How Employees Can Check if Company BLM Promises Held True

Changing the machine that is the company

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In response to George Floyd’s death nearly one year ago, companies began to make declarations condemning not just the killing of Mr. Floyd, but acknowledging and condemning institutional racism in America. Many of the early statements were powerful and unequivocal, and those that weren’t were rightfully criticized as check-the-box exercises, forcing some companies to issue follow-up statements with more teeth. Wieden+Kennedy not only pledged support for Black Lives Matter, but also committed to breaking ties with employees, vendors and clients that opposed the movement. Gap Inc. made quantifiable commitments to significantly increase diversity in its corporate offices and store leaders. It also committed to increasing the diversity of its marketers, models and influencers.

Companies pledged to drive change, both in the markets they serve and internally, voicing renewed commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. The refrain for several months following Floyd’s killing was, “This is different.” Many people who had spent their lives fighting for social justice indulged in cautious optimism.

Taking the baton from here

The start of the Derek Chauvin murder trial in Minneapolis has reignited flames that frankly should never have been allowed to wane. The image of a white police officer using his knee to asphyxiate a Black citizen while a small group of teens plead for the man’s life is just as shocking and as infuriating now as it was on May 25, 2020. The violent institutional racism embedded in American policing remains as pervasive as ever. While the news cycle may have moved on to coverage of the raging Covid-19 pandemic and the election of Joe Biden as president, the commitments made by firms to social justice are still just that—commitments. The public has no idea if Gap Inc. has begun efforts to increase the percentage of minorities on its management teams, or whether Wieden+Kennedy has stopped doing businesses with firms that oppose Black Lives Matter.

Their employees know.

Employees can insist that these announcements come with a requirement of measurable progress. Companies are built to drive profits, not social change, meaning that even the most well-meaning executives are seeking to repurpose tools honed for one purpose, to pursue a completely different enterprise. PR exercises are a bit easier than changing hiring practices or product design, but not if the employees take the top-down messaging to heart and actually build that into their own work and perhaps, more importantly, their expectations.

Corporate initiatives like increasing the diversity of the executive team or divesting from clients with poor records on racism come with definable milestones. It is these milestones for which employees are uniquely positioned to demand accountability. Employee resource groups (ERGs) and shadow boards typically have regular access to executives, giving them opportunities to push for regular updates and progress reports.

From VidMob’s Gives work to support Black charities with pro-bono services to Kargo’s Editorial Endeavor project to highlight Black editors, our own industry has plenty of momentum—now it’s time to see what these commitments are doing to make real change. Take TikTok’s recent launch of an incubator program for Black creatives. It’s hard for a TikTok user to see if this program gets the resources it deserves, and if it’s supported past the life of the press release, but employees will know.

Different program, same goal

The best thing about the Black Lives Matter movement is its name. Employees can determine if their company is making progress in valuing Black lives if they have the right tools to measure it. The hardest work isn’t putting out the PR but changing the machine that is the company: the employees and products themselves. Look at hiring practices, look at the ad imagery, look at where charitable efforts are being funneled; these actions show how much effort companies are putting toward long-term improvement.

Research shows that AI can be biased against minorities, for example. How may product and engineering employees are actively working to make their algorithms more fair? The same goes for ad targeting, which often targets by zip code and income. It’s important that equal opportunity be built into these functions. Employees can ask tough questions in any meeting to keep these issues top of mind.

We must continue the conversation and hold management and our fellow employees accountable to ensure that firm steps are being taken toward realizing the lofty goals presented in May 2020. Time will tell whether our faith in corporations as drivers of social justice was misplaced. But one thing is certain: Pushing institutions forward along Dr. King’s long arc of the moral universe will always require the commitment of those willing to speak truth to power.