What makes businesses do the right thing?

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Record numbers of businesses have been showing their support for anti-racist campaigners over the past week. 

They appear keen to take a stand against discrimination.  Symbolic gestures such as displaying the #BlackoutTuesday square to support Black Lives Matter can be powerful, whether they are used to express solidarity at a moment of crisis or as part of a longer term intention. On its own, however, clicktivism is not enough.

In my 30 years of corporate experience, the rationale for taking a stand on equality, diversity and inclusion in the workplace can be based around two arguments.

  1. It makes good business sense: A soft sell, used to win over people (often in the middle-to-senior management permafrost) who find conversations about diversity issues uncomfortable. The logic goes something like this: If we create a business that reflects society around us, we are more likely to understand our customers and can sell more stuff. If we have more women in senior positions, research tells us we are more likely to have a profitable and sustainable future. We all win, including the shareholders. 
  2. We care about social justice:  It takes courage to say you believe in making the world a fairer place in many corporate environments. The relentless focus is on share price and short-term profitability. Even if you have a CEO who cares passionately about social justice – and I have worked with a number of them – they can be outnumbered by those in positions of power whose white fragility and bias prevent them from engaging beyond parroting what they see in a ‘progressive’ internal marketing campaign.

As brand teams around the world discuss optimal timing for swapping the black square for the Pride month rainbow, businesses need to dig deep if they want to prove their long-term commitment to change.

Rolling out a two-hour unconscious bias workshop won’t do it. Running a cute social media campaign, or making sure all the people in your ads aren’t white and able-bodied, won’t either. Nor will drafting in junior women or other ‘others’ to represent the company on high profile external platforms when they are paid less than their white male counterparts. (I’m paraphrasing here but pay gap reporting validates the argument). All of these things are useful, but they are essentially performances.

Getting into the operational nitty-gritty, in parallel to the putting on the equality show,  will sustain the change. Instead of constantly asking what they need to do, perhaps businesses could focus on getting in place the unglamorous basics that make a difference.

How about following fairer recruitment and retention practices? Empowering managers and their HR colleagues to challenge prejudice when they see it? Building the pipeline, and actively promoting people who ’don’t look like us’? Creating accessible environments? Looking for ways to incentivise senior managers on addressing imbalance with hard rather than soft targets? And where your business depends on algorithms, how about ensuring they are not reinforcing entrenched inequalities?

Outsourcing this work into a tiny, under-resourced diversity team while the rest of the business abdicates responsibility may be tempting, but it’s only marginally better than nothing. The same could be said for asking communications to build a pretty shop window full of rainbows if it only serves to camouflage something rotten in the back room. Genuine commitment to social justice needs to be embedded and systemic, not an optional extra.

If all that sounds like hard work, you’re right, it is.

However, as leaders, managers, employees, consultants, customers, and shareholders we can influence the way companies behave. Between us, we have the power to hold businesses to account and make the world a better, fairer place for all of us. 

The answer to the question: What makes businesses do the right thing? is simple. We do.

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