Walk the Talk: A Chance to Move Beyond Virtue Signaling and Create Change Within Your Organization
The Black Lives Matter protests are the most recent example of a public asking for systematic change. This may have inspired a reckoning to pause and reflect on how your organization’s culture and actions can improve. Inevitably, brands will find something to say, offering support or sympathy, and promises and progress. But customers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their ability to call B.S. on lofty rhetoric that starts and ends with words alone. Employees increasingly seek work that has meaning and the demand for real impactful action is only going to grow. In order to be conscious brands, companies need to start walking the talk.
Every company should examine what it is already doing to help overcome systemic injustices and what it plans to do in the future – tomorrow, a year from now and ten years from now. Overcoming systemic issues takes systemic thinking that transcends talk. Many companies now recognize they need to be doing more to ensure their organization is actively working for its people and its community (n.b. this includes BrandCulture). While it’s good to acknowledge the inadequacies of the past, what can you do today that builds trust with the public centered around an authentic desire to maintain that trust and do what is right? What can you do so that your action plan is more than an email about heartbreak that incites nothing but eyerolls?
Companies have a responsibility to their employees, customers and greater community. Police brutality fits into a system of racism also marred by sexism, income inequality, exploitative supply chains and environmental degradation. Don’t feel powerless in the face of a profoundly broken system – leverage the opportunities you can seize and enlist others to seize them with you. Break down the system at your own organization to help tackle your particular pressing issues. Bettering your internal culture isn’t about external praise; it is about strengthening your core from the inside out. We believe that an organization can leverage a Culture Framework, a holistic system comprising Communications, Symbolism, Rewards and Recognition, Environment, Structure and Systems, and Leadership.
What are you saying and how?
Say something meaningful. A straightforward message that takes a stand on an issue or accompanies something you are doing deliberately in reaction can be a supportive buoy. Now is not the time to combine genuine sentiment with messages that are sales-oriented or opportunistic.
If you think your statement might come off as hypocritical, it’s okay to keep quiet while allowing other voices to be heard. Focus on implementing the change that would change your narrative… don’t just offer half-truths. Don’t be afraid to listen first before creating a meaningful conversation and plan.
Within your company, have leadership instigate conversations… do not pretend turmoil isn’t occurring. You may want to ask your team to suggest ways in which your company could do better but be prepared to do most of the work and research yourself. Stop yourself from slacking your black employees asking them how you can do the work to be better.
And here’s a communications tip: if you can’t say that George Floyd was murdered or “Black Lives Matter,” you are the problem.
What symbols do you hold up that reinforce ideas of social impact, equity, diversity and inclusion?
What kind of art hangs on your office walls? What music do you play when a customer waits on hold? Who makes your SWAG and with what materials? If your company has been operating for a century, does the founding story include the work of Black people who may not have been credited in the past? Are you unknowingly or willingly upholding symbols that represent bigotry or are you tearing them down?
Equally important, what does your leadership team do when they think nobody is watching? CEO of American Airlines Doug Parker connected with a Southwest Airlines flight attendant JacqueRae Hill when she saw that he was reading the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. An unintended symbolic gesture, the book demonstrates what Parker cares about in his off time. He’s acknowledging that he needs educating and he’s doing the work. The book had been recommended to execs by a board member. The small gestures people make to each other behind closed doors really make a difference. It’s a step.
Considerations that may seem small show your employees and your customers whose voices you believe should be amplified. Ounces turn into pounds. There are a myriad of ways to show that your company cares… actually cares. If you have set company goals for mentoring programs, sustainability metrics, inclusion initiatives, etc., make them a physical presence in the office or milestones on the company calendar.
And let’s not forget about donating. Donations needs not be merely a symbolic gesture – they can carry weight and thoughtfulness. Think about where you are sending your dollars. Ideally, your money and your company’s mission could be deliberately aligned. For instance, if you work in tech and want to lift up Black communities, consider donating to an organization like Black Girls Code. But be aware that donating a million when your company is worth hundreds of billions will just pour salt on the gaping wound of income inequality — and may well be perceived as an obligatory PR stunt vs. a bona fide intent to make a difference. The public can do math. Don’t donate a token amount.
Rewards and Recognition:
How do you recognize your community?
Your organization cannot grow and thrive without appreciation, respect and equitable career paths and promotions. Too often companies succeed by exploiting their workforce; while stocks rise, the savings and future prospects of employees may remain unchanged or even decline in real dollars.
Consider the ways in which you can give back to employees. But pay your employees, well… more than minimum wage… a true living wage. And think about other benefits you can employ in addition to pay. Employees aren’t only at work to serve the bottom line. Companies should be serving those that keep them in business – employees and community.
Starbucks made headlines in 2014 with its tuition reimbursement program. Starbucks employees who qualify will receive a scholarship from ASU that covers 42% of the cost for each credit of course work. Starbucks pays the remaining 58%, minus any other scholarships the employee receives. Since then, other companies have followed suit including Disney. There is always more work to be done and the program isn’t perfect but it is a meaningful start that shows that the companies are willing to invest in employees that invest in the company.
Does your environment allow all people to thrive?
Companies can be allies to employees by recognizing when external situations may affect stress levels and deadlines. During periods of police brutality mourning, don’t just allow Black employees to take time off – offer the time before anyone has to ask. Or go a step further, as Havas did, and encourage your entire staff to take a day for employees to think about how to fight racial injustice, educate themselves or mourn and rest as needed. Recognize the world events and offer a place for a safe discussion or allow for space. The key is to not force an employee into a situation where they aren’t performing at their best or feel they have to smile over a Zoom call. Do not prioritize a deadline over mourning those who have died.
In general, does your company environment support an array of lifestyles? Do you allow employees to work from home when it is helpful to them? If so, do the employees worry about asking to work from home or do they feel that supervisors trust them to do the work wherever they are?
When we speak of environment, we speak of the environment of every worker that contributes to the business – including far down the supply chain. A business may be treating white collar workers with respect but it could rely on prison labor or unjust third parties for inexpensive products and labor. To truly side with progress, check your business supply chain from beginning to end and make that system transparent and accessible to the public.
In what ways does your structure limit or encourage growth and satisfaction?
As the immediacy of the issues fade from the news cycle, those of us who enjoy privileged positions shouldn’t allow issues of inclusion and diversity to slip from the forefront of our consciousness. So many moments of crisis ultimately just become a blip on an otherwise flat line.
The cycles of inequality that have led us to where we are are generations old, and will take a generational sustained effort to approach anything resembling a solution. Being part of that solution means integrating systems that make inclusion an everyday part of doing business that can withstand a more lax public interest, dwindling momentum and losing leaders who care. It also means affirmatively providing opportunity to people who may be unable to find it on their own.
Make diversity training a recurring part of employee education. Hire third-party firms to regularly audit the success of diversity initiatives or bring in experts to help guide your next steps. Write diversity into your business’s foundational documents and make them a subject of onboarding, training or all hands meetings. Do it because it’s the right thing to do and it will make your business better.
As you look at your overall business, honor your workers and workers’ rights. Unions and worker organizations are not the enemy of business. As companies like Amazon and Walmart continue to undermine labor organizing efforts, employees are unable to work together for better wages and treatment. Workers of color are much more likely to be paid poverty rates than white workers. So when anti-union companies issue statements supporting black workers, their actions speak louder than their words… and the hypocrisy rings in their employees’ ears. Unions may carry their own host of issues but companies should respect the right to organize, lift up employees and they will build loyalty amongst workers and the public.
Who is at the top of your organization, who is up next and who is left behind?
Simply put: we need more Black people, people of color and women at the top. Diversity and Inclusion should be more than an HR initiative… it should become baked into the business. The surest path to spur innovation is to seek out the perspectives, diversity, experience and beliefs of people who do not match your own. Workplace diversity means that you understand, accept and value the differences between employees. And without inclusion, or ensuring that the diverse voices feel they can participate equally, diversity is meaningless.
An effective executive who prioritizes diversity can make changes that affect the industry. In 2015 FX television was called out in Variety for its industry-worst diversity of directors — white men directed all but 12% of episodes. Their CEO took the article as a wakeup call and within a year they had developed the most diverse directing pool in television, rocketing that 12% up to 51%, a number that they’ve kept high. When asked how they did it, their CEO responded simply “You have to care about it.”
While change often comes from the bottom up, it is much easier with leadership in place that represents a diverse workforce and is ready to listen and act. There are numbers that make “the business case” for Diversity and Inclusion. It makes companies stronger and more profitable. Duh. Of course it does. But we hope you don’t need the statistics to make a case to the powers that be. It’s condescending. We need to be thinking about people and community. If you’re looking for the best and the brightest, they will come in all shades but they won’t necessarily all be able to have a foot in the door; that’s where stronger hiring and promotion practices come into play. As companies admit their imperfections and make plans to improve diversity, we at BrandCulture are right among them. We must do better and are creating an actionable plan to make diversity a priority in our hiring process. We believe a cycle of accountability and improvement will help other companies and our own shortcomings.
Growth can be uncomfortable. Aristotle said “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” That’s one of the tricky aspects of self-education and progress – the further we go, the more we see that needs improvement. If you are in a position of privilege, you are in a position to listen and act. It’s normal to feel growing pains and to feel overwhelmed by how much more there is to do. You may have a knee jerk reaction to say you support a cause without much to show for it. It’s not the moment for the defensive. It is time to go on the offense. Ask for help. Do the work. Acknowledge shortcomings and then act to fix them. As we remember how much more uncomfortable it is to be disenfranchised than it is to discuss and act against disenfranchisement, let’s do better than we’ve done. Let’s do more than talk the talk. Let’s walk the walk, together.