How companies can be proactive – not reactive – on social issues

How companies can be proactive – not reactive – on social issues

How companies can be proactive – not reactive – on social issues

A political development of a large institution shakes society. A social controversy takes over the news cycle. A major tragedy, violence or disaster puts social inequality in the spotlight. After these events have happened, your staff is anxious and distracted. Your customers are no different. These stakeholders are asking the same question of your organization’s leadership:

“What are you and your organization going to do? to do about this?”

If you feel that the pressure on organizations, especially corporations, to take action on social issues has increased in recent years, you would be right to think so. The latest data from the Edelman Trust Barometer, an NGO that studies trust in social institutions, shows that business is the only remaining “trustworthy” institution amid plummeting trust in government and media since 2020, globally . And while survey respondents indicated that they had little trust in “CEOs,” they paradoxically pointed to a high and growing trust in “my CEO,” highlighting the rising expectations among employees around the world for their employer to take action. .

I’ve seen the same in my work with US and European-based companies in recent years, advising dozens of leaders during crises ranging from anti-Blackness settlements to post-Roe reproductive rights. What has become clear to me is that, despite the increasing urgency of all kinds of stakeholders for companies to take on a greater role in social change, a large proportion of leaders are vastly unprepared or even unaware of this. expectations. When they choose to take action, more often than not, they follow a long outdated script of one-time corporate donations, hastily deliver unconscious bias training and social media posts that come across as the business equivalent of “thoughts and prayers.” These efforts can be seen by stakeholders as not only inadequate, but also as potential indicators that diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) business initiatives are “performing,” or being done in a similar way for show, but not for the effectiveness.

What stakeholders want, and many leaders are not yet prepared for, is a proactive rather than reactive approach to taking action on social issues, where companies take greater responsibility for not only their impact on society, but also the impact of society on business stakeholders such as employees, customers and communities.

The paradox many leaders face is the relative difficulty of so radically rethinking their organization’s role in the world, compared to the relative ease of making a donation, commenting on social media, or investing in short-term resources. . As a result, short-term actions always win – a fairly isolated decision, but a bigger problem over time as stakeholders expect greater action that never comes. Resolving this tension requires prioritizing the “right” reactive efforts and using the time and confidence they generate to simultaneously take on longer-term proactive work. I usually advise my clients to take the following steps if they want to turn their reactive social problem response into a proactive and sustainable strategy.

1. Invest in a ‘safety net’.

“Safety net” assets and protections support organizational members against the worst effects of social inequality without the organization having to take a public political stance to implement and are often framed as neutral means available to all in rather than accessible only to a specific group. Examples of safety net resources to offer and invest in include:

Without these resources, social inequalities within and outside the company can disproportionately harm members of marginalized communities. However, the presence of these resources provides tangible benefits for all your employees, regardless of their identity. Importantly, the roll-out of these resources can increase employee engagement and confidence in leadership, both important prerequisites for more substantial initiatives.

2. Codify and operationalize your organization’s mission and values ​​in a DEI strategy.

The output and outcome of this process, in addition to a feel-good statement that will live on a wall or a website, is a shared understanding of the internal and external outcomes the organization is invested in and how it intends to achieve them. When a mission and values ​​are effectively operationalized in a compelling DEI strategy, they serve as a set of “moral guidelines” that allow internal and external actions taken on their behalf to appear consistent and congruent to stakeholders.

The process of creating a DEI strategy must involve a wide range of stakeholder groups, including employees, customers, business partners, suppliers and local communities. These groups should be surveyed to understand their perception of the organization’s identity, what issues they want the organization to consider, and what results they want the organization to achieve. Leaders can then refine these insights into a concise set of organizational priorities and guidelines for achieving them.

Many organizations celebrate prematurely after the creation of these guiding documents, but their usefulness comes primarily in the way they influence decision-making processes and organizational culture for all leaders and employees. To ensure that the effort they put into their creation pays off, leaders must train all decision-makers on how to apply these guidelines in practice and ensure that all aspects of the employee experience align with the mission, values ​​and strategy.

3. Execute internal and external initiatives that align with your mission and values.

The most critical test of a DEI strategy is its ability to turn what would in itself be a vague or abstract value into effective decision-making at scale.

A value of ’empowerment’ could be operationalized in a strategy of ‘supporting the autonomy of stakeholders’. Internally, this could look like supporting employee offices about their own work and workflow with generous remote and flexible working policies, training all managers to evaluate results rather than hours worked, and equipping all leaders with inclusive leadership practices to to create psychologically safe working environments. Externally, this may resemble supporting voters’ ability to make their own decisions and invest in community resources, information literacy, basic education and access to health care, especially for disadvantaged populations.

A value of ‘connection’ can be operationalized in a strategy of ‘learning and cooperation between groups’. Internally, this may resemble normalizing regular interdepartmental contact and collaboration, ensuring that leaders from all Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) meet regularly to discuss their community’s needs, updates and initiatives, and creating a rotating mentorship program where junior employees can building relationships with senior leadership. Externally, this can look like connecting customers to local advocacy and community organizations, lobbying against legislation that drives wedges between communities, and divesting partners and vendors that support hate groups.

4. Act consistently.

Understand that no organization can or should address every problem. As long as your organization is consistent in the types of issues it faces, consistently sets expectations and meets stakeholder expectations about how it gets involved, and builds mechanisms to make periodic price corrections, it is more likely to have social impact. without creating social controversy or perpetuating harm.

Stakeholder groups play a major role in ensuring accountability. Consider establishing compensated advisory boards and cross-functional groups that convene HR, Communications, ERG, DEI and legal professionals, as well as executives, whose role is to respond to the latest news and social developments as they arise. Create a decision-making process to ensure your organization can respond in a timely and disciplined manner, rather than having to scramble reactively every time an emergency occurs.

Consider at least a fleeting engagement with customer focus groups and employees every six months to a year to stay abreast of stakeholder needs and sentiment. Track responses to internal and external advocacy, especially when your actions miss the mark, and use that information to continually refine your social impact strategy.

. . .

Many of the leaders I speak to are nervous about taking action on social issues. They see the consequences of failure – being castigated on social media; experts call their actions “performative”; criticized by their staff for initiatives that weren’t cheap or easy to undertake in the beginning – and wonder if doing nothing is “safer” than trying and failing. But while the old playbook is now obsolete, it is now clear to stakeholders what they want: consistency, courage and a willingness to take a stance on social issues, even at the cost of short-term gain. Effective leaders who embrace these new expectations and act effectively will see their efforts pay off.

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