How Should Your Company React to Garner, Brown Protests?

December 9, 2014 7:42 pm

By Barbara Frankel

Protestors Eric Garner Michael BrownAs protests over the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown continue in cities across the country, many companies are hesitating to “get involved,” even though these deaths cut to the heart of the diversity-and-inclusion efforts they publicly support.

We reached out to 12 DiversityInc Top 50 companies headquartered in cities where the protests have been occurring to ask what they have been saying to their employees. Only two—Procter & Gamble and Monsanto—were willing to go on the record. Most of the others said this is a “non-issue” for them at this time.

“This is very challenging for many large companies that have tried to focus on diversity as about everyone and not differentiate those who are structurally more privileged from those who are less so,” says Professor Nancy DiTomaso, Vice Dean for Faculty and Research, Rutgers Business School, Newark and New Brunswick. “This is such an obvious example of the additional burden of growing up Black in America.”

Companies can take a lesson from the early days of the civil-rights movement, she says, when some corporations decided to take an activist role in creating equality. More recently, many companies have taken on activist roles in fighting for marriage equality and LGBT rights in the United States.

What to Say—and Do—About the Protests

If your company has locations in a city where the protests have been taking place, everyone will be talking about them. Even if you are located elsewhere, this topic is on everyone’s mind. How do you as a company show support to recognize and end racism without alienating employees who may feel that police need to be supported?

• Publicly recognize that something is wrong and needs to be addressed.

“My guess is that companies that have been out front with support for diversity issues are finding that they have to recognize that there is something amiss when unarmed Black men are being shot and killed, even if they do not want to challenge or criticize the police,” Professor DiTomaso says. “Their employees will expect them to acknowledge that there is something that has not been working well.”

That statement, like all diversity-and-inclusion statements, should come from the top of the organization.

Kaiser Permanente Chairman and CEO Bernard Tyson recently published an essay on LinkedIn, which was picked up by the San Francisco Business Times, about his experiences as a Black man in America.
He wrote: “You would think my experience as a top executive would be different from a Black man who is working in a retail or food-service job to support his family. Yet he and I both understand the commonality of the Black male experience that remains consistent no matter what the economic status or job title.

Years ago, my father taught me explicitly how to behave myself if ever confronted by a police officer, and I experienced being disrespected in my early twenties by someone who was supposed to protect my rights. I hold to this day that the biggest battle within me was the rage at how I was being treated while having to do what my father told me and respond appropriately. If I acted out how I was feeling at the time, I might not be here today.

This post is not to complain about what is, but instead offer hope that we can harness the positive energy from the demonstrations for change and start a new chapter in America based on better understanding of race relations.

• Don’t be afraid to take an activist role in the community.

Real leadership involves courage and making a difference. In his essay, Tyson advocates businesses working closely with law enforcement, churches, educators and community groups to find solutions.

Monsanto, which is headquartered in St. Louis (near Ferguson), has been working with the community to improve tense relations and help those impacted. The company stated: “We certainly share the hope of others in our hometown for a peaceful pathway forward in the weeks ahead. Our team will continue to monitor events closely. Monsanto has provided $1 million in support for Ferguson and surrounding communities. You can read more about that contribution here.”

Similarly, Ameren CEO Warner Baxter told DiversityInc of the efforts the utility (which services Ferguson) has made to openly discuss issues and help people rebuild their lives and their community.

This isn’t an issue just for companies in Missouri or for CEOs who are Black men. As the protests across the nation have shown, the anger and fear at the pervasive racism in this country is real and growing. Top 50 companies—and companies that aspire to be Top 50 companies—should be leaders in finding solutions and helping their employees be part of those solutions.

• Communicate—and educate.

Don’t wait for Black History Month to discuss the history of racism, segregation and brutality in this country that has led to this moment in time. Use tools like our Meeting in a Box and Web Seminars to help employees understand history and why so many people are so justifiably angry. Professor DiTomaso says it’s important to be more sensitive to the Black community who “continuously have to teach their sons to be careful to go out to the 7-Eleven to get something to drink. … Companies that believe everyone should bring their full selves to work should take this as a reminder that not everybody can do that.”

• Use your Employee Resource Groups to reach out.

“Affinity groups serve as internal networks for community building and both formal and information discussion about a wide range of topics, which our employees wish to recognize positively or opportunity areas to affect change for the future,” says Bridgette Porter, Diversity & Inclusion Leader, North America, Procter & Gamble.

Specifically, resource groups can bring community and business leaders together and continue to educate the workforce—and the leadership.