A year ago this week, a white police officer choked the life out of a black man on a cold Minneapolis pavement. It took 9 minutes 29 seconds. Bystanders filmed it and tried to intervene, as the man being murdered repeated “I can’t breathe”, but the policeman’s knee remained on his neck.
George Floyd’s killing felt like the beginning of a change. Citizens of all communities in various countries, including our own, vented their fury at the injustice, and businesses took note. We won’t name names in this article, but many aligned themselves very publicly with the Black Lives Matter movement, posting constant support and messages of solidarity via their social media channels.
It’s a very easy thing to say something virtuous, particularly if it’s seemingly uncontroversial. Nobody likes racism or police brutality, and it’s smart to show people – by people, I mean your customers and employees – that you share their values.
Put your money where your mouth is
But actions speak louder than words. Businesses cannot view what happened in Minneapolis as though they are completely detached from it, like a war taking place in some part of the world they couldn’t find on a map.
George Floyd’s murder initiated a wave of Black Lives Matter protests not because Derek Chauvin set out to kill him because he was black, but because it highlighted structural, systemic and institutional racism that leads to events like this being far too common.
You don’t have to be a police force to be part of this problem. Businesses make decisions that affect people of all communities. It matters who they employ and who they promote. It matters how much they pay people from different backgrounds. It matters who their leaders are.
This last point is particularly important. So few of our top businesses are run by black people, or indeed by people from any minority background. According to the Parker Review, there were only five non-white CEOs in the FTSE 100 as of March this year, two chairs and four CFOs, figures that are if anything more diverse than you see in private companies; 19 of the top 100 Plcs had no board directors from minority backgrounds at all.
This is not much better than a year ago. So despite all the talk, there has been little progress in probably the most critical area where businesses can bring about important change in racial equality.
Why it matters
This matters for many reasons. For a start, people will notice that the BLM banner on your website doesn’t chime with the fact that your business is run exclusively by white Oxbridge-educated men. They’ll notice you calling for change and then not changing anything.
In the US, beauty influencer Jackie Aina launched a campaign, Pull or Shut up, calling on brands to publish information about how many black executives they had. In an Instagram post viewed millions of times, she called out the hypocrisy of those that didn’t back their word with actions.
“As we know there are a lot of brands who love capitalizing on black culture, black aesthetic, but are dead silent when it comes to talking about black issues and black struggles in our community,” Aina wrote.
At the same time, businesses making progress are rightly getting plaudits. For example, a fascinating analysis by Quartz on the skin tones of models used in brands’ Instagram campaigns – a fair step from the boardroom, admittedly, but still a way in which these businesses can move the dial on diversity – has praised companies like Burberry and Victoria’s Secret for making quantifiable changes where others didn’t.
Diversity brings creativity
Taking meaningful steps towards equality, diversity and inclusion also matters from a talent perspective, for rather obvious reasons. Do you really think that the best people for the job all just happen to look and sound the same? If other candidates haven’t come forward, do you really think it’s because they don’t exist, or could it be that you haven’t looked hard enough?
The value of diversity of thought and experience is well-documented – in short, you get better ideas, get closer to more of your customers and avoid the dangers of groupthink – as is the value of casting a wider net for talent.
But if you want to be an employer where different people want to work – because great people always have a choice – then you need to think carefully about how inclusive you are, how you’re hiring and whether you put your money where your mouth is.