• The killing of an unarmed African American man by a Minnesota police officer has sparked global outrage leading to protests in the US and other cities worldwide.
  • The business community has responded vocally, with some firms actively engaged in tangible initiatives to address injustice.
  • The urgency of the issue, coupled with the post-COVID momentum for a Great Reset of capitalism offers the prospect of a society and a business world with renewed principles of equity, diversity and inclusion at the fore.

The shocking killing of George Floyd by a police officer last week was captured on camera and shared widely on social media across the world, before it even made the headlines. It has ignited political and social uproar both within and beyond the US. It is one of many acts of aggression over time by the police against the African American community – but on this occasion it was captured on film and shared – bringing institutional racism to the top of the agenda.

Only in the last few months, two other cases – that of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor – drew the spotlight. These killings sparked fury, but followed a common cycle of initial indignation and subsequent neglect or failure to act. As protestors worldwide have taken to the streets over the past week, will the killing of George Floyd mark the moment to break that cycle, and how will the business community rise to the occasion to take the lead?

The business community’s first response

The business community – often wary of controversy – has come forward to voice its outrage. The context is one of mixed engagement in the past. Companies have been criticized for failing to act appropriately or failing to act at all, even with the best intentions. While words may not speak louder than actions, could the show of solidarity and empathy from business leaders be a precursor to real change?

“I know for sure that what put my life on a different trajectory was that someone intervened to give me an opportunity, to close that opportunity gap. And that opportunity gap is still there.”

— Merck (MSD) Chief Executive Officer, Kenneth Frazier

Merck’s (MSD) Chief Executive Officer, Kenneth Frazier has reflected “George Floyd could be me”, while a number of Minnesota-based firms, including Cargill, EY and Ecolab have committed to “investing in substantive change” in their organizations to address “racial inequities and social justice”.

Nike reversed its iconic Just Do It slogan in an online video, saying: "For once, Don't Do It." "Don't pretend there's not a problem in America. Don't turn your back on racism. Don't accept innocent lives being taken from us. Don't make any more excuses. Don't think this doesn't affect you. Don't sit back and be silent." The move sparked solidarity – even from long-time rival, Adidas – which retweeted the video, saying, “Together is how we make change.”

CommonSprit Health’s leaders said, “Having seen the impacts of systemic racism in healthcare for decades, these recent events sharpen our resolve to demand justice, truth and dignity for all.” President and Chief Executive Officer of Duke Health, in a very personal letter, stated “Our work does not end with this letter… I assure you that Duke Health leadership is dedicated to developing solutions that help strengthen us and shape a stronger tomorrow.”

Pledges and promises

Some businesses have come forward with financial pledges and promises of funding for initiatives fighting racial inequality. Bank of America has pledged $1 billion to help communities across the country address economic and racial inequality.

“The events of the past week have created a sense of true urgency that has arisen across our nation, particularly in view of the racial injustices we have seen in the communities where we work and live. We all need to do more.”

— Brian Moynihan, Chief Executive Officer Bank of America.

Cisco and their Chief Executive Officer, Chuck Robbins took a strong stand by postponing their biggest consumer event, Cisco Live, just a few hours before it was supposed to be held, and pledging $5 million to charities dedicated to fighting racism and discrimination.

Verizon Communications is donating $10 million, while Uber Technologies will donate $1m to two groups working to make the US criminal justice system more equitable (Center for Policing Equity, and the Equal Justice Initiative).

Businesses have a responsibility beyond business to promote equality

In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, the motivations for corporate action may seem reactive. Having been so vocal on the issue, however, there is pressure on the business community to follow up with real action, not least because consumers and employees have ever higher expectations.

For companies to take an anti-racist approach, there needs to be acknowledgement and scrutiny of the systemic racism that is endemic within society, and to apply this to workplace policies and practices to eradicate racial biases inherent in corporate culture and operations.

Anti-racism is distinct from “workplace diversity”, which refers to the range of human differences and variations among employees and does not necessarily address or systemically uproot racial inequity.

A big challenge for business is to understand the visible and hidden forms of power, privilege and dominance, and acknowledge its role in perpetuating systems of racial injustice. Many employers and employees tend to view racism as individual and intentional acts of malice. But racism is often so deeply embedded that the problem is not only a question of addressing overt racists but rather the silence, fear and discomfort of tackling systemic racism in the workplace.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Anti-racism work mainly falls within “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” policies. There are three leading rationales for such work:

1. Values
Giving equal access and opportunities to all people to work under fair and equitable conditions is simply the right thing to do.

2. The law
Multinational organizations need to consider the rights and entitlements given to potential employees across different locations by law when they operate in these different legal environments. Beyond merely reacting to changes in national legislation, an increasing number of employers aim to act as active custodians of the interests of their employee base irrespective of location, supporting local legislation to evolve towards even greater fairness in light of new workplace technologies and practices.

3. Competitive advantage
The ethical impulse to strive for change comes with commercial viability and the potential for competitive advantage.

“Business has the transformative power to change and contribute to a more open, diverse and inclusive society. We can only accomplish this by starting from within our organizations. Many of us know intuitively that diversity is good for business. The case for establishing a truly diverse workforce, at all organizational levels, grows more compelling each year. The moral argument is weighty enough, but the financial impact - as proven by multiple studies - makes this a no-brainer.”

— Vijay Eswaran, Executive Chairman, QI Group

Research shows that well managed diverse teams significantly outperform less diverse (well managed) ones over time. They have a broader range of knowledge and skills; are better at identifying and solving problems; and gain a competitive edge in accessing new markets and higher market share. Companies leading their geography and industry for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging perform better than their market average across a wide range of key performance metrics. Their rate of innovation, for example, is up to 20% higher.

Diversity may be a “no-brainer”, but the fact remains that according to US government estimates, Black chief executives make up only 0.8% of the Fortune 500, despite African Americans representing 13.4% of the population. When adding a gender lens to the equation, there are no black female chief executive officers of the Fortune 500 and only three women of colour: Sonia Syngal, Lisa Su and Joey Wat.

There is much work to be done.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle racial injustice and inequality. In response, the Forum's Platform for Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society has established a high-level community of Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officers. The community will develop a vision, strategies and tools to proactively embed equity into the post-pandemic recovery and shape long-term inclusive change in our economies and societies.

As businesses emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, they have a unique opportunity to ensure that equity, inclusion and justice define the "new normal" and tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity. It is increasingly clear that new workplace technologies and practices can be leveraged to significantly improve diversity, equity and inclusion outcomes.

The World Economic Forum has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Toolkit, to outline the practical opportunities that this new technology represents for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, while describing the challenges that come with it.

The toolkit explores how technology can help reduce bias from recruitment processes, diversify talent pools and benchmark diversity and inclusion across organisations. The toolkit also cites research that suggests well-managed diverse teams significantly outperform homogenous ones over time, across profitability, innovation, decision-making and employee engagement.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Toolkit is available here.

Actions speak louder

A number of companies are actively committing to diversity and equality as part of longer-term strategies that fit within their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies. Some examples include:

  • A.P. Møller-Maersk conducted a programme of leadership training including embedding diversity and inclusion with 1,188 first-time leaders.
  • Mercer’s Racial and Ethnic Diversity Business Resource Group ensures that “embracing diversity and fostering inclusivity is a key business priority".
  • The SAP.iO No Boundaries initiative will commit up to 40% of investable capital to help at least 200 underrepresented entrepreneurs around the world within the next five years.

A new, equitable normal?

The “new normal” business environment emerging from the COVID-19 crisis presents a unique opportunity to break with the past.

Companies that apply a racial equity lens to internal organizational development and identify, talk about and manage inherent power dynamics, are most likely to ring the changes meaningfully.

The latest wave of outrage is a cue to act with urgency and if the corporate voices that have been sounding out over the past week have integrity and intention, then there is every possibility that the business community can make an impact on equality both within and beyond the corporate world.