The reignition of the Black Lives Matter movement on the streets of the USA has taken many people by surprise. It is this ‘surprise’ that points to the chasm between us, and how the tyranny of societal niceness covers powerful partisanship.
Simmering just beneath the surface of our civil day-to-day are jagged inequities. Individual flashpoints, like the death of George Floyd, create opportunities for racism, homophobia – any and all forms of discrimination – to cut through, revealing the normalised nature of prejudice.
The evidence is clear: experiences of bias and systematic discrimination against black people, in the USA and many other countries like our own, are far too common.
Black people continue to disproportionally experience systematic discrimination.
From the way maternal care is provided to black women, in the educational and employment obstacles black youth encounter, to black people’s interactions with the justice system and police.
This is alive and true in our corporate landscape where large brands seek to align with social causes to emphasise their values in the marketplace.
However, we must remember that the marketplace is our society – that molten pot of simmering historical, geopolitical and powerful tensions.
Corporate and CEO activism
Corporate activism can be a very strong statement of support for social justice causes. It helps make people who wouldn’t otherwise listen pay attention to a specific cause.
It can also help change social norms by highlighting that powerful stakeholders have come to understand the injustices they are campaigning against and are willing to put their brand on the line to argue for what they think is right.
For instance, in the wake of the current #BLM movement, many companies have engaged to make their stance known.
Spotify has created several playlists in solidarity with the movement. Ben and Jerry’s have issued statements calling for the dismantling of white supremacy, which they argue is a central driver behind the disproportional killing of black men and women by police.
Nike has been showing their support to the pleas of black people for a while now by embracing the peaceful protest by athlete and activist Colin Kaepernick, who would kneel during the national anthem at the start of NFL games to protest police brutality and racial inequities in the USA.
Of course, many of these public endorsements of social causes are welcomed with a grain of scepticism. How can corporations differentiate a brand promotion exercise from a genuine commitment to social justice?
How can businesses challenge systemic inequalities?
Corporations are in a prime position to promote respect and dignity for all individuals, particularly for marginalised communities within their own enterprise.
They can prioritise and listen to black people within their organisation, including minority suppliers. They can play a role in addressing negative views and behaviours against black people when conveyed by their employees, customers and suppliers.
Corporations can also address the consequences of lower social esteem and social power experienced by people of colour.
This can be done in many different ways, like creating charters highlighting the rights of all their stakeholders to be treated with dignity and respect, and by articulating that every stakeholder is responsible for upholding such charter.
While these steps might seem symbolic, there are also compliance-based changes corporations can commit to, like training their employees on how to prevent bias and discrimination. This training needs to be done over time and with exercises relevant to the tasks and interactions the employees are more likely to encounter.
But compliance isn’t enough for behaviour change to occur – corporations need leadership.
Individual leaders need to set the tone of conversations, acting with respect and consideration towards all employees, paying attention to the many ways in which members of marginalised groups within their teams, client base or suppliers are treated when they interact with the organisation.
Of course, even day-to-day interactions play a big role, and leaders need to be trained and prepared to speak up when disrespectful language is used or when they see that unfair decisions are being made.
However, this will only be window dressing if corporations don’t change the racial and ethnic makeup of their stakeholders and shareholders, employees and suppliers.
Organisations need to think deeply about whether their workforce represents the makeup of their community.
How well are members of the black and other marginalised communities represented within your business? Are all black people in entry-level or clerical jobs? What is your business doing to guarantee that you are attracting, retaining, developing, promoting and compensating black people at a similar rate as other ethnic groups?
These questions can be answered by analysing human resources data and systems.
When you observe that there is a clear disparity and specific groups are being disadvantaged, a wide range of actions can be implemented. These include setting targets, using targeted or de-identified recruitment and selection processes, or fixing disparities in pay packages.
The fact is, if you want to help fix problems of racial inequity within your business, there will be a wide range of actions you can take.
The relationship between corporations and the rest of society is complex. However, one thing is clear, corporations benefit from societies where everybody is treated with respect and afforded equal opportunity to thrive and contribute.
Justice and good business sense can come hand-in-hand when corporations meaningfully support marginalised groups.
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