By Corey Ealons & Jonathan Coffin
June 8, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
The personal, social and economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is as real as the growing number of deaths from the disease. And the tinderbox of systemic racism has caught fire in ways that demand our collective response to the repeated killing of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement. When government fails to step up, other institutions will be left to pick up the pieces.
The desperation to turn the page and return to normal is valid and understandable.
However, for black and brown communities, the old “normal” is precisely the reason that the physical and economic pain of this pandemic has hit them so hard. The old normal is what created the conditions of poverty, the health care disparities and the pre-existing conditions that we now know put people of color at greater risk of dying from this virus. The old normal is what creates conditions where officers sworn to serve and protect instead deliver disproportionate levels of violence.
Yet, the shock of such inequity may now be hitting home for those with the power to do something about it. For C-suite leaders, the evidence is mounting that a return to the old normal won’t cut it, particularly among diverse employee and customer bases.
A recent poll commissioned by our agency, VOX Global, found that 71 percent of respondents express concern that the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 are falling disproportionately on these already vulnerable and underserved communities. A Morning Consult poll found that 71 percent of the American people believe it’s important for business leaders to address racial inequality in the United States. Furthermore, nearly as many (64 percent) believe it’s important that business leaders help handle the protests and demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd. This immediately raises questions for major brands and employers – not only what will you say, but more importantly what will you do?
It starts with remembering that your employees are not affected equally.
The toll of the current moment is hitting black employees at your organization harder. Period. This only builds on the health disparities exposed by the pandemic, with similar patterns affecting black unemployment. We know that unemployment within minority communities of color is far outpacing the overall average. This means black employees are not only more likely to have had family members fall ill or die from COVID-19 but are also more likely to have family members out of work.
Customers and stakeholders will remember where you stand and the actions you take to support historically marginalized communities, especially among your workforce.
The same VOX Global survey found that 64 percent of Americans believe that companies have an obligation to continue efforts to create more diverse and inclusive workforces – even during a global pandemic. How your company does or does not show up for black employees will matter.
Expect future talent to ask what you did to support employees amid this crisis. Expect them to ask whether you were willing to call out racism for what it is. Expect reporters to hold your company accountable if your actions — from lending to evictions — disproportionately impact marginalized communities. Expect stakeholders to be interested in hearing about company initiatives that address COVID-19-revealed inequity or to realign your company’s engagement with law enforcement. Also expect your actions to impact consumer choices.
No single company can stamp out racial disparity, but industry-led efforts can send a clear message that addressing racial inequity is a moral necessity and a societal benefit, while also being good for the broader economy.
Your company values are on the line.
Members of the C-Suite should realize that moments of turmoil can become a credibility test. Any contradiction between your company’s values and your actions will be magnified with measurable effects on employee morale, retention and overall reputation.
Inaction in the current moment can sow seeds of skepticism about your true commitments.
Alternatively, your existing commitments can become a catalyst for engagement if you’re willing to lead. The future of your brand among a broad set of stakeholders may depend on it.
We are experiencing just the latest wake-up call to the inequities on which our political, economic and social systems are built. Our employees and customers are demanding that a return to normal means much more than a return to the way things were.
Corey Ealons, partner, and Jonathan Coffin, senior vice president, are co-chairs of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Practice Group at VOX Global.
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