Sterling does service to diversity cause

LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling forced a bitter pill down our collective throats that prior declarations of a post-racial nation may have reflected our aspirations more than our reality, writes Latraviette Smith.

Disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling did a service to our nation with the release of his recent racist comments – not because it exposed their repulsive and despicable content, but because it sparked a valuable conversation.

Despite the history of racism and discrimination in America, these issues are still among the most uncomfortable for us to discuss. However, Sterling forced us all to come face to face with the most chronic disease for which we have found no cure – bigotry, whether explicit or subtle. This incident further forced a bitter pill down our collective throats that prior declarations of a post-racial nation may have reflected our aspirations more than our reality.

So what is the seminal lesson in this controversy for companies and brands? Diversity and inclusion are directly linked to individual and organizational reputation and, in turn, the ability to acquire and retain top talent, the capacity to forge partnerships, lead effectively, and positively impact the bottom line. When an organization’s diversity policies, programming, and practices are substantive, its diversity and inclusion strategy can, in part, become a reputation-management strategy. These efforts can also help effectively inoculate against widespread damage when an incident occurs. 

Sterling is a classic example of "what not to do." First, writing a check is never enough. Money may buy superficial alliances, but engagement and the cultivation of real relationships are critical. Otherwise, organizations can expect a flurry of fleeting – and fleeing - "friends" if and when situations heat up. Few people or brands will put their credibility on the line to vouch for an organization or leader with questionable commitment or behavior. 

Second, a leader’s and an organization’s diversity brand matters. Individual actions, particularly those of leadership, can have significant organizational ramifications. One’s diversity brand affects whether people want to work for an organization and whether they choose to bring their best when they show up.   

Third, fans and sponsors readily close their wallets to organizations and leaders revealed to have less-than-stellar diversity practices and reputations. The Clippers quickly learned this lesson via State Farm Insurance, Virgin America, Mercedes-Benz, and other companies who pulled support in light of Sterling’s comments and continued ownership.

Within our corporations, we seldom directly confront the ugly and underlying issues of both conscious and unconscious bias to ensure that the kind of vitriol that came to light with Sterling are not thread throughout and within our organizations. For maximum effectiveness, diversity programming must do more than espouse the benefits of a multicultural workplace. It must also identify and seek to address some of the impeding challenges within individual organizations and determine how to best address those, whether via cultural sensitivity and bias training, simulation exercises, targeted development programs, or other methods.

Here’s the reality: when employees walk into their place of business, they do not leave their societal biases and preconceptions at the door. They do not change their views or behaviors simply because a company has a diversity and inclusion policy. However, they will generally follow an organization’s lead, even if just while within its walls, when they ascertain that their success and that of their organization are linked to a demonstrated diversity commitment.

Though still in the early stages of his tenure, a shining example of this demonstrated commitment is NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. He shifted what could have been a lasting blemish on one of the most venerable brands in sports and made it a defining moment for the league and his legacy. With the decisive and swift sanctions handed down to Sterling, Silver laid the groundwork for an uncompromising, unambiguous, zero-tolerance approach to racial intolerance within the NBA. His strong language was backed by even stronger action. Moreover, he effectively used this as an opportunity to redefine the NBA’s commitment to diversity and inclusion to its base of multicultural stakeholders - fans, players, coaches, owners, and partners.  

No one organization or leader can change, address, or erase all of the prejudices within a society. However, each can clearly set the tone for what is acceptable – and accepted – on the other side of its doors. Its reputation – and business – depend on it.

Latraviette Smith, former VP, global diversity and inclusion for American Express, has spent 15 years in communications in agency, corporate, consumer, and multicultural PR, as well as senior marketing roles. Her column will focus on the PR industry's ongoing efforts to advance diversity among its ranks at all levels. Connect with her via LinkedIn or at latraviette@gmail.com.

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