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Organizational Change
Just Brands ’21:
Where the Rubber Meets the Long, Bumpy Road to Truly Equitable Workplaces

At Sustainable Brands’ latest Just Brands event, experts from across the spectrum of business discussed corporate efforts to support diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) issues — and how stakeholders will no longer tolerate a gap between commitments and actions.

The state of DEIJ in business

To set the scene for Just Brands ‘21, Kurt Merriweather — VP of Innovation at The Diversity Movement — outlined the current state of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice (DEIJ) in business. He recalled the 2020 catalysts which led to increased interest in social and racial justice: the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, and the murder of George Floyd in May. 

Since then, there has been a notable engagement from business. Corporate donations to racial justice initiatives increased from $3.38bn during 2011-2019 to $8bn in 2020 alone, outpacing donations from non-profit entities.

Citing Porter Novelli research on racial justice commitments from top US companies from May to October 2020, Merriweather points to an inconsistency between external commitments and internal changes.

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In fact, he said, some companies have opted out of the DEIJ conversation altogether — citing statements from Coinbase and Basecamp, which stated conversations around social justice have no place in the workplace. “A third of both companies decided that they wanted to opt out, as well; so, there is a cost of making those decisions,” states Merriweather, referring to the employees who chose to leave.

To match employee and consumer expectations, the Diversity Movement recommends that companies address DEIJ in four components of their brand — Community, Customer, Innovation and Employer.

Merriweather concludes with a mantra for moving from awareness to action: Act different, think different, make a difference. “Companies can be the engine for change as it relates to social justice,” he exhorts, setting the stage for the rest of the event.

Addressing gender, community inequality in a post-pandemic world

In the last year, women have been disproportionately affected by the COVID pandemic, unemployment, gun violence, domestic violence, homelessness and the unpaid labor of childcare and homeschooling.

Inequity is set to continue even as the bounce-back begins, with Black women currently having the lowest share of returning jobs. In the US, 860,000 women left the workforce in September 2020 as ‘schooling’ began, and mothers out of work are at the highest level. “Let’s get these women back to work,” says Etienne White, VP of Sustainable Brands’ Brands for Good initiative.

Along with the disparity arising from the pandemic, women are disproportionately affected by climate change — and data continually points to the intersection between gender and climate. White asks, “If this is how we react in a ‘mini’ crisis, what will happen to gender equality and equity as the larger climate crisis unfolds?”

However, structural change is possible, with leadership actions seen from Canada, Colombia, Morocco, Guatemala and Egypt. Argentina has rolled out a more gender-sensitive COVID response measure than any other country, according to the UN.

So, what can brands do? White commends Target’s approach to tackling gender and racial equity with ongoing commitment, rather than one-off marketing campaigns. The company has seamlessly embedded it into its business — empowering consumers to support in simple, easy ways. “What I love is that it breaks free completely from the philanthropic / give-back paradigm; they are celebrating minorities, with a lot of hope and optimism.”

These days, brands are more trusted than governments. With positive change now more likely, White encourages brands to do more. “There’s an opportunity for businesses to seize that and accelerate cultural change,” she says.

“All. Of. This. Is. Infuriating.”

This was a common theme of comments posted in the aftermath of White’s session.

One could be forgiven for expecting similar doom and gloom in the session that followed, which highlighted the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on the world’s most vulnerable communities. But that’s not what we got.

David Casey’s personal testimony of the handling of the US COVID-19 testing roll out reinforced what many of us already knew. As Chief Diversity Officer at CVS, Casey said the interconnectedness between wealth and health was there for all to see.

“When mass testing came, the primary way to access it was to get a prescription from a physician, and you had to have a vehicle to get to a testing site.” Clearly, the system did not work for the most disadvantaged. But the situation was countered by CVS and the launch of its community-based testing sites, set up within schools and churches, and close to where people were used to going locally. “We have to ensure that what we offer to the community is equally accessible for everybody. That’s what’s needed to make a breakthrough,” Casey said.

Philip McKenzie, a cultural anthropologist and strategist with InfluencerCon, suggested such breakthroughs might take some time. Two years ago, eight people controlled 50 percent of the wealth in the world. As COVID-19 hit, and ‘normal’ was no longer normal, we had a chance to break away from the way things had always been, he said. “The pandemic could be seen as a portal, an opportunity for change. Unfortunately, the portal merely transported the old ways of doing things into our new reality, and wealth inequality has intensified.”

Stephanie Ryan, Growth Catalyst at B Lab, gave balance to the session with a number of examples of progress in companies addressing inequality within their workforce. “When you care for your people and your community, you operate with a sense of relationship,” she said, pointing to frozen cookie dough manufacturer Rhino Foods — which has long protected its staff against financial insecurity with an Income Advance Program. It has become a beacon social initiative, imitated by many bigger companies — including Ben & Jerry’s.

Casey rounded up the conversation with some “guarded optimism” as to the future of reversing trends for the world’s most vulnerable citizens:

“I’m seeing movement in that direction, but we’re far from declaring victory. Corporate America does not provide the sole solution, but it has a big role to play in leading the diversity movement.”

This assertion was reinforced by findings from Porter Novelli — which did a rapid succession of studies in 2020 to keep its finger on the pulse, as the pandemic and social justice issues continued to dominate the public consciousness. Whitney Dailey, SVP of Marketing/Research & Insights, summed up findings from throughout the year — as well as from the agency’s just-released 2021 Business & Social Justice Study — and outlined several key insights for companies as they continue along their social justice journey:

  1. Companies can no longer sit on the sidelines when the world is reeling. 67 percent think companies wait until headline news before they’re willing to talk about sensitive issues; and 69 percent say it shouldn’t take a tragedy for companies to care and speak out about social issues.

  2. Silence is no longer an option — 49 percent assume that companies that remain quiet on social justice issues just don’t care; 62 percent say it can help normalize the issue when they do, and 60 percent feel it can help prevent further violence and prejudices; 66 percent appreciate when companies they haven’t heard before join the dialogue — but humility, authenticity and transparency are paramount

  3. Actions speak louder — 63 percent of individuals now say companies can no longer make a statement of support without following it up with definitive actions to address social justice issues.

  4. 64 percent say companies must first make progress on JEDI internally before speaking out on issues externally, and that companies with JEDI policies are more credible than those without. 63 percent say these strategies need to be less reactive and more proactive.

  5. 58 percent of employees say they hold their employer to a higher standard than other companies when it comes to addressing social justice issues. 43 percent of employees are reconsidering their current job because their company isn’t doing enough on social justice issues

Companies considering following in the footsteps of Basecamp and Coinbase might want to tune into this research. “I’d be curious to see what their talent base is like in a year or two,” Dailey said.

Dwayna Haley, Porter Novelli’s SVP of Practice Director of Brand Innovation & Impact, pointed to authentic storytelling as a key differentiator for companies engaging in the DEIJ conversation. She stressed that companies need to do their homework — and to not appropriate a topic without internal desire to stay the course and follow through on their substantive commitments.

Sandy Skees, Global Lead of PN’s Purpose + Impact Practice and JEDI Advisory Services, noted that she has been gratified to see entire C suites devoted to this work — not just HR and Diversity officers; but that companies shouldn’t expect a pat on the back for standing up for issues such as these, which should be table stakes.

Soon Mee Kim, Global DEI Officer at Omnicom Public Relations Group, closed the discussion by reminding brands that their engagement can’t just be a fad — it must come from a place of moral conviction and reflect the values of their organization.

How companies can authentically address DEIJ issues within their organizations

So, what does authentic corporate engagement actually look like — internally and externally?

A diverse array of experts dug into just a few of the critical considerations for businesses when working to create truly inclusive company cultures …

Navigating the new world of gender

While most of the conversation around gender equity involves viewing gender as a binary, the world is embracing the realization that it is anything but. Truly inclusive workplaces — which will understand and address gender as a spectrum — will be even more sought-after in the coming years, with Gen Z poised to become the most gender-diverse generation to ever enter the workforce. While increasing expectations for gender-inclusive corporate practices may sit uncomfortably for some, they should be seen as an empowering opportunity for everyone, according to Lisa Kenney, CEO of Reimagine Gender

“Gender is the water we swim in,” she explained. “The fact is, we’re affected in our lifetime by these ideas we get about gender from the very beginning — it starts with things like gender-reveal parties. This early gendering is really important, because it begins this process of taking us from who we are to who we are expected to be.”

With a global reimaging of gender underway, how can brands best navigate this new world? Kenney pointed to two key stumbling blocks: the creation of well-meaning corporate programs for, and measuring, gender when it’s not properly understood; and a lack of inclusivity.

“We are all affected by gender constructs and conversations. Typically, organizations see gender as either a woman or trans issue. Men need to be more included in conversations around gender and seen as allies. We will make greater progress when we include everybody, as everybody is affected.” 

Maintaining that the trend to neutralize gender is the wrong approach as it only seeks to minimize it, Kenney said there was a need to embrace the entire gender spectrum and lend it some vibrancy. She pointed to Tiffany & Co — which just launched diamond engagement rings for men — as an example of how companies can do the right thing.

“There are three things you can do right now,” she told delegates. “Establish gender literacy in your organization, understand your own gender story, and put on a gender lens for a month. What do you see? How does your organization view gender? How does it show up in the organization?”

Employee Resource Groups as a key pillar of DEIJ work

Speaking of gender inclusivity, recent McKinsey research shows that companies with gender-diverse executive teams are 25 percent more likely to have above-average profitability than their less-inclusive peers.

So, it’s no wonder business is putting more emphasis — and resources — on establishing and sustaining Employee Resource Groups (ERGs). In fact, 90 percent of Fortune 500 firms have at least one ERG.

ERGs are voluntary, employee-led groups that foster a diverse, inclusive workplace aligned with the mission and values of an organization and its practices.

Manoj RaghunandananJohnson & Johnson Consumer Health’s Global President for Self-Care and the Consumer Experience Organisation — led a discussion with a range of companies with mixed experiences of establishing and maintaining their ERGs.

At the start of its journey, DoorDash’s ERG strategy aligned with its mission to connect people — not just employees, but the cities in which the company operates.

“We use our ERG to better serve the city and create opportunities for people to get exposure,” said Sales Manager Mo Fall. “This is where people can share experiences and concerns. We use that talent to participate and get ideas for DoorDash to create a more inclusive and equitable company.”

At Salesforce, ERGs — referred to internally as Equality Groups — are a core part of the company. In fact, half of its 50,000 staff participate, either actively or passively. All 12 ERGs globally are focused on four things: creating a community that is inclusive, empowering allies, giving back through volunteering, and professional development needs for career growth.

“Our ERGs have been great, especially during COVID-19,” said Gino Ramos, Senior Manager of Equality Programs at Salesforce. “Through our ERGs we encourage people to ask, listen, show up and speak up. It’s important to create an environment where people feel they can speak and be part of a community.”

ERGs have been in place for more than 30 years at Ford Motor Company. For Amal Berry, the firm’s Senior Manager of Global DEI, ERGs are about giving people a safe place to talk about their experiences at work, including any mental health issues. But maintaining momentum is not easy because of the “ebbs and flows of society.”

“What made sense 20 years ago or even three years ago, doesn’t necessarily make sense now,” Berry said, adding that Ford continues to evolve the purpose and practices of its ERG.

She concluded by reinforcing the value of ERGs — not only for Ford employees, but the business as a whole. “We make great cars. But if we’re not listening to our own people — who reflect our customers — how can we make those cars better?”

Authentic corporate engagement on DEIJ issues externally must involve a thoughtful approach on a number of fronts …

Partnering with indigenous communities: A case study

For the latter, an afternoon panel shared insights gained from an ongoing partnership with an indigenous community — specifically, in the case of Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Hotel and Casino, which is owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and managed by Caesars Entertainment.

Leann Bridges, Regional VP of Marketing at Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River, explained the primary reason for going into gaming was to create jobs for tribal members — and stressed the value of a partner with the willingness to listen and support.

“Caesars took the time to understand what the objective was,” she recalled. “The partnership achieved creation of jobs; and now, people have careers. In the early years of the partnership with Caesars, they guaranteed our loans; and now, the tribe can secure their own financing.”

How can interested brands engage with indigenous communities?

“Many tribes have an economic development office, which can be a good starting point,” recommends sustainability and hospitality consultant Anna Barrera. “There are organizations like the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED), which has an intermediary role between native and non-native businesses. These organizations can help non-native businesses understand the protocols and tribal leaderships.”

Chris James, CEO and President of the NCAIED, strongly advises against making assumptions of what a community needs:

Make sure you find out about the community — for example, its poverty rates and unemployment rates. We have had hundreds of years of trauma in our communities from government and external sources, so a lot of trust needs to be built. Think about having good partnerships and who you need to build trust with in the community — e.g. tribal government or consultants — to help build the relationship.”

Ethical storytelling: Deconstructing how we communicate impact

When brands talk to customers about the social impact they have created, the stories they tell are often a manifestation of deep-rooted power structures. That is the view of Manpreet Kalra, Social Impact and Brand Advisor at Art of Citizenry. Her 45-minute workshop is designed to encourage brands to really think about the power of storytelling — and how to communicate impact through an anti-racist lens.

“When it comes to global development, our approaches to impact are often band-aid approaches, rather than taking the time to understand the systems in which we operate,” Kalra said. Her central argument is that brands too often tell impact stories that resort to oversimplification. “This is feeding stereotypes and power structures that are routed in a variety of systems that have created exploitative narratives.”

In the race to meet consumer demand for more transparency of products, brands tell plenty of stories about trauma, mostly common about people and communities in the Global South: “But there is often so much joy in their experience; and we need to start telling stories but people of color as humans, giving them humanity.”

Kalra reinforced the need for impact measurement and communication to be sustainable, something that requires collaboration and the nurturing of connections and the building of alliances. “We often approach impact through a cookie-cutter lens; brands think they can solve issues alone and alleviate poverty. But that’s not how this works. It must be collaborative.” She added that for impact to be powerful, it must translate into “lasting systemic change that goes beyond any business or individual.”

To achieve the change Kalra advocates, brands must ask themselves four questions, she says:

  • Does my company sound like a savior?

  • Am I making blanket statements about a community or culture?

  • Do I have informed consent to share the information or image I am sharing?

  • Am I promoting cultural dominance?

As Kalra concluded:

“Ultimately, brands must ask themselves whether they are the right person to tell that story. What I’m saying is incredibly uncomfortable. But discomfort is important if we want to come together as advocates for more inclusive storytelling. We all have biases; it’s just important to acknowledge them.”

DEIJ issues in supply chains: Human trafficking, modern slavery and more

As people begin to realize that DEIJ issues are just as pertinent in supply chains, most notably in the form of human trafficking and modern slavery, brands could soon find themselves under a whole new level of scrutiny. Sounding a warning bell on this issue was Bonnie Nixon — who teaches about sustainable supply chains at both Harvard and UCLA.

With value and supply chains effectively broken for more than 27 million humans around the world, there’s an urgent need to address the root causes of such exploitation. Nixon was quick to address an element of irony here. 

“The term ‘supply chain’ has chains in it. We really need to rename supply chains and value chains, and take the ‘chains’ out of them,” she said.

Giving a comprehensive account of the different forms modern slavery can take and where it is most prominent in the world, Nixon highlighted some sobering statistics: For every 1,000 people, there are 5.4 victims of modern slavery — 71 percent of whom are women and girls. 

The nature of forced labor makes it hard to detect. Victims are often transported to unfamiliar places where they become culturally, linguistically or physically isolated and denied legal identity or freedom to leave. 

Nixon recounted cases of female factory workers in some areas only being let outside for 15 minutes a day, to prevent them from socializing; and pregnant women being put into holding cells for punishment or facing deportation, as they are deemed to be a healthcare burden.  

Addressing such toxic practices can seem overwhelming for organizations, but Nixon advised starting with a set of basic principles — including supply chain mapping to identify high-risk suppliers and regions, introducing dynamic codes and contracts, third-party auditing, and establishing a plan for remedial and corrective action.

“Businesses are connected to a world wide web of global supply chains, so what does responsible company behavior look like? Make sure we pay these workers, look at the challenges they are facing … ensuring that we are paying the right purchase prices is important.”

Nixon also pointed to the growing amount of legislation designed to help tackle such issues — such as the UK Modern Slavery Act, which she said had “some of the best teeth” in it. 

“I think we are going to get our stick,” she added. “We need to change the word ‘supply chain’ to ‘supply change’. Are we ready for it?”

Tracking corporate progress

So, how can stakeholders assess whether companies’ walk really matches their talk?

JUST Capital’s new Corporate Racial Equity Tracker

“This work is a hell of a lot harder than sustainability; it takes dog years to change.”

A powerful statement, and a sobering one, too. In her opening remarks on Day 2, Gwen Migita — VP for social impact, sustainability, diversity, equity & inclusion at Caesars Entertainment — spoke from personal experience when recounting the challenges brands face in advancing DEIJ issues.

In particular, Migita highlighted the frustrations of chief diversity officers and the gaps preventing them from meeting their goals, some of which can simply be down to interdepartmental inefficiencies and teams working in silos. With DEIJ still often viewed as an HR function, she called for brands to take a greater intersectional approach in order to replicate some of the systemic change now being progressed in other areas — such as ESG.

With corporate DEIJ performance lagging, JUST Capital’s Corporate Racial Equity Tracker is looking to unpack some of the reasons behind this and scrutinize just how far companies are walking the talk when it comes to taking action in this space. The tracker collates data on corporate DEIJ public disclosures from the US’s 100 largest employers — typically found in websites, CSR reports, press releases and other company sources.

It measures six dimensions critical to advancing racial equity: anti-discrimination polices; pay equity; racial/ethnic diversity data; education and training programs; response to mass incarceration; and community investment. Across the six dimensions, the tracker captures 22 data points reflective of various corporate commitments and actions.

Launched just last month, the tracker is already yielding interesting insights.

“At the highest level, the tracker is highlighting four key trends,” Kavya Vaghul, JUST’s senior director of research, told attendees. She said while large companies were quite hot on disclosing general commitments around DEIJ, particularly to mitigate risk or support racial equity issues, they were less likely to report on actions that expose how well they are performing on such pledges (which, as learned from Porter Novelli’s latest research [above], has become a red flag for both internal and external stakeholders).

Overall, there’s a pressing need to cover more ground. “Just 18 companies out of the 100 largest have at least one commitment or action within each of the six dimensions,” Vaghul said, adding that “no single company has implemented all 22 commitments or actions.”

Shining a spotlight on racial pay inequity, the tracker also revealed that less than one-third of these companies are disclosing that they conduct such analysis with even fewer reporting the results. There are a few stand out brands however. Vaghul highlighted the work of Microsoft, Starbucks and Intel — all of which have strong pay equity reporting practices.

Concluding that DEIJ issues are cross-cutting because of how entrenched systematic racism and oppression is, Vaghul asserted that addressing such agendas requires a multi-stakeholder approach:

“The commitments and actions highlighted in our tracker are just a starting point … alone [they] are not a substitute for the interpersonal work that goes into creating inclusive environments.”

Tools and tech for more efficient, accurate DEI disclosures

DEI issues have come into greater focus for many organizations as they take a closer look at their practices, set quantitative targets, and make new commitments. But when it comes to DEI disclosures, many companies still manually collect data each year for their CSR and environmental, social and governance (ESG) reports. Phil Redman, Offering Lead at data-management platform OneTrust, gave an overview of and insights into best practices, tools and technologies to drive change; and help increase the efficiency and accuracy of collecting, assessing and disclosing DEI data.

Redman pointed out the importance of social data — not only to communicate to a variety of stakeholders, but also to measure and drive change: “[Change] won’t happen unless there is an understanding of the metrics, the data, and the programs that can be put into place to quantitatively measure that change.”    

He emphasized the importance of choosing what metrics and issues you want to focus on — not only to communicate relevant information to your stakeholders, but also to focus on issues that are material to your business, and can help track and measure progress towards quantifiable goals.

When developing DEI programs and workflow processes, Redman suggested to first focus on the data gathering. For example, for a metric such as equal pay, relevant data can be gathered from the companies’ ERP systems and pay can be compared against various roles and demographics. This data can then be evaluated and benchmarked against competitors, standards, regulations, internal goals, etc.

Tools such as ESG-management platforms can come with built-in metrics and standards (e.g., GRI, SASB, etc), or be customized. They can also help automate data collection and can include progress tracking, task management, workflow management, assignments, and permissions functions to streamline data collection and assessment. ESG platforms can also be integrated with APIs to automate data collection and management, and/or third-party data sources, such as additional analytics and benchmarking data.

Other tools that can help automate the collection, assessment, and management of DEI data include digital survey tools, ERP systems, tools with API capabilities, and new AI tools that pull and digitize relevant data. OneTrust’s unified platform helps simplify complex ESG projects by allowing users to connect across different modules, pull information, automate information management and assessment.

Once material data is collected, it can be used not only to generate reports, but to identify risks and opportunities, benchmark performance, develop strategies, track progress towards goals, and measure success of internal DEI programs.

Progress on corporate DEIJ commitments and targets

A panel of diversity and social justice leaders from 3M, Ben & Jerry's, and PepsiCo discussed their own recent progress, challenges and lessons learned since developing progressive commitments and programs in 2020 that address DEIJ.

As 3M’s Garfield Bowen explained, diversity has been a pillar of the company’s corporate culture since Mike Roman became CEO in 2018; “but the [George Floyd] tragedy accelerated the movement” — which led to Garfield’s appointment as the company’s first VP of Social Justice Strategy, as well as over 100 individuals assigned laterally to drive this ambitious agenda. Garfield highlighted that a major challenge is that these employees already have full-time responsibilities, but that “when passion meets purpose, the sky is the limit” — which is what he has seen at 3M over the last year.

Tina Bigalke, Chief Diversity Officer at PepsiCo, mentioned that while the company has a long legacy of diversity and inclusion, 2020 was a major year of reflection for the company, and its role in addressing systemic racism. PepsiCo recently committed over $400 million over five years to address inequality issues, while also increasing focus on engaging both management and disadvantaged groups in executive advancement programs. Bigalke also discussed “Pepsi Dig In” — a program aimed at driving at least $100 million in sales for Black-owned restaurants in the next five years.

Chris Miller, Social Mission Activism Manager at Ben & Jerry's, described how for the past five years, the activist ice cream brand has focused on equity internally and racial justice externally, and then gradually and methodically engaged its employees in broader issues of structural and systemic racism. For the past few years, the company has focused on “results-based accountability” for equity work — establishing a set of employee committees to define outputs, outcomes, and goals related to DEIJ both internally and externally. These goals revolve around three main areas of focus; 1) having employees reflect the country’s diversity, 2) leveraging its procurement spend to support Black-owned businesses and suppliers, and 3) increasing the portion of scoop shop franchises owned by people of color.