However, contrary views should also be sought out and considered in order to anticipate objections to actions that may be proposed by political, community, and business leaders. For example, in an essay on lessons for talking about race, racism, and racial justice, The Opportunity Agenda listed several “counternarratives” that commonly appear in discussions regarding racism: “racism is ‘largely’ over or dying out over time,” “people of color are obsessed with race,” and “civil rights are a crutch for those who lack merit or drive.” An op-ed piece published in the Wall Street Journal on June 2, 2020, which was widely circulated on social media, agreed that police officers should be held accountable for using excessive force, but argued that there was no evidence of widespread racial bias. Business leaders should not get too bogged down in arguing each of these points, but they do need to be mindful of what some others might be thinking as they set out to engage in meaningful conversations to develop responses that can be implemented with broad societal support. No statement will be universally accepted, since independent and scientifically based polling continuously identifies different perspectives and experiences between the members of different racial groups and disagreements among them regarding preferred policy solutions.
In its guidance on talking about race, racism, and racial justice, The Opportunity Agenda counseled leading with shared values, including justice, opportunity, community, and equity, all of which are aspirations that should be universally acknowledged regardless of race. The purpose of this approach is not to avoid difficult discussions regarding race, but rather to focus on potential solutions. The Opportunity Agenda also recommended describing how racial bias and discrimination is a problem for everyone in society and prevents society from realizing its full potential. According to surveys cited by The Opportunity Agenda, eight in ten Americans believe that society functions better when all groups have an equal chance in life. Another way to increase engagement with the issues surrounding racial injustice is to remind others of instances in which they may have felt excluded. This is a powerful approach given that there is evidence that six in ten Americans have reportedly felt discriminated against at one time or another on the basis of race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or accent.
In his advice to CEOs and directors on how they can lead on racial injustice, Scott pointed out that, while words alone were not a sufficient response to the situation, a company’s stakeholders, from employees to customers to community members, expect that its leaders will speak out and clarify the company’s position. The tone and content of the messaging will vary, but it should be made clear that the company supports racial justice and is committed to taking tangible and measurable actions to embed equity and diversity into its organizational culture and the actions to be taken with respect to operations and relationships with stakeholders. Like others, Scott argued that statements from company leaders are important cues to everyone in the organization as to what will be expected of them and how they should act.
Although business leaders certainly need to look inward to their own experiences and values while working on the company’s public position on racial injustice, and must settle on a statement that is aligned with their personal values, they need not work in a vacuum. The actions that the company ultimately takes in furtherance of its position will necessarily be a collective effort involving everyone in the organization. The CEO should create a special working group to develop the company’s initial action plans relating to racial justice, ensuring that there is diverse representation in the group who can understand the concerns raised by stakeholders and identify and implement solutions that will truly be seen as responsive by those who have been most pained by past experiences. In addition, leaders should reach out to others who can help them understand the underlying issues and provide feedback on the steps that might be taken in formulating and executing the company’s commitments. Scott recommended that business leaders (i.e., directors and CEOs) seek advice on handling racial inequalities from their peers at other companies, perhaps borrowing from initiatives that those companies have already launched to address the issues the company is facing. Companies should also be prepared to turn to qualified and experienced outside consultants and advisors to assist in the process, recognizing that existing internal expertise may not be sufficient.
The leaders’ initial public statements regarding the company’s position on racial injustice should be amplified in a series of internal events that allow leaders to meet face to face with people from all parts of the organization to discuss the stated position and solicit input on specific initiatives the company should take to fulfill its commitments. These events create an opportunity to reinforce the company’s position, providing employees with ideas about how they should act and the factors they should consider when making decisions during their day-to-day activities. This will also give employees a sense of participation in the process. Employees should be encouraged to share their own experiences of racial injustice, both inside the workplace and outside in the world they live in. However, because many employees may be uncomfortable holding these conversations in a group setting, it is important that the company develop processes that employees can use to share their experiences anonymously. Including people of color as spokespersons for the company’s racial justice initiatives lends credibility to the efforts. Yet, they should not be asked to defend or justify past missteps, nor should they be prevented from explaining their own pain and discomfort.
At the same time as leaders are meeting with employees, engagement should be continued with external stakeholders who can provide insights into how the company has been handling situations in which racial justice issues might arise. For example, consideration should be given to how the company has treated customers (e.g., have there been complaints of racial discrimination against customers, either in how products and services are provided or in the ability of people of color to readily access the company’s products and services?). Dialogue should be undertaken with legitimate representatives of community groups to understand how the company is perceived by those who live and work in the neighborhoods where the company operates. Investors should be consulted and are increasingly likely to insist that their portfolio companies establish and report on specific targets relating to diversity and inclusion. Business leaders should also reach out to partners up and down their value chains to understand their responses to the situation. There might be opportunities to collaborate with these partners on racial justice initiatives. Moreover, companies also need to be certain that they are not exposed to reputational damage from affiliation with businesses that engage in practices that undercut diversity and inclusion.