Taking a Stand on Systemic Change

Amid calls for an end to systemic inequalities, marketing organizations are prioritizing internal efforts to promote inclusion and combat discrimination

By Urey Onuoha

David Pohl/theispot.com

This past spring, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery reignited a national conversation around racial injustice and systemic inequalities, culminating in more than a month of protests around the globe calling for change. In the aftermath of their deaths, brands are coming to terms with the reality that, for consumers, actions speak louder than words.

With consumers increasingly expecting brands to take a stand against racial injustice, keeping silent was not an option for many companies.

Silence can be a powerful statement filled with different interpretations, says Enshalla Anderson, chief strategy officer at FutureBrand, a brand, strategy, design, and experience agency. "It could suggest complicity, it could suggest apathy, or potentially even active endorsement of what's going on," she says. "As we look at this present moment right now, it's imperative for brands to communicate their position."

However, Anderson cautions that brands must also ensure their messages are authentic and consistent with their actions to be more than just performative gestures.

This is where many organizations fall short.

Statements of solidarity for the Black community were soon met with accusations of hypocrisy as former and/or current Black employees from companies like Condé Nast, adidas, and Pinterest shared stories of racism and discrimination they had experienced in the workplace. (A few companies, including adidas, have forced change from within as a result of social protests.) Campaigns such as #PullUpOrShutUp, aimed at beauty brands, and #CommitToChange, which focuses on ad agencies, demanded companies publicly reveal workforce data and outline tangible plans to improve diversity and inclusion within their organizations, particularly for Black and Indigenous people of color.

The message was clear: To regain the trust of employees and consumers, companies have to speak through action and resolve the problematic practices that exist within their own houses first.


Missing the Mark

"Diversity" and "inclusion" have become industry buzzwords in the past few years as brands looked to resonate with multicultural audiences and attract diverse talent. Despite this focus, many efforts have fallen short of their goals.

For instance, a 2019 ANA/AIMM study of diversity among 820 ANA client-side marketer members found that ethnic diversity in CMO and CMO-equivalent positions was lacking. Only 3 percent of CMOs identified as African-American, 4 percent as Hispanic/Latinx, and 5 percent as Asian. By comparison, African-Americans account for about 14 percent of the total population, Hispanic/Latinx for 18 percent, and Asians for 6 percent.

Another 2019 study, from the Center for Talent Innovation, found that less than half of full-time employees think their companies have effective diversity and inclusion programs. This includes Black (34 percent), Latinx (39 percent), Asian (40 percent), and white (41 percent) employees.


A Majority of Consumers Will Support or Boycott Brands Based on Their Response to Recent Protests

Respondents were asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree with the following statement: "How a brand responds over the next several weeks to the protests against racial injustice will influence whether I buy or boycott them in the future."

Companies fall short on diversity efforts due to a lack of appropriate investment in their commitments, according to experts. This could look like hiring a chief diversity officer but not providing a team, making it difficult for the diversity officer or other key stakeholders to build meaningful relationships with leaders, a lack of demonstrable commitment from company leadership, or inadequate funding for employee or business resource groups.

"[Companies] will say the right things because they fundamentally believe those are the right things to say," says Gerald E. Johnson II, EVP of the Office of Health Equity and chief diversity and inclusion officer at the American Heart Association (AHA). "But then they don't agree and align on what they're going to do in support of that statement and put sufficient resources to invest or drive the outcomes. Or they don't assign the proper accountability at the most visible level … and then they don't talk about it."

For change to occur, says Anderson, diversity and inclusion must be part of the corporate focus. Once brands understand where it fits within the corporate statement, they can begin to operationalize it across the organization and change how they show up for their employees and their customers.


Taking Responsibility

In late June, Mastercard published a message it had sent to employees outlining its plan to promote inclusion and equality as well as confront and combat racism toward the Black community. This solidarity action plan detailed specific commitments the company would make internally and externally to attract and foster more diverse talent, to promote financial inclusion in the credit industry, and to address systemic disparities in society.

"The solidarity action plan was an acknowledgment that we could do more and better to drive change and equality in the Black community, and it's a continuation of a journey we've been in the process of doing for many years," says Randall Tucker, chief inclusion officer at Mastercard and one of the people involved in developing the plan.

"My company fundamentally believes that racial injustice is unacceptable," Johnson says. "We believe that there is a correlation between social justice, racial justice, structural racism, and equitable health and well-being."
— Gerald E. Johnson II, EVP of the Office of Health Equity and chief diversity and inclusion officer at the American Heart Association

To determine the best courses of action within its plan, the company relied on its most senior Black leaders and LEAD (Leading Employees of African Descent), a business resource group, to be the voice of the consumer. "We want to understand: what are the things that we can share in this very public way that will be the most relevant and impactful to call out," Tucker adds.

Mastercard's process of developing its action plan is a lesson for companies looking to make their policies and procedures more inclusive and equitable, particularly as it relates to the Black community. Experts suggest that auditing the company culture to understand the systemic issues that exist is the first step to making real change.

For most companies, identifying the problem areas starts with a workforce survey, which can provide valuable data on underrepresented groups within the company, policy disparities, and whether or not certain populations show trends of mistreatment or discomfort speaking up. According to Shana Yearwood, a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultant at Impact Consulting, tapping employee networks or creating focus groups — with or without the help of an external consultant — can help provide insights into specific pain points.

"Oftentimes, your employees have a lot of suggestions," she says. "They may just be sitting on them based on the fact that they may not feel comfortable bringing them forward or may not have a mechanism by which to bring them forward."


Barriers to Advancement for Black Professionals Are Largely Invisible to White Professionals

Respondents were asked if they feel Black employees have to work harder than their colleagues to advance in their careers.

source: 2019 Center for Talent Innovation study "Being Black In Corporate America"

But having the data is only part of the process — more important is what a company chooses to do with it. While real, lasting change comes through long-term actions, Yearwood suggests identifying priorities the company can commit to in both the short and long term to address discriminatory practices. In the long term, companies can focus on restructuring systems and policies to be more equitable. Short-term actions may involve putting together resources on racial and cultural literacy to educate employees. Looking ahead, companies need to invest in racial literacy training for all employees and executive coaching for leadership.

"Do you have a non-retaliation policy when folks are raising issues of discrimination?" Yearwood asks. "Do they even know what constitutes discrimination? Do they know where to go and who to talk to besides their manager in case the manager is the offending party? What are the written policies around what happens with discrimination and harassment?"


Focusing on Inclusion

According to the Center for Talent Innovation study, 58 percent of Black professionals say they feel racism on their jobs and are four times as likely as white colleagues to experience prejudice at work. These take the forms of microaggressions, like downplaying experiences, or a lack of opportunity to forge relationships for career advancement.

"You can set goals all day in terms of numerical diversity and incorporating more Black professionals into the workplace and having more Black professionals as leaders, but there has to be some other accountability to make progress toward those goals."
— Dr. Jamillah Bowman Williams, associate professor of law at Georgetown University

This reality and the tolerance of it from corporate America are part of the reason companies received pushback on their solidarity efforts, says Dr. Jamillah Bowman Williams, an associate professor of law at Georgetown University, whose research focuses on contemporary bias and the capacity of law to promote social change.

"Black employees often feel like they are alone, and no one is there to understand the issues they face," she says. "Now, they're seeing all of these commitments of solidarity with the Black community and all of these donations, and they're saying, 'Enough is enough. While you're saying Black lives matter, our experience here is something different.'"

Studies also show that there is sometimes a disconnect between the expectations of leadership and the experiences of employees when it comes to diversity and inclusion. For instance, a 2019 global Boston Consulting Group study of 16,500 employees found that company leaders often assume recruiting talent is the biggest challenge, whereas members of the diverse groups within their companies see more obstacles to progress across the entire employee life cycle.


Reevaluating the Employee Experience

FutureBrand's Anderson suggests that lasting change will require companies to reevaluate the employee experience across different touchpoints, something her agency is doing as it lays out its plans to increase diversity and inclusion across its workforce. This includes thinking about how the diversity and inclusion agenda shows up across hiring practices, onboarding, and professional development of employees.


When challenged with poor representation of Black and Brown employees among their workforce, some leaders are quick to blame a lack of diversity in the talent pipeline. However, studies have debunked this claim, including a 2014 study from USA Today, which found that Black and Brown computer science and computer engineering students graduate at twice the rate they are hired. To increase the representation of Black and Brown employees within a workforce, brands will have to change how they manage their recruitment processes.

For Mastercard's Tucker, it starts from looking at what the company has to offer the talent. When thinking about hiring, he asks, "How do you make sure you've given a value proposition for someone Black to even want to work for your company? And are we as recruiters ensuring that we pull out a diverse slate, which would include Black people, to hiring managers for them to consider for roles?"

The company also plans to boost its recruitment of Black talent through new and expanded partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities and key organizations.

Professional development.

Part of the value proposition a company can offer is the opportunity for equitable professional development. With Black professionals feeling they have less access to growth opportunities than their white colleagues, according to the Center for Talent Innovation report, instituting formal policies to support employees is essential.

Savvy consumers will also pay special attention to brands that demonstrate a willingness to support their communities and not remain silent.

Formal mentorship and sponsorship programs can provide the missing link for Black employees to feel supported, Williams suggests. "Too often, mentoring happens informally and Black [employees] are left out because managers gravitate to those they perceive as more similar to them," she says, underscoring the importance of diverse leadership in employee development. "If mentorship and eventually sponsorship happens on a regular basis, it will help create an inclusive culture and improve the performance and retention of Black talent."

In addition to the AHA offering mentorship and sponsorship programs, Johnson notes it also invests in other initiatives to develop talent and connect employees to the mission of achieving equitable health and well-being for all. The association's Employee Resource Groups, for instance, not only focus on personal and professional development but also actively help solve business goals, inclusive of recruitment. Employees also have opportunities to work directly with the organization's global volunteer base to learn and help advance the company's mission.


To ensure the equitable treatment of employees across the company, leaders must also pay attention to how they approach promotion and performance reviews. This includes setting policies so that performance criteria accounts for how inclusion shows up in managerial practices and that there are equal opportunities for employees to grow and develop.

Mastercard, for one, has focused and formal conversations, succession planning, and talent review around the next class of leaders, Tucker says of the company's efforts to grow talent internally. This involves looking at the diversity of the talent pool and what groups are represented and identifying talent gaps and ensuring they are filled with the right people. The company also regularly checks in with employees via an engagement survey to ensure every employee is experiencing the company the same way and its policies and procedures are effective in fostering inclusion.


Leveraging Influence

In the wake of the protests for racial justice, this past June the ANA and AIMM (Alliance for Inclusive and Multicultural Marketing) developed an action plan for marketing leaders to address systemic issues within the marketing ecosystem. The organization invited marketing leaders to commit to seven goals that would have immediate and sustained impact on equality, inclusion, and systemic change.

"We wanted the points to reflect both internal and external change in the industry," says Gilbert Davila, president of DMI Consulting and co-founder of AIMM, who helped develop the pledge. Making these commitments "would change how we go to market but would also change our corporate structures, cultures, and opportunities for all segments."

The pledge is important because brands have the power to change perceptions and stereotypes through their advertising campaigns, Davila says. Savvy consumers will also pay special attention to brands that demonstrate a willingness to support their communities and not remain silent.

As of late July, more than 160 executives, representing their companies, and over 300 individuals have signed the pledge to demand change.

The action points in the ANA/AIMM commitment recognize the influence brands can have in society and how a willingness to use that power as a force for good can effect change beyond their companies to the benefit of both their employees and their consumers.

"If you're a leader in any organization, what's happening in our nation and around the world is really at the core of your consumers," AHA's Johnson says. "Your consumers are not [just] consumers who buy your products; they are whole people. If you think about the whole person, you'll ask yourself, 'Are these issues … conditions for them to live their best lives and be their best selves?'"


A Survey of ANA Members Shows a Lack of Diversity in the Marketing Industry

note: Based on 13,781 ANA members and 820 ANA member CMO-level marketers who provided ethnic diversity information anonymously between March 2016 and February 2019
source: 2019 ANA/AIMM Diversity Report for the Advertising/Marketing Industry

If not, it's an opportunity to evaluate whether the issues line up with company values, what companies can do, and how they will hold themselves accountable for driving outcomes.

Take the AHA, with its mission to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. Guided by this central goal, a key aspect of its work includes addressing equitable health and well-being for all, and so focusing on the effects racial and social disparities have on the health of affected communities is a natural progression. "My company fundamentally believes that racial injustice is unacceptable," Johnson says. "We believe that there is a correlation between social justice, racial justice, structural racism, and equitable health and well-being."

As a result, the organization advocates for systemic changes that impact historically disadvantaged communities and funds research that aims to understand disparities in health and health care delivery while working to identify solutions. It also established a social impact fund through which it invests in local entrepreneurs and organizations that are breaking down the social and economic barriers to health equity.

For its part, Mastercard is increasing its focus on addressing disparities in the Black community through actions such as taking a leadership role in public policy and advocacy efforts on police reform, enhancing community partnerships with civil rights organizations, expanding its annual spending with Black suppliers to $100 million by 2025, and reviewing brand work through the lens of bias and racism, among other efforts.


Staying Accountable

As companies take steps to effect systemic change within their organizations, experts emphasize that accountability is critical to ensure efforts go from merely aspirational to sustainable and effective in the long term.

"You can set goals all day in terms of numerical diversity and incorporating more Black professionals into the workplace and having more Black professionals as leaders," Williams adds. "But there has to be some other accountability to make progress toward those goals."

Transparency is a good first step, as it helps ensure a sustained commitment to getting the work done even when it's not part of a national conversation. In addition to sharing representation data internally and externally, companies should also define clear goals and an action plan for achieving them so it's easy to gauge when processes fall short.

Beyond that, experts suggest that leadership must take part in implementing policy changes that drive lasting change, such as equitable compensation practices or establishing performance criteria to ensure supervisors are managing in ways that promote inclusion.

Leaders must also ensure that everyone across the organization understands the necessity — or what Impact Consulting's Yearwood calls a burning platform — for the company's commitment and how that commitment affects each individual and their mission within the company. "Leaders are the ones who are ultimately enacting all the policies and building the culture and showing the culture of the organization," Yearwood says. "So it's important."




Four Considerations for Conducting Courageous Conversations

Despite the increased focus on diversity and inclusion in the past few years, many companies still fall short on racial and ethnic representation within their workforce and leadership.

According to Jackie Glenn, founder and CEO of Glenn Diversity Inclusion & HR Solutions, part of the problem many companies face is a discomfort with talking about race. These conversations are essential, however, particularly as the U.S. faces a reckoning around systemic injustices toward the Black community.

"The hardest part of diversity to talk about is race and racism," she says. "I think we are at a pivotal point in U.S. history where we have to talk about it as companies, and Black, white, and Brown people are holding companies accountable to speak about race and racism."

Glenn suggests companies conduct "courageous conversations" as a way to initiate important dialogues about the experiences of different groups within the country. For companies getting started with their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, these open and honest conversations can help lay a strong foundation. For companies further along in the process, they can serve as a checkpoint to ensure everyone is still on the same page. However, she emphasizes, "if you're not equipping your entire organization to have these conversations, you're doing something wrong."

As companies address issues of systemic discrimination internally, here are four steps Glenn suggests leaders should keep in mind when initiating courageous conversations:

1. Hire a professional.

Once a company decides to have these conversations, Glenn advises leaders not to assume that people know how to have them. Instead, hire a professional who specializes in training leaders to guide and facilitate the process. "Don't tap the Black and Brown people in your organization to do it for you," she says. "That's not what they were hired for. They are already tired and not the ones to educate you about how to have courageous conversations."

2. Understand it takes time.

Real change doesn't happen overnight, and to be effective, companies will have to commit to making courageous conversations — and any additional education initiatives — a recurring effort. "Don't just have somebody come in one time, train the whole organization, check the box, and [be] done," Glenn says.

3. Start with leadership.

Courageous conversations should involve all employees, but leadership should be responsible for leading the charge. "You cannot put everybody through the training and the CEO and the leadership team don't understand how to have courageous conversations," she says. "They're the ones signing off on budget and all diversity, equity, and inclusion [efforts], so they need to understand how not having a diverse team and not tackling some of these courageous conversations can be a detriment to their company from a branding standpoint, but also from a bottom-line standpoint."

4. Stay in learning mode.

Education is extremely important, and there is always an opportunity to learn the nuances of interacting with people of color in the workplace. Glenn recommends companies dig deeper to understand what terms such as microaggression, tone policing, gaslighting, white privilege, and white fragility mean and how they show up in the workplace. These, as well as topics like allyship, often come up in courageous conversations. "We can literally do another workshop on each one of those topics," she says, adding "Nothing beats education."
— U.O.


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