“I don’t need policies or laws to tell me that I should not hurt somebody or put my knee on their neck until they can no longer breathe.”
The anger in former Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau’s voice in The Economist podcast interview captured her anguish over the killing of George Floyd and her frustration with a system she sought to reform. Like other leaders in the law enforcement community, Harteau has struggled to change a culture granted immunity from oversight. The demonstrations over racial injustice roiling the country may — finally — dent that immunity.
The corporate world has also largely escaped accountability from confronting racial inequality. That may be changing, but how deeply the outcry affects brands and business operations is still a matter of conjecture. Companies that express support for Black Lives Matter may enhance their stature. Beware, however, that warning shots have already been taken at Adidas, Este Lauder, Nike, Under Armour, AT&T, Disney and CitiGroup. All launched compelling social media campaigns and were criticized for their lack of authenticity, bumpy historical records, neglecting to support worthy grassroots efforts, making significant political donations to politicians hostile to the BLM movement or for television advertising choices.
The second half of 2020 promises to be even more divisive and demanding. This is the start, not the apex. While people marching in the streets is an obvious indicator of anger and a demand for change, don’t be lulled into thinking if there are no demonstrations there is no outrage. This is not a “summer of discontent” but a moment that changes the future. The choice is to be a force for that change — or an adversary.
From a brand and culture point of view, the historic significance of these events is that companies can no longer afford to be neutral. For those conscientious enough to seriously ask the question, “How can we be good corporate citizens in an age of economic and civil unrest?” the answer is a difficult one: Internalize the moment’s disruptive forces and use them to completely re-evaluate corporate relations, public affairs, recruitment, marketing and culture and consider a rebuild from the ground up. Sporadic advertisements heralding diversity, a supportive tweet or a high-profile diverse hire and other one-offs aren’t going to work anymore. This moment requires fundamental change.
Companies are already looking at their advertising and social media, but what about where they advertise? Public affairs efforts? Where and how they recruit? Political donations?
The toughest rebuild is culture, especially for companies that have an entrenched bureaucracy and won’t embrace what is needed to sustain a true meritocracy. In a meritocracy, organizations identify the most qualified candidates to staff an organization. Without close oversight and good leadership, however, meritocracies struggle: people in positions of power form closed networks and leverage connections to secure privileges others don’t have. In large companies, it’s easier to hide these kinds of behaviors than it is in smaller or more decentralized organizations.
Across industries and sectors, we’ve heard for years that there is a “pipeline issue” in the supply of qualified people of color. Changing historic patterns, relationships and networks isn’t easy, made more difficult if the “pipeline” is used as an excuse and not an opportunity. One place to start is with historically black colleges and universities, building long-term recruitment networks that over time expand not only the diversity of your organization but the power of your pipeline.
Start with a top-to-bottom cultural audit to create transparency around issues including hiring, history and legal affairs. Then choose a side. “Not everybody with hands is your customer.” Nike made that choice when it supported Colin Kaepernick. Your company will soon be approaching that crossroads — if it hasn’t already.
Companies that don’t make the choice — or want to defend mistakes of the past — will, like CrossFit, find that customers, employees and leaders may not want to be part of their product. As Chief Harteau reflected, “I hope to God we can do something globally really good, otherwise shame on all of us.”
It’s time to end superficial communications, nascent recruiting, vapid corporate social responsibility and endless meaningless change initiatives and focus instead on transparent, authentic and consistent corporate behavior.
Christina Elson is the John A. Allison IV executive director of the Center for the Study of Capitalism at Wake Forest University. Richard Levick is chairman and CEO of LEVICK.