In June 2019, five hundred Wayfair employees walked out of the company headquarters in Boston to protest the sale of beds to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers where children and parents seeking refuge were being separated and locked in cages.
In March 2020, dozens of employees at the publishing company Hachette walked out of its company headquarters in New York City to protest the company’s decision to publish a memoir by alleged child molester Woody Allen.
Later in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, hundreds of Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout by taking the day off to protest their leadership’s decision to allow Donald Trump to post false, inflammatory, and racist posts.
As more and more individuals begin to recognize the reality of interdependence and organize for big changes, their power grows. And leaders will be forced to respond.
For companies looking to recruit and retain top talent in the twenty-first century, corporate social responsibility, social impact, or whatever other name it goes by is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s a must-have.
“Younger employees and customers have come to see practices such as sustainability and community economic empowerment as mandatory for their loyalty,” writes Rohini Anand, a business leader who served as global chief diversity officer at Sodexo. In short, whether leaders choose to co-create a more equitable world or not will directly impact their ability to hire talent, woo customers, and ensure profitability in the twenty-first century.
However, if we only do good so we can bask in the glow of a beloved brand or higher profits, we are setting our moral compass according to the opinions of others. If or when opinions change, we will lose our bearings. That’s not to say we should ignore evolving opinions about how to do good. But consumers and employees seek authenticity in the brands with which they interact, and they hold organizations accountable for virtue signaling. Equally detrimental is falling prey to the “shiny new object” syndrome. Leaders and staff who are attracted to and seduced by the next trending social cause fail to commit time and money to sustainable change. They end up sticking their fingers in the proverbial dam instead of seriously confronting and addressing the enormous threats to equity we face, from environmental degradation to racial injustice to a possible pandemic far more deadly than COVID-19.
Both individuals and organizations can respond to the call for social justice in our society in many ways, regardless of rank (but with an awareness of their power).
Individual Power for Change
Everyone, regardless of their position in an organization, can begin to co-create a more equitable world by joining a cause or movement that is intersectional. This requires some amount of research; historically, many mission-based organizations have not been intersectional because they saw their job as advocating for their issue, even if that meant complementary causes got less money or attention. In recent years, organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club have begun to examine their founders’ racist ideologies and take concrete steps to eradicate the legacy of such thinking in their work and workplace.
Secondly, individuals should find productive ways to pressure their workplaces to advance equity. This needn’t always result in a walkout (though it might if the organization’s leaders are not particularly inclusive or humble enough to listen). To be effective, employees should focus on marrying calls for change with the organization’s interests. In the examples from Wayfair, Hachette, and Facebook, the employees’ expectations were reasonable given their employers’ power and scope of operations. But I once heard about a director of fundraising who did not want to run any fundraising campaigns in nonprofit media after the murder of George Floyd because she felt that every cent people had to give should go toward Black Lives Matter. While I understand the sentiment, one needs a long-term lens; a loss of funding threatens job security for all employees, and Black and Brown people were more likely to lose their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Insolvency does not advance equity. Thus, employees—regardless of rank—need to develop a systems lens and learn to bridge across difference when calling for leadership to advance equity in the wider world.
As you climb an organization’s hierarchical ladder, you can use your incremental gains in power to advance equity even if your superiors are not yet fully on board. You can begin to co-create a more equitable world by organizing with your counterparts at peer organizations or through industry associations. Recently, the Communications Network, an organization of foundation and nonprofit communications professionals, released a report benchmarking racial equity communications in the sector. The report’s accompanying website has data, tools, and case studies to educate communicators on how they can use their sphere of influence to co-create a more equitable world. Trade associations in finance, marketing, product development, research, and other business functions should look to engage in similar research and education initiatives for their members. This will allow midlevel leaders to use their power to nudge their organizations toward greater equity.
And of course, we cannot underestimate the power of communications, in co-creating an equitable world. Storytelling can unmask the system for peers and the public. While the majority of Americans (including myself) felt that pressure, not genuine concern, drove the plethora of public statements denouncing racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Pew Research Center found that most Black (75 percent), Asian (70 percent), and Hispanic (66 percent) adults said that it was at least somewhat important that companies and organizations release statements about political or social issues. In other words, public statements were important to those who have been historically marginalized, even if peer pressure and public perception were the catalysts. What we say matters, even if publicly denouncing inequity is just the first step in creating a more equitable world.
Reprinted from Equity: How to Design Organizations Where Everyone Thrives with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Copyright © 2021 by Minal Bopaiah.
May there be such a oneness between us that when one weeps the other tastes salt.
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