In the midst of a pandemic—a public health crisis that has consumed more than 116,000 souls in the United States—thousands of citizens decided it was worth the risk of catching a deadly virus to get out on the streets and protest about the structural racism that has persisted in this country since its founding. The killing of George Floyd, coupled with those of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, along with overt racism directed at Christian Cooper served as the tipping point around public sentiment.
The question for boards of directors is what to do about it. Plenty of companies have put out statements saying they stand with the Black community; many have even made donations to causes supporting racial equality – but neither is going to be enough. Companies will need to explain what “stand with the Black community” means in action.
Protestors point to the system of policing as the problem, which to some degree it is. There are two police-related dynamics that have brought us to this moment. First, law enforcement gets the benefit of the doubt in situations involving Black Americans. Yet rarely, even with video evidence, are officers charged or prosecuted. We share the experience of a system that has tried to tell us to ignore what our eyes have seen. Police standards maintain that law enforcement is innocent and that perpetrators are wrong and deserve the treatment; no matter how brutal it may be. Second, the average American citizen is quick to view a Black person in a negative light, stereotyping them as threatening, not as intelligent, lacking energy, etc. The roots of these invisible assumptions lay deep in the folds of American history. Modern day policing memes are echoes tracing back to slave patrols of the early 1700s. It’s this system that led Derek Chauvin to sit on top of George Floyd for almost 9 minutes, with seemingly no belief whatsoever that it might be a problem.
Corporate America will logically ask: Where and how do I step in? I am not here to advocate that companies jump head first into criminal justice reform, because it is difficult to engage in public debates on social issues. I do believe, however, that companies have the opportunity to drive change deeper to get at the root of the problems. Directors must first get past the naiveté of believing that the systemic racism and injustice encountered by Black Americans does not exist in their companies. From there, directors must ask what the management team will do to change the narrative so that Black employees are seen as additive to the company and have full and equal access to any and all opportunities. All this without the bias—both conscious and unconscious—that exists today. I suggest there are strategies to consider for both inside and outside the company.
Outside the Company
Directors should specifically ask what the company’s strategic priorities are in the Black community. Those investments need to be targeted toward breaking down persistent inequalities in areas such as food security, education and Black supplier development.
To the extent these investments are already in place, it is time for boards to challenge the budgets and effectiveness of these investments and test whether these activities are simply “ticking the box,” The final question should be: To what extent are executives personally involved in the philanthropic and development efforts. As the saying goes, “It’s easy to have a rich person write a check and hard to get a busy person to give their time.”
Typically, these investments are outlined in the sustainability report. Companies should consider how to fundamentally change the report to provide a robust assessment of equal rights inside the company and its supplier base just like the focus on climate change or human rights.
Inside the Company
Inside the company, directors can spur engagement in three distinct but related areas: Behaviors, Structures and Metrics.
• Behaviors: Leaders need to deepen their sensitivity and knowledge. Acknowledging the problem is the easiest aspect of cultural change. To ensure that change efforts maintain momentum requires company leaders, including the board and CEO, to deepen their sensitivity towards and knowledge of structural racism.
Charting new terrain is deep work. This learning journey may prove painful for those involved yet it is a necessary step. Many of my White friends and colleagues express concern, remorse and all the things you would expect at a time like this. Fewer recognize that they contribute to the problem and perpetuate it with their behaviors. Frank conversations need to be had between Black and White colleagues in order to deepen understanding. Many on boards believe that they have “done enough” regarding racism and inequality in their company. They feel they have a meritocracy grounded in the “best person for the job” mantra and that the various inclusion and diversity programs they have are working just fine. I submit that if that were all true, then thousands of people would not be in the streets protesting the system that produced Mr. Floyd’s demise. White leaders need to commit to listening and not lecturing in order to encourage employees to express their views and share their experiences. Then and only then will companies have a chance to prove that Black lives really do matter at every level of the organization.
As a practical step, I strongly advocate unconscious bias or other forms of experiential diversity training for leaders. This also is not an easy step, but it is important. If you choose not to do experiential training, you have to find some way to get leaders to both believe and understand how their behaviors are shaping the system. I remember how painful it was for me to be a participant in work like this at Shell in the 1990s. Sharing the painful stories of the racism I encountered inside and outside the company left me exhausted. That said, my friends and colleagues learned a great deal from my experiences and developed a much better appreciation for how their behaviors affected me and my Black colleagues. Learning is the first step in driving behavioral change from the top.
• Structures: Create frameworks and controls that reinforce behaviors. Building awareness is a crucial first step, but it can’t stop there. After executives learn what behaviors they need to ensure that Black employees are viewed as equals and given the benefit of the doubt, it is necessary to put structures in place so that they become part of the company’s DNA.
Directors need to challenge executives to be innovative in embedding this cultural change in the company. This step requires yet more discomfort in dissecting the notion of diversity to focus specifically on opportunities for Black people. Using words like “diverse” or “people of color” ignores the fact that Black people are treated differently than others. Do we believe Ahmaud Arbery would have been tracked and shot if he were Asian? If you have a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer and affinity groups, you already have a framework to build on which enables the company to focus on Black inequality. The Code of Conduct is also an existing structure that should be re-examined to ensure it is effective relative to Black employee equality.
Some examples of other structures I’m talking about would be ensuring that college recruiting includes historically Black and/or predominantly Black campuses; requiring there be a certain number of Black candidates considered for every hire, and setting a target for the minimum number of Black people on the executive team or board. While targets are often not popular, they can have meaningful effects—just look at the California and UK laws mandating minimum numbers of women on public company boards that came out of the MeToo movement. There has been some pushback to this idea, yet this policy was adopted to structurally change the demographics of the boards.
Another idea would be to find new ways to engage Black employees on what is working and what is not. Some companies have employed “reverse mentoring,” where relatively junior employees help educate senior executives on topics like technology and digitization. Perhaps Black employees should be partnered with to “reverse mentor” executives so they can better understand the Black experience in society and the company?
Another area for improvement is minority business development and involvement. The company should do a deep reexamination of its minority supplier program and spend and ensure the company is focused on creating opportunities for and doing business with Black-owned businesses. Consideration of this effort should be expanded out of small “safe” spending and move to financial management, major operational expenditures and other areas where the company has material spending.
Fundamentally, it is about making a cultural change to ensure the company is driving equality in the organization. To that end, directors must hold the CEO and executive team accountable by continually asking questions such as: “How are Black employees doing?” “Are we executing our new recruiting and hiring policies?” and “How many executives have deep relationships with Black employees?” and “How are we performing against the metrics that we set?”
Naturally, directors should also look around the boardroom and be sure they are modelling the behavior they want in the organization. To that end, in order to sharpen near-term focus in this area, the board should consider a special committee to lead its effort to drive this difficult cultural change in the company. The findings of the special committee can then be handed off to the Compensation/Leadership or Governance and Nominating Committees for follow-up and implementation.
• Metrics: Track critical activities and monitor progress. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “No metrics, no movement.” In the age of digitization and data, directors must take the hard step of demanding that their companies track the progress of Blacks in their organization with more rigor and vigor. Again, this needs to be specific to Black employees, and not default to more general “diversity” numbers. If you are not comfortable setting goals, then companies should get comfortable demanding improvement trends on the numbers.
As I alluded to earlier, I believe it’s important to draw this distinction because Blacks, unlike all other underrepresented groups in the workplace, are not seen as equals in society and more often than not are not given the benefit of the doubt. Negative stereotypes can be especially impactful in the workplace where performance and promotion decisions are both objective and subjective. The contribution of Black employees should be considered a must in an abundant workforce that is people-centric and inclusive of everyone.
Just to be clear, I believe that women and other minorities in the workplace still need help getting the benefit of the doubt. I just think that the awareness around this for Black employees needs deeper contemplation than before, in the same way the MeToo movement put the focus on women. So while it may be uncomfortable to monitor the progress of Black employees separately, strategically I think this is a necessary step for change.
Mr. Floyd’s death seems to have been “the straw that broke the camel’s back” in a long sequence of events that has demonstrated how Blacks are treated in America. The protests would suggest that the time for change is at hand and that society has collectively reached a tipping point. Boards can capitalize on this moment with their actions going forward. It seems to me that “I can’t breathe” is the Black version of “Me Too.”