The deaths of George Floyd, Ahamud Arbery and Breonna Taylor have sparked Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across America and globally. Although these protests were an act of solidarity, in many countries – including here in the UK – they were also protesting the long history of racism that still exists within their own institutional structures. Racism is not just an American problem.
The UK Home Office and Ministry of Justice found that in 2018-19, black people were more than nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police and over five times more likely to have force used against them by police in comparison to white people. However, communities are not only putting pressure on the criminal justice system to address racism in their operations but also holding corporations accountable for their racial bias and unequal treatment of black people. Many businesses have been asking what they can or should do, and it is a particularly important time for them to respond.
Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) issues are of growing importance to investors, employees and consumers but in recent months the spotlight has shifted to focus on the Social challenges businesses are facing; from BLM to slave and prison labour in supply chains to the treatment of employees during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is no longer acceptable for businesses to ignore these issues.
The lack of racial diversity in the corporate world has been a long-term problem in the UK and many other parts of the world. There are currently on three black CEO’s in the Fortune 500, nine Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) CEO’S or chairs in the FTSE250 and over a third of FTSE100 companies with no BAME board members. Investors are beginning to focus on the business case for diversity and inclusion for sustainable long-term growth. The challenges facing businesses today are diverse and inter-connected therefore having a team of diverse people with different life experiences and perspectives will increasingly become a significant factor in successful problem solving.
Businesses that speak out against racism risk backlash but those who have responded with meaningful actions have been highly praised and celebrated, strengthening their consumer support and brand image. For example Sainsbury’s ex-chief executive Lord Sainsbury of Preston Candover, who donated £10 million to set up the Museum of London, ordered the statue of slave trader Robert Milligan be removed from outside the museum’s Docklands branch, making Sainsbury’s the target of a right-wing boycott. The hashtag #BoycottSainsburys was trending across Twitter but was quickly mocked by anti-racist users in support of Sainsbury’s and #BuySainsburys was soon trending in response.
In contrast, businesses who have made empty gestures have been ridiculed by consumers, forcing them to do more. For example, Disney published a ‘we stand for inclusion’ statement on social media that was greeted with many people calling out their history of racism. One person tweeted ‘Open your purse Mickey Mouse’, which gained over 51,000 likes in less than 24 hours and even more than the original tweet by Disney received. Disney has since pledged to donate $5 million to organisations that support social justice.
Diversity is no longer just a value-based focus, it is a meaningful investment consideration.
While financial contributions and supporting BLM organisations have significant impact they are only the external moves. Businesses also need to make changes internally if they are to create meaningful change in the corporate world.
The first is for those in charge to listen and learn. It is essential for businesses to open their eyes and ears before opening their mouths. More organisations are using data to better understand where black people exist within their operations and more importantly where they do not. The problem is often clear and while this can be uncomfortable, it is something that must be acknowledged. Where black people do exist, their voices must be elevated, and their concerns must not be dismissed. Businesses have a responsibility to nurture their black talent to allow them to climb the ladder to positions of power. Promotion and retention of black people within organisations is equally as important as recruitment and hiring. Without it, businesses are missing out on the insights and ideas that are shaped by the black experience and are simply not doing what is right.
However, this is not the time for businesses to merely feel guilty and do nothing in fear of getting it wrong. Racial inequality is more than a problem of justice or opportunity. This is also a business problem, and one that will not be solved with empty gestures but measurable actions. Companies must set themselves goals with KPI’s to hold themselves accountable and the individuals within these companies must also reflect on their own unconscious biases and microaggressions.
Racial equality is a fundamental part of sustainability that is no longer being ignored. As climate change and the environment make their way into core business functions, racial diversity is following. Both encompass immense material risks and opportunities that must be acknowledged by looking within ourselves and our businesses.
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