It’s Time for Businesses to Do Better on Race

George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis Police has forever changed race in America. “Everyone was witness to a murder,” a colleague said to me recently about this critical point in our history. We’re mad. We’re sad. We don’t know what to say. We don’t know what to do. But we know we need to say and do something, especially since one thing most can agree upon is that silence is how we got here.

The business challenges of COVID-19 seem quaint by comparison. Rather, they seem like challenges that we can address tactically. Order face shields, put up plexiglass, limit store traffic and hours, modify work schedules, and adjust accordingly as needed. But where do you start with race as an organization?

“Black lives matter. As leaders and companies, we have a platform, and a duty to our Black employees, clients, and industry professionals to speak up,” says Katie Kern, Partner and Chief Operating Officer of Media Frenzy Global and a leading diversity and inclusion expert and mentor to rising minority leaders. Katie is also the colleague I referenced previously. We chatted recently on an episode of my podcast. She’d been a guest two years ago on the topic of company culture but wanted to come back and talk about the tough conversations companies need to have about race.

“We can’t be afraid of offending our customers and associating brands with sensitive subjects,” continues Kern. “It’s about coming together for what is right and what will move us in a positive progressive direction. Change is happening and the time is now.”

However, too often, when it’s time for brands to tackle race, we wait for Black History Month or Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Or, we follow the social media trends of the day and post black squares to our profiles and compose a thoughtful but tame statement of support along with the requisite hashtags. Then the next day we go back to selling burgers, coffee, and yard tools.

To be clear, the ubiquitous “our brand doesn’t tolerate intolerance of any kind” messages are important. But they’re just a start. They have to be a start of something much bigger. This surface-level support isn’t surprising when most minimize the work of brand-building to logo design and snazzy slogans.

As I write and speak and teach, standout brands stand for something. Beyond simply saying something, brands that build strong, emotional connections with their people are the brands that walk the talk. The brands that reinforce what they say with constant, consistent action. That’s hard work. And it’s even harder when it comes to race.

It’s time for businesses to start that work. But how?

I asked Katie Kern this very question. How can brands take meaningful next steps on race beyond simply sharing statements of support? How can we start? Kern advises leaders and companies to look inward with the following questions:

  • Company culture—What does your company culture actually speak to? Ask your Black employees what they think and how they feel.
  • Human resource policies—Do your HR policies sanction against micro aggressions? Do you have diversity guidelines and policies within the company?
  • Black employees at every level—What are your numbers for hiring Black people throughout all levels of your organization?
  • Black leadership—What’s the makeup of your board and executive leadership?
  • Mentoring Black leadership—Are you doing all that you can to see that Black people get promoted to executive and decision-making positions?
  • Having tough and constant conversations—How will you sustain this momentum moving forward? This is not easy work. These are not easy conversations. You have to keep talking internally and doing the required work.

Of course, this list isn’t everything. There are no easy checklists but questions like these should at least provide an onramp to a better path. Again, a start.

You may be looking at this list and thinking, what if our answers to these questions aren’t that good? Start there and share where you are now, where you’d like to be, and what you’re going to work on to get there. “Transparency is the best thing that any company or brand can do right now,” adds Kern.

For example, the NFL recently modeled this kind of transparency in reviewing their stance on kneeling in protest as Colin Kaepernick did. “We were wrong,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a video last week. “Black lives matter. We want to be a part of the change.” Now, the NFL has a lot of inequity to address but this transparent statement is a start. Of note, Nike as a brand with a considerable platform took a stand in support of Kaepernick two years ago, making him the center of a campaign, earning accolades, and strengthening their connection to their community in the process.

I don’t want to minimize over 400 years of racial oppression to shoes and sports, but it started with an individual protest, was amplified by an influential brand, and, hopefully, will help bring about institutional change.

Brave voices. Bold stances. Transparent assessments. Difficult conversations. That’s how the work starts. That’s how we work to make it better. As Katie Kern said at the end of our time together, “Every company can do better across the board. But every company needs to look inward, do the checks and balances, and then come out on the other end with solutions and action.”

As a company, there are many different ways you can start. Find the path that works best for you and start there. But above all else, commit yourself and your organization to starting. The only bad path is silence. That’s how we got here and it’s not a path forward. Silence is more of the same.

If we want to move forward, it’s time for leaders, businesses, and the brands they build together to listen, speak up, stand up, and act. Then and only then will we see real change.

Black lives matter. Don’t just say it. Enact it.