Let’s Talk About It: Backtalk at Work and Rising Above It 

Vice President of Gas Operations at Consumers Energy Tonya Berry knows her worth and shows up positively as a choice, bringing others along the way.

Photo provided by Consumers Energy


Whether you are leading a Fortune 500 company or working as a mid-level manager at a local business, backtalk, gossiping and negative speech toward fellow employees and coworkers can wreak havoc on and off the job. But that’s only if we let it, right? But not so fast, keeping quiet is not the only key.

Appropriately addressing race-related conversations needs to happen as of yesterday because, according to https://builtin.com/, racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to perform better. Also, diverse companies enjoy 2.3 times more cash flow per employee. It’s not just about the dollars and cents, but making sense, too, of where these racially-motivated conversations could come from.

So, how does one navigate these sometimes-tumultuous situations, especially if race is involved?

For Vice President of Gas Operations at Consumers Energy Tonya Berry she finds that flying above the negativity and finding joy in every encounter is an opportunity to teach others.

“I leaned toward optimism – [I am] all about joy,” Berry told The Michigan Chronicle. “How can we find joy in each moment and each opportunity?”

Berry finds joy by erring on the side that every conversation she has is coming from a place where the intention was positive.

She added that she also chalks up negative or intentionally disrespectful conversations in the workplace by viewing the speaker as someone who simply lacks education in that area, or they might have unconscious bias.

“I am trying to show up and I am going to be who I am in this conversation,” she said, adding that she shows people who she is through her work ethic. “Earlier in my career, I felt like I had to do more explaining … telling with words… and more actions. … I demonstrate it with my actions and work … you can read my credentials. You can make assumptions about how you thought I got there. …I’d rather demonstrate who I am.”

Respectful conversations and intentional work to build bridges across races on the job is working at Consumers. According to a press release, Forbes named Consumers Energy as the top utility company in the country and second overall in Michigan in its latest ranking of “America’s Best Employers for Diversity,” recognizing Consumers Energy’s major effort to be a leading company for diversity, equity and inclusion.

“We boldly and unapologetically stand for a diverse, inclusive workplace where everyone’s ideas and contributions are heard and valued, and where everyone feels they belong,” said Angela Thompkins, Consumers Energy’s vice president and chief diversity officer. “This recognition affirms our important work, while we know this is only one step on our journey to build a stronger, more inclusive organization that looks out for its employees and delivers world-class performance to our customers.”

Berry also explained how Consumers Energy is paving the way to incorporate diversity, equity and inclusion into its workforce culture, especially after the tragedy of George Floyd’s death last year.

These moves are resonating with the company’s 8,500 employees.

The company sponsors seven Employee Resource Groups – employee-led teams that support workers of different backgrounds and promote a diverse culture. The company also took a public stand in support of its Black co-workers and the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of Floyd.

Consumers Energy was also named the No. 1 workplace for women in the energy sector last year.

“As one of Michigan’s largest employers, we’re excited about our DE&I journey, both learning and teaching others we interact with in our daily work,” Thompkins said. “We’re inspired by a vision for the future in which the ideas and contributions of all are heard, valued and celebrated.”

Berry is the first African American woman vice president in the gas company, among other notable recognitions, and she credits this to the progress she sees at Consumers.

“We are breaking barriers – I couldn’t be more proud to be where we are headed,” she said, adding while “it’s not perfect” she knows it’s getting there. “I know we are always committed to create that inclusive culture. … I can see and feel how we are moving.”



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