural differences, and we continue to drive ongoing conversations with our membership and team.”
In addition to educational opportunities, McGovern said RE/MAX is diversifying its large-scale events by showcasing more Black and other minority speakers who have extensive backgrounds in studying race and racism.
“We have secured Baratunde Thurston as a keynote speaker at next month’s Broker Owner Conference (BOC),” she said as an example. “Thurston is the bestselling author of How to Be Black and gave a popular TED Talk on ‘How To Deconstruct Racism, One Headline At A Time.'”
“Now that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought the topic of diversity and inclusion into the forefront, it’s clear that our work around this topic is important and must continue,” she added. “As a result, we are actively meeting and discussing what more we can be doing from an HQ, network and consumer standpoint.”
As RE/MAX works to lead the conversation about racism, especially in the real estate industry, McGovern said there’s a chance that agents and staff members could say something racist or discriminatory. Much like Gorman and Gesing, McGovern said the brokerage has a zero-tolerance stance.
“We draw the line at behavior that glorifies racism, discrimination or violence,” she said. “At [RE/MAX] LLC, we hold ourselves accountable to a zero-tolerance policy for HQ employees as it relates to racism and discrimination.”
“As for our network, each RE/MAX franchise is an independently owned and operated business,” she added. “If any RE/MAX agent is acting in a way that is not in accordance with our values, we expect our franchise owners to immediately address the issue.”
“If the behavior in question stems from a franchise owner, we will take action to rectify the situation and dissolve our business relationship, if necessary,” she concluded.
Scott Nagel: ‘We must come to terms with our role’
For Redfin President of Real Estate Operations Scott Nagel, the conversation about racism in the real estate industry has been a long time coming.
“As an industry, we must come to terms with the role real estate agents have played in perpetuating segregation and inequality in America,” Nagel said in a written statement to Inman. “Now’s the time to play a role in making our country more equal and inclusive by holding ourselves and each other accountable, calling out racism and making it clear that agents with these views are not welcome in our industry.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen many examples of agents who behave badly remain in our industry — often still practicing at the same brokerage — after their discrimination comes to light,” he said.
Nagel said Redfin has had a longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion, through educational sessions, mandatory training, local team discussions and national forums.
“We’ve hosted conversations with academics and experts as well as our agents and customers about race and real estate,” he said. “Guests have included Professor Elizabeth Korver-Glenn, who has studied the role of the real estate industry in segregation, as well as the journalists and testers involved in the Newsday’s investigation of housing discrimation on Long Island.”
“We provide trainings on the FHA, implicit bias and inclusive management,” he added. “Our economists produce research about race and housing to inform our agents and the public about inequality in housing. We acknowledge that we can do more and commit to do more and have outlined our initial steps.”
When it comes to Redfin agents’ and staff’s social media commentary, Nagel said the brokerage wants to maintain everyone’s free speech, with the important caveat that it’s not done in Redfin’s name and it’s not discriminatory.
“We’ve taken a clear position that unpopular political commentary is fine as long as not done in Redfin’s name, whereas discriminatory comments of any kind are grounds for discipline, usually termination,” he said. “This policy applies whether the person publicly identifies themselves as a Redfin employee or not.”
“We’re not in the business of monitoring everything Redfin employees post on social media, but we will investigate every report of an inappropriate comment,” he added. “Claims of discriminatory or racist behavior or speech by a Redfin employee are immediately escalated to managers as well as our legal and HR departments.”
Because of Redfin’s structure, Nagel said agents and consumers can file reports to the company’s HR department.
“Because our agents are employees, we have a unique ability to shape our culture, train our agents, and build a world-class HR team to train and develop our managers and quickly investigate when things go wrong,” he explained. “Employees can share concerns with their manager, HR representative, any member of the executive team or submit anonymously via an internal whistleblower tip line. The public can submit concerns to customer service, the local Redfin broker or our CEO directly.”
He concluded, “We hold our employees to the highest standard and do not tolerate racist and discriminatory speech in the workplace or online. Discriminatory comments are grounds for disciplinary action, usually termination.”