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Jen Boynton headshot

Business Leaders and #BlackLivesMatter

By Jen Boynton

We're in a scary moment in the U.S. Police keep killing unarmed people, and a lot of those individuals who have lost their lives happen to have brown skin. The failed indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo -- police officers responsible for the deaths of unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner -- have communities around the country on edge.

TriplePundit is a business publication. At first glance, this issue may not seem like it's in our scope. Is it even appropriate for us to speak about protests that are spilling into the street if they don't have a direct impact on the business world? Or do they? I decided to take a little editorial leeway and explore the issue.

The question remains: Do issues of societal unrest have a place in corporate responsibility conversations?

Brentin Mock, justice editor at Grist, says yes. "I can’t speak for the entire #BlackLivesMatter movement. But I can personally say that what I’d like to see, and what would make me feel better as an African American, is to have more non-black people coming out in support. I and many other black people I know desire and need to feel affirmed and seen, in the workplace and beyond. It’s tough coming to work and working to our best when we feel unnoticed, or even if we feel our value only extends as far as what we produce for our employers ... We want to be seen, and as humans and having non-black people affirm that our lives matter goes a long way."

So, yes, we should be having these conversations at work.

Cecily Joseph, vice president of corporate responsibility at Symantec, agreed:

"Our employees care about this issue. Many companies tout their diversity programs -- but it's opportunities like this where we can demonstrate to our employees and other stakeholders as well as help move the needle. It's here where brave companies demonstrate leadership."
Henk Campher, senior vice president of business and social purpose, and managing director of sustainability, for Edelman, was dubious. "Almost every company has a standard statement about diversity and inclusion. It doesn't mean you are actually progressive." For Campher, it comes down to the company's history of engagement. For companies with a progressive bent and a history of engagement on social issues, like Ben & Jerry's, the Ferguson protests provide an excellent opportunity for natural engagement.

But for companies without a history of true engagement, "it's a lot tougher. If you didn't speak out about Burma, how can you decide to speak out now?" Campher questions. He pointed to the awkwardness that can arise if a tough issue like Ferguson is raised at a company that doesn't have a culture of open communication. Employees might feel pressured to participate in a way that makes things worse rather than better. Think about a cringe-worthy meeting Michael Scott might convene on the Office. No one wants that.

If your organization decides that these social justice issues fall under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility (CSR) -- and you want to address them at the higher levels -- how do you get executive buy-in for doing something? It is risky, after all. Joseph explains how she would make the case.

"I think we start by looking at how the issue impacts our company -- does it? Do employees  and other stakeholders expect us to take a public position? What is the right thing to do? If you look at what is going on with Ferguson and the Garner-related protests, they speak to a higher issue of discrimination. It's as simple as that. [Emphasis added]

"What we cannot afford to do is ignore this issue and somehow think it is not relevant to our organizations.  For most of us in companies who have to address diversity and inclusion as an important issue, we can't afford to ignore the important happenings that are going on."

Companies that ignore the elephant in the room and carry on with pleasantly vague commitments to social justice risk being viewed as inauthentic and out of touch.
That doesn't mean it won't be difficult or uncomfortable. According to Joseph, "Often times many of the issues we address as corporations in the CSR/sustainability realm start as activist issues. Climate change is a perfect example of that, and I can recall having to translate and define the role my company should play in what was then a debate. LGBT rights and equal marriage. Apartheid before all of that. That is the work we are uniquely qualified to do. The issue Ferguson and the current protests raise is similar."

Campher recommends starting with this opportunity as an engagement point. And that means leadership should ask: "Do we, as a group, want to have a conversation about these issues?" From there, it's imperative to let the engagement develop naturally based on the needs of the individual group. If you haven't gone there before, it might be worth bringing in an experienced facilitator to convene these potentially emotional meetings.

Mock concurs. "I’d suggest just sharing personal stories, or spelling out why exactly black lives matter to you, your company or your mission statement. I can’t put those words and feelings in your mouth, but it’s worth grappling with. If [the #BlackLivesMatter movement] really doesn’t matter, then there’s no reason going forth with it — there’s nothing that can be said in this context that would move the conversation forward. However, if you truly believe it, beyond just as a slogan or hashtag, then I think it means just doing the work of coming to terms with what that means."

He continued, "If that feels like labor, well, it should be. I think that if #BlackLivesMatter was an easily accepted notion then there wouldn’t be so many people struggling with it and challenging it."

Image credit: Neil Cooler/Flickr
Jen Boynton headshot

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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