As strategic counselors, we are the conscience of an organization. While pressure mounts for us to fulfill our clients’ mandates and meet quarterly expectations, it is our job to raise the uncomfortable questions we may not have the answers to, and to think deeply about the long-term impact of our organization’s actions and inactions on issues relating to racial inequality, the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and crime and safety.
Whether seen from the side of stakeholders or shareholders, diversity, equity and inclusion is having its moment as fundamental to corporate futures as well as our society’s well-being. None other than Blackrock CEO Larry Fink, Wall Street’s biggest asset manager, had an “epiphany moment,” as former U.S. editor of The Economist, Matthew Bishop, put it, recognizing the inherent value DEI brings to his company’s enormous portfolios. In June, Fink revealed plans to advance DEI in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, including a commitment to increase the number of Black employees by 30% by 2024. He is now expecting the companies Blackrock invests in to follow suit.
In a 2018 interview, former President Barack Obama expressed concern over Americans living in different realities, given how social media has divided the American people, calling it the “Balkanization of our social conversation.” The point of DEI involves embracing each other’s differences while yielding a multiplying effect of innovation within inclusive environments. Instead, we have the exact opposite of the intent of DEI. There is an us vs. them mentality.
On the road to globalization, multinational corporations acquired a diverse range of people through their global merger and acquisition activity. However, inclusion was not a given. There was little or no emphasis on inclusion in an era of massive technological advances. For most multinationals, short-term earnings and shareholder expectations were the priority over long-term growth. Over the last 20 years, in my experience as a journalist, entrepreneur, consultant, researcher and professor, having lived and worked in Europe, Asia, Africa and the U.S., I witnessed the integration of the global markets and scrupulously followed discussions about the repercussions of globalization and technology, including the shipping of American jobs overseas. There was concern about our workers being left behind in a globalized world and the need for them to develop new skills so they could remain competitive.
The late 1990s were a go-go-go time. The stock market boomed as investors chased dot-coms and mergers and acquisitions flourished. The NASDAQ grew by roughly 456% between 1995 and 2000.
The biggest technology companies grew between 11 to 40 times in the 1990s. This boom occurred without regard to organizational culture or the benefits of a multicultural workforce. There was a disconnect between wealth accumulation and community engagement, between business and society. There was scarce care for our people, our democracy and our communities.
In a 2016 interview on Charlie Rose with former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell, he said there were three areas of concern to the security of our nation: the stagnation in real household income. From 2000 to 2018, the growth in household income lagged to an annual average rate of only 0.3%. Second, the inability for our educational system to keep pace with the changes relating to globalization and technology and concerns about the “browning of America.”
“This is sad for me as an American to say, I believe that there is a number of uneducated white Americans who fear the browning of America, who fear the growth and the number...and the influence of minorities in America manifested by the election of Barack Obama to the presidency and they are attracted to Donald Trump's xenophobia,” he said.
The 2020 election made clear the divide in the American public and the role corporate America must play in healing that divide. Racial injustice and the pandemic were on the ballot for most supporters of President-elect Joe Biden. For Trump supporters, the economy and crime and safety mattered most.
There is evidence that voters cast their ballot based on their level of priority of racial inequality and level of education. According to the Financial Times, “the level of education is becoming a more important divide and is clashing with racial identity as a driver for voting patterns.” Based on exit polls, a disproportionate number of non-college-educated white voters voted for Trump, while a disproportionate number of non-college voters of color voted for Biden.
As strategic counselors, how can organizations help society get over polarization?
The proactive work we do as strategic counselors in advising our clients matters in maintaining mutually beneficial relationships with our stakeholders. Organizations are microcosms of what is happening across our cities and communities. Understanding intersectionality of our stakeholders matters in the workplace, in our communities and in every election cycle. The political map cannot be seen through the same lens as before. We have seen red states turn blue and cultural divides between those living in major cities and rural areas.
The demographics of our country are changing. This election cycle has confirmed the dire urgency for organizations to understand their stakeholders from many intersectionality points across race, gender, ethnicity, education and social beliefs as we serve our clients, our employees and communities.
The lack of diversity and inclusion poses social risks to an organization. According to the Muck Rack World in 2020 Project poll conducted from September 28 to October 9, 78% ranked race and ethnicity as their highest priority issue for engaging with DEI through PR, while people with disabilities ranked the lowest at 42%, indicating there must be more work done in fostering a more inclusive work environment for everyone. Seventy-five percent ranked race and ethnicity inequities as the DEI issue their audiences care most about, while political inequities ranked lowest at 36%.
Doing what we say matters
In the World in 2020 report, one of my interviewees remarked that companies will disappear overnight if they are not prepared for the new generation of talent that is coming through their doors. The bottom line is no longer about short-term earnings. It is about a long-term outlook, building inclusive work cultures and preserving the competitiveness of American workers in our communities through the reskilling of employees.
5 strategic DEI recommendations
- Engage your employees in discussions about issues that matter to them related to racial tensions, social inequality, the coronavirus pandemic and the economy. Cultivate honest, courageous discussions that spotlight areas of difference in lived experiences, perspectives and most importantly, create space to allow for knowledge and context sharing before, during and afterwards. This is a long-term endeavor.
Democratize DEI. Treat it as a shared mission, ownable by each team and business unit with a line function reporting directly to the CEO on quarterly progress. Support the DEI function and priorities with budgetary resources. It will make your organizations more informed, action-oriented and inclusive.
Become problem solvers in your communities by connecting you and your client work with addressing socioeconomic disparities, developing a pipeline of diverse talent into industry and investing in community engagement.
Invest in the upskilling of all employees consistently as part of your corporate sustainability efforts. Create an apprenticeship program that supports the communities your organization operates in. Understand and place importance on DEI as an imperative that extends beyond a communication exercise but a strategic function tied to talent, recruitment and retention, corporate reputation, market relevance, growth and innovation.
DEI is a strategic business imperative, extending beyond the communications function. Start thinking about DEI within the framework of environmental, social risks and governance and report on a consistent basis to track progress and impact.
Angela K. Chitkara is founder of the World in 2020 Project.