A ‘Whole Company’ Approach for Justice and Equity

Racial justice and health equity demand an integrated approach that prioritizes internal coordination and collaboration.

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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.

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.

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