I left three Fortune 500 companies in my corporate career because of misalignments between my values and how the companies were operating. In two of the cases, what I was asked to do was unethical at best and very shady business practices. In one case, I was asked to do something illegal. I refused to sacrifice my values each time, choosing to leave each company in search of a more ethical place to work.
What I didn’t do was stand up to the unethical business practices.
I walked away and kept my story to myself (mostly). Which is why the story of Julia Bond, an assistant designer at Adidas, struck a deep chord in me.
Bond was hired as an intern by Adidas when she was in college. She had a peak experience there that I could relate to: the opportunity to design an article of clothing and see it make its way into the hands of customers. I’ve had that experience more than once, and the thrill never goes away.
Adidas then hired Bond to be an assistant designer when she graduated from college. But her dream job became a living nightmare this summer. She’s been protesting Adidas’s weak handling of racism for the past three months. While at first her manager supported her protest, more recently she’s been subject to backlash.
When George Floyd was murdered, Bond– like so many of us– felt called to action. She organized a lunchtime protest on Adidas’s Portland campus that has continued for weeks. Adidas eventually responded, but their response left many of their Black employees dissatisfied.
The company announced that 30% of their new hires would be people of color. Which sounds good, but they’re not doing anything to address the systemic racism that exists in leadership. That likely means that the turnover among BIPOC will continue to be high.
What Adidas hasn’t done is apologize for the systemic racism at the company. They pretended that when they wrote that “Black co-workers have shown us… the changes Adidas can make” that they were actually committed to making those changes. According to Bond, they are not committed to the kind of leadership development that would change the systemic racism that exists in the company.
We could substitute the name Adidas here to any number of publicly traded companies in the United States and around the world right now. This is not meant as an attack on Adidas, but a “calling in” for companies to take action.
There was an assessment of 100 corporate “solidarity statements” that came out in the wake of Floyd’s murder that showed only about 10% of the companies that came out with statements combined their statement with actionable strategies to do better in the fight against racial injustice. The majority were criticized for things like having “empty and vague platitudes,” and “no roadmap for change.”
If organizations want to thrive in the coming years, they will have to take an honest look at the behavior of their leaders.
They’ll have to look at and revise their policies–from hiring to onboarding to nurturing talent. They would also be well advised to diversify their Board of Directors. Companies with diverse Boards do a much better job with having a diverse and engaged workforce.
According to the U.S. Spencer Stuart Board Index, in 2019, a record 59 percent of the directors added to the boards of S&P 500 companies were women or were men belonging to a racial or ethnic minority group. This is excellent news! And while there’s still a long way to go in order to achieve the same balance on Boards as we see in America, we are heartened that so many organizations are paying attention to this.
We’d like to highlight Best Buy as one of the companies leading the charge in Board diversification. When Kathy Higgins Victor first joined Best Buy’s Board in 1999, she was the only woman. As recently as 2013, less than 17% of the S&P 500 and less than 12% of the Russell 3000 companies Board seats were held by women.
Fast forward 20 years: Best Buy now has a majority female board and has made great progress in adding minorities as well. Best Buy now has a majority diverse Board. Well done! However, they are only one of six companies in the S&P 500 that have majority diverse boards. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
Most publicly traded companies are still trying to get away with not doing the deep anti-racism work that’s required for systemic change. They’re relying on performative allyship to ignore the real problem of institutional racism that’s rampant in the company. That’s not good enough. Both employees and consumers expect more social responsibility from the companies they engage with.
The issue of systemic oppression won’t just go away if you ignore it. It has to be deliberately healed. Healing begins with acknowledgement. “We acknowledge that our leadership has perpetuated harm on employees who hold marginalized identities.” The second step is an apology. “We apologize for the behaviors, regardless of the intentions behind them, that have caused harm.” The third, most important, and most complex step is reparations.
Reparations are a way to right wrongs.
They are a way to make amends. Reparations in the workplace, as with all systemic reparations, are multi-faceted. Here is what we recommend:
- Begin or continue the work of diversifying your Board of Directors.
- Identify and correct pay inequities between white, straight, cis-gendered, non-disabled men and people who hold marginalized identities. Immediately.
- Take the pulse of the company by completing a culture assessment. This assessment combines a brief, anonymous survey with either 1:1 interviews or focus groups with a consultancy to help leaders identify blind spots and areas that are the most urgent to repair.
- Enroll the Leadership team, from the C-suite all the way to front line managers, in anti-racism training. This year long training would include:
- Identifying and mitigating unconscious biases against all marginalized identities (Harvard has a helpful resource here)
- The development of emotional intelligence fluency and other conscious leadership skills
- Training to help leaders understand and dismantle the symptoms of systemic oppression. These symptoms include fear of open conflict, either or thinking, and defensiveness, to name a few
- A review of all HR practices and policies to identify, correct, and mitigate the harm done by implicit biases and inequitable policies.
We didn’t get into this situation yesterday. Systemic oppression has been around for hundreds of years. It’s not a problem that can be solved with a DEI initiative. That’s like trying to put a bandaid on a gunshot wound. That said, it’s not an unsolvable problem. The solutions are within reach. They simply take the will to change. Time will tell if Adidas and other publicly traded companies can muster up that will. We hope, for their own sakes, that they will.
Johanna Lyman (she/her or they/them) is the Principal Consultant and Practice Leader for Culture and Inclusion. She is a dynamic, energetic Leadership and Culture coach and consultant with nearly 30 years of experience in leadership development and culture change.