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Delivering an effective executive leadership response to nationwide protests over racial injustice and the COVID-19 pandemic requires more than perfunctory statements and philanthropic gestures of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Companies must move beyond “giving back” through the siloed efforts of a corporate social responsibility (CSR) or community relations department toward an integrated, “whole company” approach that can facilitate needed changes to hiring, compensation, promotions, sourcing, and other core business practices. Since many companies want to be part of the solution but don’t know how to get there, we offer C-suite leaders five key steps to develop a whole-company approach that enables racial and health justice.
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Shortly before the global COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected Black and brown lives and a protest movement spotlighted systemic racism, we conducted a national survey of 1,000 businesses as part of a three-year study to understand how companies engage to improve health equity. Focusing on Boston, where a strong business-driven local economy and world-class medical hub coexist with profound racial and health inequities, we interviewed more than 150 senior leaders and employees, local nonprofit and government staff members, and young adults participating in business-supported programs. Since that time, the coronavirus has hit Boston’s communities of color the hardest, starkly exposing preexisting disparities in social and economic factors that influence health. Our research offers insights for effective business responses to the current crises.
Giving With the CSR Hand While Taking With the Other
CSR departments typically drive corporate efforts to promote local communities’ health and well-being, normally through philanthropic donations to support nonprofit partners’ activities. In recent months, many large corporations, like Nike and Bank of America, have complemented their statements supporting protests with financial pledges for nonprofit organizations’ initiatives or racial equity funds. While appreciated, such CSR department-led actions are insufficient to tackle structural inequities, which their core business operations may inadvertently intensify.
For example, the work available to Black and brown people frequently offers low wages with limited benefits and advancement opportunities. When businesses move into communities of color, gentrification and displacement may follow. Last year, communities in New York City, fearing gentrification and the exacerbation of other neighborhood challenges, rallied to expel a proposed Amazon headquarters. In response to new business coming to Boston, several young people argued, “It hurts us more than it helps us.”
Businesses’ efforts to give back through CSR activities engender skepticism. “I feel like they see this as a way to make them look good on paper,” a youth program participant commented. Young people see businesses as organizations led by people unconnected to their communities. “Basically just a bunch of white people sitting in a glass room, deciding how they’re gonna help these Black and brown kids,” another said. Activists, employees, and Black business leaders have widely echoed these critiques in response to the latest slew of company statements and philanthropic pledges.
Helping not hurting — achieving racial justice and health equity — demands changes to core business practices. A company’s small financial commitments to CSR projects will continue to raise “But what about … ?” questions related to its core business. Efforts must lead to greater representation of Black and brown people at all company levels, as well as more engagement with Black- and other minority-owned businesses, contractors, and vendors to support inclusive local economies.
Implementing a Whole-Company Approach
The key to achieving racial and health justice is to embrace a whole-company approach that prioritizes internal coordination and collaboration. Here are five steps that C-suite leaders can take:
1. Integrate a commitment to equity into company culture. Forward-thinking leaders incorporate this commitment into corporate values and vision statements and articulate persuasively why it matters. This requires a shift away from seeing the promotion of equity as a “cost” to viewing it as an imperative for long-term viability. One large company in our study made “caring and acting” a core company value in recognition that being caring, passionate, diverse, and inclusive was part of the company’s DNA — not an identity that belonged only to the community relations or CSR department. Staff members described this commitment as critical to the company and to the “CEO’s personal brand.”
2. Ensure internal collaboration and coordination across departments. Working with external partners is important to improve equity in surrounding communities. But forward-thinking companies also prioritize internal collaboration across departments, including product design, quality assurance, benefits and human resources, CSR, and sustainability. “We’re a complex organization with a lot of different people, a lot of different bureaucracies, and a lot of different business lines,” one company vice president commented. “So as much as I’m engaging externally, there is equal energy engaging internally.”
3. Invite, value, and act on two-way communication between the front lines and the C-suite. Front-line employees often are members of the community that C-suite leaders talk about wanting to serve better. It behooves senior leaders to implement both formal and informal mechanisms to facilitate intentional listening, invite input, and provide feedback. Best practices include the use of online and in-person forums to facilitate top-down/bottom-up communication across the organization, as well as listening carefully to front-line employees’ expertise and insights — including dissent.
4. Provide dedicated leadership, staff time, and resources. This coordinating work requires companies to dedicate time and resources, as well as to pay and promote staff members accordingly. IBM Watson Health has installed a chief health officer to increase coordination across departments. It is crucial that such a role has a broad remit (beyond a chief medical officer’s focus on employee health), reports to the CEO, and has the resources and authority to drive integrated strategic planning across departments.
5. Commit to measuring impact. Companies’ efforts to support positive social change often outpace their commitment to assessing their activities’ impact. Many organizations record and report inputs in terms of dollars or hours donated, but this risks making them look good on paper without ensuring real change. IBM Watson Health’s and Johns Hopkins’s recent initiative to evaluate the hospital industry based on hospitals’ impact on health equity is a step in the right direction.
A whole-company approach requiring collaboration across departments will disrupt business as usual. But it will ultimately lead to more cohesive organizations that can effectively promote health and racial equity, without which even greater disruptions likely lie ahead.