5 Ways Business Can Make Good on Statements Against Injustice
Since the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021, American corporate leaders have released an unprecedented number of public statements condemning violence, racism, and sedition. As the business community distances itself from the Trump administration and the MAGA rioters, there’s a familiar feeling among consumers, employees, and activists: “Ok, great. Show us.”
Whenever social justice and injustice enters the national conversation, companies across the country publish press releases, produce statements, and overhaul their marketing. Fantastic — what else? What about not only hiring and talent practices, but supply chains? Vendor relationships? Contracting policies?
This isn’t an attack on corporate America. This is an invitation to keep going.
It’s important to acknowledge that nothing is neutral. Every action (or inaction) reflects some set of values. Whether they’re our values or not is up to us. When we’re not intentional in our business practices, we tend to perpetuate values that are antithetical to our beliefs. The reckonings over the spring and summer of 2020 showed us it’s remarkably easy to perpetuate oppressive ideals and systems. It’s not impossible to turn it around. If we are to use business for good, we must look beyond PR and seasonal, opportunistic support of social movements.
It’s also important to note that this isn’t simple, easy, or glamorous work. Too often, we approach what could be transformative work as one-off initiatives. They tend to fall on the shoulders of the most passionate employees — usually employees of color — and we expect them to lead these initiatives on volunteered time without formal authority or adequate resources. ‘Initiatives’ must evolve to embedded ways of working and conducting business.
We, especially in America, want a quick fix — to flip a light switch, dust off our hands, and be finished with the dang thing. Life is dynamic. Society is dynamic. We are dynamic. We must allow ourselves and our colleagues the grace necessary to unlearn, learn, and keep learning (spoiler alert: the learning never stops). When I say grace, I don’t mean ‘go easy’ or ‘lower our standards.’ That said, we can stand to be nice to ourselves and get comfortable saying “gosh — I didn’t know,” or “I didn’t want to know.” We can also get comfortable saying “thank you” to the people holding us accountable and standing for our communities. Though it may not be glamorous, simple, or straightforward, it’s worth it.
Organizations who strive to work with their values at the center see increases in:
*Efficiency. Rooting in values decreases option paralysis, office politics, bureaucracy, and decision-by-committee woes.
*Reputational solidity. We’ve been seeing, in real-time, corporations back-pedal their political and financial support for the Trump administration, and, while it’s about time, it’s not pretty.
*Staff morale, retention, and camaraderie. Natalie Baumgartner outlines the connection between organizational culture and organizational ethics in how to Build a Culture That Aligns with People’s Values: “85% of CEOs and CFOs believe an unhealthy culture leads to unethical behavior.”
When our actions are rooted in our values, big decisions are not hard decisions. When our actions are rooted in our values, we don’t enable oppressive administrations or their sympathizers. When our actions are rooted in our values, we don’t make decisions based solely on political gain and shareholder primacy. When our actions are rooted in our values, we can build a world that works for everyone.
One of the most important truths here is that this work — values-driven business — is squishy. 100% alignment between values, business, and the world as it is in January 2021 is elusive, if not impossible. Contradictions exist everywhere. Data privacy butts up against transparency. Equity and efficiency are rarely friends. Affordability and accessibility betrays sustainable production methods. This list continues, and will likely get longer by the time you’ve read this article.
These contradictions are not impracticalities. We must try. We might not get there as soon as we’d like, but we must try. To borrow from Robert Sapolsky,
“Eventually it can seem hopeless that you can actually fix something, can make things better. But we have no choice but to try. And if you are reading this, you are probably ideally suited to do so.” (pg. 674 of Sapolsky’s Behave)
The goal of this work is not 100% alignment, nor 100% agreement within teams. We can often find common ground. If we can’t—well—we can do something with that information, too.
Let’s get back to the recent public statements. What can business do to make good on their powerful, eloquent rhetoric?
1. Commit time, resources, and action.
This is dynamic work. This is not always comfortable work. What makes sense now may not make sense in ten years. Great! Keep learning and keep pivoting. Remember that values are squishy, but the way you approach them doesn’t have to be. If you don’t know where you’re going now, commit to finding out. Commit, wherever you are in the process.
2. Define, redefine, and refine.
You’ve got to know what you’re talking about. What do your values mean? We often see words like integrity, sustainability, and equality in values statements. Great. Do you know what these words mean? Does your team agree?
You must also define what these words don’t mean. We’ve seen words like freedom, peace, and hope stand for all sorts of ideals and agendas. When we’re concrete in what our values are what they are not, we can take concrete action.
In the spirit of giving ourselves grace, we must get used to redefining and refining our values. Just as we change and grow, so should our values.
3. Contextualize business practices within your values.
What do your values mean for your business? Make your values concrete by mapping business processes to well-defined values. For instance, if you’re a manufacturer interested in sustainability, explore how your product assembly reflects or contradicts your definition of sustainability. If you’re in the business of professional education and you believe in accessibility, take a look at your virtual training practices and pricing structure. Pro tip: keep asking “how does process X reflect or contradict our value of Y?”
4. Prioritize high-impact, low-burden areas.
Let’s be reasonable. You’ve got to keep the lights on and keep payroll running. Where will you start? HR and DEI initiatives may come to mind first, but remember that this work belongs everywhere, to everyone. Some criteria to consider:
· You’ve got to start somewhere: where might you find some small wins?
· Buy-in and accountability: Will staff take the work seriously? Are they truly supported by leadership? How will you know?
· Strategy: which gears in your business ecosystem will support further change across its other gears, cogs, and sprockets?
5. Re-commit and keep going.
To drive real change, rhetoric must be backed up by resources, continuous action, and accountability. Revisit your values often. Check in. Ask: “are we in line with our values and beliefs?” and be willing to thoroughly examine the answer.
This is not soft work, but it does require us to let go of our rigidity. We must explore new ideas and new ways of working. We must look outside of Human Resources, Public Relations, and Corporate Social Responsibility. We must get comfortable saying “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out.”
Here’s to matching our actions to our rhetoric in 2021 and beyond.
Genevieve Smith is a social change expert, an organizational behavior and strategy consultant, speaker and facilitator. She runs GV Advisory, where she works with corporate leaders, INGOs, and investors to align their actions and their values. Genevieve is available for project-based work, coaching, and advisory services. Learn more about her work here or get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org