Black Lives Matter: what should businesses do now?

I was originally intending to write a blog about the non-publication of the government’s latest Gender Pay Gap report. I suspect that, despite some considerable efforts for improvement, the powers-that-be judged a report should not be published at a time when women are being so adversely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Most are likely to work for or run businesses in those sectors most hit, including health, social care, catering, hospitality, beauty, and retail. Furthermore, women’s ‘second shift’ at home has, for many, significantly increased, with caring for and educating children who would otherwise be at school or nursery and looking after family members who are sick or self-isolating, making it very difficult to work or run a business – if they still have either.

But that injustice was eclipsed at the end of May with the murder of George Floyd. Sadly, another atrocity and demonstration of racism and brutality rife within the US police force unleashed pent up feelings, across the globe, of a growing list of social injustices. It’s depressing that we are still talking about the same social injustices we have been fighting against for decades despite what appears to be a collective disgust and a will that things should be different.

Speaking out is important but sadly words of condemnation and protests generally leave little long-term benefit other than a footnote in history. Remember the shooting in Ferguson, US six years ago and all the protests and promises that followed? Yet the shootings and social injustices continued.

Actions with a lasting impact seem overwhelming and impossible when looking at the big picture and the ongoing failure of our leaders to make a difference. But we all have the power to create lasting change if we all individually and, in our businesses, play our part in our own small way to turn the tide together.

From speaking to people across my network, I know I’m not alone in having been greatly moved by current events and those of us working for or running businesses are considering what we can do to make things better.

Those who have set up and are running businesses will have started their journey with an idea of what type of business they wanted to build. The USP (unique selling point) of a business is rarely just its product, service, and price but its purpose and ethos - how it goes about doing business. After all, people buy people. Unless the service and price are unique or vital, customers will go elsewhere if the service and ethos stink. Sustainable businesses revisit this regularly to ensure their business remains relevant in an ever-changing market and society.

Now is the time for business owners to check their plan, if they have one, or set one out, if not, to ensure that their business becomes a participant of sustainable, long term societal change. That is, it sets out a series of commitments everyone is accountable for and proud to shout about. Those commitments should be revisited often over time to ensure that they still stand, making additions and adjustments along the way. Ultimately, we should all be ensuring that everyone has the same opportunity to contribute, succeed or fail, regardless of gender, race, religion, disability.

The following principles could be considered. They aren’t exhaustive, there will be more:

Give everyone a fair go. Be inclusive. Treat others how we would our loved ones

  • Tackle unconscious bias head on. Ensure that everyone is alert to it to prevent it. Don’t just leave it at a training course taken infrequently – ensure that it is discussed regularly in the workplace

  • Ensure equal opportunities for employment, pay and progression for contribution regardless of gender, race, age, disability

  • Make places of work accessible to all potential employees

  • Put in place equal parental leave for men and women

  • Accommodate employee caring responsibilities into the work schedule

  • Pay the Living Wage and pay interns

This will help engender trust and respect between employer and employees and help increase loyalty, discretionary effort and productivity. Best of all, it will make work a much more fun place to be.

Participate in and support the community

  • Provide role model support to people underrepresented in business

  • Partner with charities or organisations, such as Women’s Enterprise Scotland (WES), that lobby governments and/or support people underrepresented in business and society

  • Do business with and support businesses that have the same or similar ethos

  • As above, offer paid internships ensuring the opportunities are available to all, not just those who can afford to intern without pay

A greater sense of purpose, involvement and value to communities brings a richer quality of life for everyone – and can even boost the ‘bottom line’.

Communicate well

  • Use relevant and inclusive language in everything from website and social media to customer engagement and employee recruitment

  • Be representative in use of images and photography on all communications channels – race, gender, age, disability

  • Shout with pride about the business’ ethos just as much as commercial success

  • Be consistent with communications internally and externally. ‘Eat your own pies’

Engaging fully with our constantly evolving, culturally varied sophisticated and civilised society is exciting and can open doors to new areas of business you might not have known were there. Don’t risk being left behind.

Listen, learn and adjust

  • Acknowledge that everyone has limitations and that business leaders won’t always get it right, especially if they are not representative, so it’s OK to seek guidance. Read, listen but most importantly engage with brilliant organisations such as Radiance and Brighter to help shape informed plans

  • Speak to and listen to your employees. Ask them what they think, how they feel, what could be better and involve them in creating those commitments. Do this on an ongoing basis through regular working groups, meetings or calls and challenge them to hold the business and each other to account

  • Speak to and listen to everyone else invested in your company - your customers, shareholders, investors, suppliers, community - in exactly the same way as your employees. Listen, learn, and adjust accordingly

Taking the time to listen, learn and adjust in order to engage better than before will go a long way to ensuring a sustainable business and community.

Like many, I’ve been reading, listening, connecting and learning a lot since George Floyd’s killing. But as the intensity of the news cycle diminishes, we are in danger of falling back into the habit of waiting for our leaders to come up with a solution. Isn’t it better that we all take the initiative in our own way to collectively to turn the tide? Imagine how George Floyd’s situation might have turned out if he had been listened to.

Grasp the opportunity this moment in history has created to create lasting change. Black Lives Matter - and everyone should strive together to gain equal opportunity for everyone to contribute to society without prejudice. It won’t come without a lot of effort and time but now is the time to turn reaction to action.

Isabelle Jarmin is a former Senior Manager in Global Communications for Standard Life Aberdeen and provides consultancy support for Women's Enterprise Scotland

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