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  • Jerome Tennille, MSL, CVA

Companies Must Be Bold in Times of Civil Discord


Photo by munshots on Unsplash

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know the number of unarmed black men that’ have died at the hands of law enforcement here in the United States. But here’s what I do know. That number (whatever it is) is unacceptable. With the recent death of George Floyd, we’ve seen protests erupt in over 25 cities across the nation. It would be the understatement of the century to say people are upset. And this isn't even the first time. As a child living in Los Angeles during the riots of 1992 I've seen this far to often. It's scary. It hurts.


I happen to believe it’ll get worse before it gets better. And folks who know me know I don’t condone violence. Matter of fact I think barbarism is an unacceptable form of protest. But, as I watch the situation unfold across America, I must wonder. Is America’s silence causing this violence?


Just think about that for a second.


Sure, I believe people are always responsible for the acts of violence they personally commit. But, perhaps violence to them is their last resort. They’re desperate to be heard. I suspect many still feel as though they’re being ignored. What I’d call a senseless act of violence, to them, may be what they believe they must do to be heard.


It’s imperative we listen as a nation.


Sure, the federal, state and local governments shoulder much responsibility in how they respond. Individual citizens like myself can also be a part of that response. We can do so with our votes, how we peacefully protest and how we support our local community organizations in productive dialogue.


But what about major corporations? What role do they play in ensuring the black community’s message is heard? As corporate responsibility professionals (and employees), what responsibility do we have to enact change from within?


The corporate voice matters.


To me, everybody bears some degree of responsibility in solving the deep issues of racism. And more so now than ever before companies must respond. A part of this response must be to acknowledge this pain. Just in the past several days we’ve seen major corporations issue their own statements condemning racism.


This is much needed. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase & Co. issued a joint memo to employees reaffirming the company’s commitment to fighting racism and discrimination wherever it exists.


Similarly, Charlie Scharf, CEO of Wells Fargo & Co. sent an email to employees doubling down on the company’s commitment to support their diverse communities while fostering a company culture “that deeply values and respects diversity and inclusion”.


You may be thinking this style of internal communication from corporate leadership isn’t uncommon. And you’d be correct. Matter of fact, many others did the same. And it makes sense. Employees demand to know what side of the fence their leaders sit. Period. But, so does the general public. They too must hear from their favorite brands.


Some companies have been more outspoken on issues over the years, some incredibly silent.

Companies must sound off.


Companies are making their position known. More some than others, but over the past several days brands are speaking out. Brian Cornell, CEO of Target (whose corporate headquarters is located in Minneapolis) shared their message to the community. And while this is exactly the right action. I ask myself, is this enough during this great time of need?


Some brands don’t think so. Nike posted a new advertisement titled “For once, Don’t Do It”. And I’m not surprised. You may recall Nike being at the center of what (at the time) was a controversial ad staring former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his taking a knee during the National Anthem. They’re used to taking bold action though, but many companies aren’t.


There’s a saying, “To the Bold Go the Spoils”. For companies that are meek in their response, society will remember. The court of public opinion is harsh, and justice will be served. I happen to think a statement or press release (while nice) isn’t bold enough.


So, what does bold look like you ask? I’ll show you.


Check out Ben & Jerry’s post titled “Why Black Lives Matter”. Mind you, this was posted on their website almost four years ago (2016). And quite frankly, their brand has been incredibly forward and vocal on all their positions. Some of their best flavors of ice cream are named after social and environmental issues they’re seeking to solve. But it gets better. As a company they post resources and content that helps educate others on the issues they’re working to solve. To me that’s just brilliant. Not only are they sharing their values, they’re also giving others the tools to be informed and empowered to act.


To me, it would be fantastic seeing this stance by others.


But I know many companies aren’t that brave.


That said, whatever actions a company chooses, they must be authentic. Otherwise it might just backfire as we’ve recently seen with the National Football League (NFL).


Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL also released a statement on Twitter. He shared his condolences with the Floyd family while also acknowledging the work that needs to be done to defeat the racial divide in this country. Unfortunately, that message wasn’t received well. And perhaps that’s the result of years of inaction and racial division that’s been front and center for years in the very league he leads. At the end of the day, there are companies I believe are truly listening (and deeply care), and others who aren’t.


Ben & Jerry’s (to me) gets it. Regardless of what they choose to support, you’re never left guessing their position. You know when you visit their website you get the sense that they’re all in.


So, why do I share all of this?


Well, perhaps there are others like me who work in corporate responsibility who agree. Perhaps someone will read this and believe they can be a change agent. And if that’s you, fantastic. I can even share a good place to start. In a very timely post Amy Coulterman shares “5 steps to a transformative corporate advocacy strategy”. And she’s spot-on with her thoughts on acting.


Lastly, I feel strongly about creating space to have dialogue about the role of companies in times of civil discord. Is it the place of for-profit companies to share their position on social and environmental issues within the communities they do business? Or on what may be controversial issues, do they bear greater responsibility to share the opinions that echo that of their shareholders? I would love to hear your thoughts either way, I think even if we disagree, we’ll get closer to finding common ground through dialogue. Until next time, stay safe and be well.

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