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Racism: How Should CEOs Respond?

Barbara Shannon is a San Francisco-based coach/adviser to CEOs, founder of CEO peer group THECEOBOARD and host of “The B-Suite” podcast.


As the video of George Floyd’s murder circulates the internet and protests sweep U.S. cities, brand-name businesses have been quick to express support. Nike released a video with the message “Don’t Do It,” Nickelodeon went off air for 8 minutes and 46 seconds (the time the police officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck), and Twitter turned its logo to black and white, adding #blacklivesmatter to its bio. 

COVID-19 has broken the barrier between our personal and professional realms and forced us to reassess what we truly value, so we find ourselves unable to switch off the image of Floyd gasping for air beneath a white cop’s knee. We know this matters. 

In this defining moment it is not only acceptable but expected that business leaders address racism, white supremacy and criminal justice reform head on. We are overdue to speak these words. 

The phrase “silence is violence” resonates. Doing nothing under the guise of professionalism is no longer an option. Messages of solidarity ring hollow when action and meaningful change fail to follow.

This historic moment demands personal introspection, an honest look inside the business, and bold action toward quantum shifts in policy, culture and behavior. As the world shifts beneath our feet, here is a best path forward for how CEOs should respond. 

 

Personal Introspection

Reflect on your personal values and beliefs. If you’re unsure of how George Floyd was killed or what is actually happening on our streets, devote a good amount of time to reading the news, watching reactions, and sense-checking how people are responding online. Evaluate what you’re seeing against your personal values. Listen to your brain’s narrative and take a moment to let the weight of recent events settle on you. Think about your company’s values and how these events speak to what your business stands for. Then, put your thoughts in writing and prepare to share them with your team. 

If you’re having thoughts of justification, guilt or defensiveness regarding what you’ve done or not done thus far, that’s fine, just be sure you’re not burdening your team, or worse, your non-white staff with your personal struggle. Therapists and other third-party experts are there to help with inner doubts. As a leader, what’s important are the values you uphold and the bold action you take in support of those values. 

 

An Honest Assessment

Job No. 1 for businesses in America right now is to commit to an unvarnished evaluation of the company’s status when it comes to race, diversity, equity and inclusion. Start with a visit to HR. 

Ask to review any current or past allegations of race-based bias. Look at the company’s racial makeup with a special focus on your leadership team and middle management. Audit your pay and promotion equity by race and gender. Does your recruiting strategy include intentional outreach to diverse communities? Have you invested in diversity, equity and inclusion? How are you creating a culture of safety and belonging for all? Where can you improve? What are you ready to invest in order to move forward? Acknowledge that meaningful change is a process that will require your ongoing participation. Right-size your plans for the long term.

These are hard questions and they are no longer optional. These are the standards against which the authenticity of any corporate response will be evaluated.

 

Take Action

There is so much to be done, and so much opportunity to enact real change.

The actions you take, when driven from your core values, will release pent up energy. Don’t be afraid of anger, sadness and feelings that don’t usually find space in the workplace. Instead, make room for a release of energy. Bring people together. Invite discussion and open conversation. Hope and bonding lies just on the other side of fear and isolation, so commit to listening. Then be ready to respond.

 

Recruiting and Hiring

Insist on a diverse slate of candidates for key leadership positions. If you find it hard to attract non-white applicants, explore new approaches such as partnerships with community colleges, technical schools and community organizations. Many positions that once required an in-office presence can now be done remotely, so start getting your recruiters to seek applications from a wider range of locations. Examine your interview process. Are your interviewers diverse? Eliminate interview questions or requirements that bias against non-male, non-white candidates. 

 

Use Your Public Platform

As long as you have a plan that’s grounded in action, you are positioned to add your company’s voice to the public call for equity and justice. No business is too small or insignificant to make a difference. In the digital world, you can raise your flag and be seen by millions of people instantly–that means you have power and influence.

No Evil Foods, a small, plant-based meat company located in Ashland, Virginia, posted this call to action on social media:

“We will not be silent. This won’t be over tomorrow, this doesn’t end when the protests die down. This is an awakening – use your voice, no matter how small it might feel. It’s not enough to say no to racism, we must be anti-racist.

Make phone calls, sign petitions, vote, give. If you benefit from white privilege, use it to speak up for POC, use it to take action. Talk to your kids about race, it’s never too early. Speak out against injustice, it’s not too late.”

The post is exemplary because it’s explicit rather than symbolic. Compare this to Nike’s ad, which is bold, but also brand promoting, and tells us nothing about what Nike is actually doing. Use your content to speak about everyday racism, about lived experiences, about how racism affects your industry, and about the steps your company is taking to create belonging and safety for black and brown people. Here are some powerful big company examples:

 

Donate

Until now, criminal justice reform wasn’t on most corporate giving lists. That is about to change, with Microsoft leading the way. The computing giant is ahead of the curve with the Microsoft Criminal Justice Initiative, which is providing data and analytics to promote better policing practices, and supporting alternative law enforcement programs, among other things. Ask yourself if your company and product can be lent to such research initiatives, even if on a community level.

There are many nonprofits doing powerful work that will benefit from your financial donations. Campaign Zero is a well-organized advocacy group aimed at ending police violence in America. The women-led Black Lives Matter movement is leading the national response to racism. Reclaim the Block is a Minneapolis organization promoting reallocating city funds from the police department into community-led initiatives. 

 

Get Out the Vote

The U.S. presidential election is this November, just five months from now. Our national debate is highly polarized, and we’re heading into a recession. If you do nothing else, engage your workforce to get out the vote.