June 19, 2020
The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer was the culminating act in an extraordinary convergence of events that has brought together millions of Americans. People of every race and economic status are now seriously challenging the wide-ranging effects of systemic racism in our society.
In the midst of impassioned protests, leaders in the private and public sector can't escape the call to speak out and face the effects of racism within their organizations. Yet these issues have been raised before — organizations challenged on diversity, environmental responsibility, workers' rights, and more. Statements are issued, new policies launched, money committed, but months later the issue fades and often little concrete change takes place.
This moment seems different.
The public demand for change is palpable. In the corporate world, statements are being issued, policies are changing, and money is flowing. Again, statements condemning racism and pledging action have flooded the news and social media, but the lingering question is whether this focus and energy will be sustained once the national spotlight has moved onto a different issue.
Minority leaders and professionals have worked tirelessly to illuminate the Black experience by filling the airwaves with personal stories, but they are beginning to claim exhaustion from bearing the burden of educating their colleagues on the condition of Black people and other minorities in America. However, this time, society seems truly ready to listen and respond.
It's become a mantra: We're all in this together. So, what steps can we take to facilitate concrete organizational change? How can we move from "stated values" to "lived values" that will reshape social dynamics, particularly in the corporate world?
Whichever organization you are a part of and wherever you are in that organization, there are steps you can take to help ensure that the momentum of this movement is sustained. Here are five practical ways to effect change in your own organization.
1. Create space for ideas from your minority colleagues, but not pressure
Your minority colleagues are exactly that in the workplace — minorities. Since there are so few in any room, they are working double and triple time to make their perspectives heard. Help amplify those voices, but don't put pressure on them to have answers — especially when it comes to diversity.
This applies equally to senior leaders as it does to rank-and-file team members. In other words, don't assume the senior business leader who tends to be the face of these initiatives because of her own ethnicity or background should be the face again this time or in the future. She may want to lean in, but she also has the right to be exhausted, too.
2. Set public goals for accountability
When we say our goals out loud, we're more likely to remain committed to them (if for no other reason than because people will challenge us when we don't!). Silicon Valley companies that have made diversity metrics public may have been criticized for their shortcomings in the immediate-term, but in the long-term, these are the companies most likely to make measurable changes to further workforce diversification because they will now be held publicly accountable for their progress. Enterprise commitments can be individually crafted or made by signing onto coalition pledges like Paradigm for Parity.
But don't just wait for your organization to move. Start by setting your own goals at the department or team level. The PRSA Foundation's Diversity Action Alliance, for example, asks PR leaders to commit to diversity metrics specific to the corporate communications department. If you're an individual contributor, set goals for your personal actions around working with different teammates and promoting diverse points of view. The key is to commit to what's within your control, and to challenge your leaders to commit to what is within theirs.
3. Swiftly address actions that don't align with your company's values
Not everyone will get with the program. Those who don't need to be disciplined or shipped out, as has happened over these past two weeks at companies such as Boeing and FedEx. Once people see exceptions being made, they lose faith in your commitment and you'll quickly lose trust and momentum.
In cases where action is needed, do it swiftly, decisively, and find ways to appropriately communicate to employees what happened and why, so they can see the seriousness of your resolve. If you're not in a position to take this sort of disciplinary action yourself, make it a point to raise your hand immediately when you see this type of activity taking place.
4. Communicate progress with humility and radical transparency
Once you've set your goals, accept that the road to progress is a journey. On a topic like race, no one has all the answers. When you have setbacks, acknowledge them openly, and then reaffirm your commitment to the cause. There's no shame in asking for help. And if you want it to stick, weave progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion into your internal and external business updates, the same as you would any other mission critical effort. Remember, that's exactly what this is.
5. Be deliberate about who you mentor and sponsor
It's human nature to gravitate towards people who remind us of ourselves. We tend to like them more and we often see greater potential in them. In order to change that mindset, make it a habit to support and promote people who make you uncomfortable by challenging you to think differently.
There are many other critical points that go without saying. Corporate boards and leadership teams need more diversity. Uncomfortable conversations should be emphasized at all levels. Throwing money at our problems aimlessly won't fix them and of course, statements alone are not enough. The key is to pace yourself — racism did not begin with George Floyd's murder, and it will not be eradicated in the weeks directly after. This is a marathon, not a sprint, so focus your efforts on what's sustainable, and start with what is in your control.
Bradley Akubuiro is the senior director of global media relations for The Boeing Company. In this role, he is responsible for managing Boeing's team of company spokespeople in their efforts to advance and protect the company's interests around the globe. Previously, Akubuiro served in senior public affairs and consulting roles at United Technologies and Booz Allen Hamilton, and as a policy advisor to Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr.
Dr. George Korn has over 25 years of experience as an award-winning producer/director/writer, consultant, and educator. He is the former director of the Ohio University School of Media Arts and Studies. Dr. Korn is an advisor to Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. and a consultant to the civil rights leader's international organization, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Korn previously served as producer of 'Upfront with Jesse Jackson,' a weekly television talk show broadcast nationally.