How can businesses prepare for the next social movement?
Author: Gareth Buchanan
Were the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and #MeToo movements predictable? If so, what's next and how should organisations prepare? Gareth Buchanan explores these issues and sets out some practical steps that organisations can take to be more inclusive.
In 2020, employees no longer apply for jobs based solely on salary and location. Customers no longer make buying decisions based only on the quality of a product or its price. Reputation, and more specifically how the values of a business align to a person's beliefs, is increasingly a deciding factor in where they choose to work and spend their money.
As businesses come to terms with this new reality, social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter highlight the crucial importance of a business's brand and create opportunities for some to demonstrate their brand values in practice, enabling them to attract and retain the most diverse talent and customer base.
Digital media and an increasingly empathetic population
Since the birth of the internet, social media in particular, the ability of an individual or community to influence the success of a brand has increased exponentially. A single social media post, given the right backing by enough like-minded online sympathisers, can now influence the share price of a global business in a matter of hours. There are countless examples of how one good or bad customer interaction has gone viral, usually close to the time of the event, but sometimes weeks or months later. These examples often relate to diversity, equality and inclusion failures. Driving this is a major shift in how individuals perceive the businesses that employ and serve them, made possible by technology - social media in particular - but driven by a motivated and connected population that has more insight into the lived experience of others.
The importance of leaders adopting a people proposition that promotes inclusion and wellbeing for everyone as a fundamental part of their organisation's culture has never been more important than it is today. In a vastly crowded and global marketplace, doing the right thing, for the right reasons, is the most sustainable way of attracting the most talented employees, meeting their needs, and building brand advocacy.
The BLM and #MeToo movements have catalysed difficult conversations across the world and helped to create a new level of awareness around the issues faced by women and people of colour, black people in particular. The next step in the workplace is to harness this increased awareness and connection between different groups and take action to create a more inclusive workplace.
No business is exempt from public opinion. "Cancel culture", the practice of withdrawing support for public figures and/or businesses in response to their doing something considered objectionable or offensive, is another risk factor to contemplate in the 2020 inclusion business case. The existence of this risk reinforces the importance of everyone in the business living by its diversity and inclusion values.
Disability equality and access in employment and consumerism is often overlooked. With over 14 million disabled people in the UK alone, theirs is an equally talented and ever more connected and influential group that has not yet had its own major social movement.
According to UK disability employment statistics, the disability employment gap pre-COVID-19 sat at around 30%, but even when a disabled person finds work they face additional challenges. They can expect to earn substantially less than their non-disabled peers, despite, according to disability charity Scope, having on average £583 higher living costs each month.
Purple, the organisation behind Purple Tuesday, which is about "creating a step change improvement in the awareness of the value and needs of disabled customers", found that four out of five disabled people feel that businesses could do more to be accessible, an issue that impacts both employees and customers. More than half (56%) of disabled people surveyed agreed that businesses improving employee understanding about disability would encourage them to spend more of their disposable income in those businesses.
Many disabled people experience unique barriers when participating in every aspect of life when compared with other protected groups. Physical and logistical barriers are almost expected across most aspects of personal and working life, but the psychological barriers can be equally harmful.
When employees have the skills, knowledge and confidence to meet disabled customers on their terms, these barriers often fall away. Simple things, like not assuming someone has or does not have a disability, can make all the difference in building a respectful relationship. The act of employees asking simple questions (for example, is there anything I can do to make your visit more enjoyable?) enables interactions on disability and additional needs to be more customer-led. Training employees so that they are aware of the equipment available to support disabled customers, as well as how to use that equipment, is another simple example that can help to promote inclusion.
Showcase inclusion efforts
Efforts to evidence inclusion have to be more than just increasing representation in marketing and out-reach materials, or making reactive statements on social media. Brand activism, where brands attach themselves to social issues to market themselves regardless of their affiliation or commitment to that issue, is more common, and increasingly seen and called out by employees and consumers. People want organisations to lead by example, and they now have the means to investigate their credentials and past performance. People can also easily share their experiences when an organisation's actions do not echo what it says publicly.
Comparison websites and social media are all rich sources of information that can show how closely an organisation's actions and practices align to its stated values and commitments. Individuals can easily make judgments about how seriously an organisation takes the issues that affect them by, for example, speaking to existing or former employees, looking at publicly available information such as the organisation's gender pay gap, or the gender or ethnic make-up of the organisation's executive team.
Organisations have an opportunity to influence how their employees perceive difference, and when they can show their efforts lead to conversations that effect real change, both inside and outside their organisation, they tend to see reputational benefits.
Organisations that have managed this well tend to do similar things.
How to improve diversity and inclusion
Consider diversity and inclusion in everything you do. An organisation's purpose outlines what it is striving to be, or what it wants to achieve. If meeting all employee and customer needs is not articulated in your organisation's stated purpose, vision or values, the chances are your employees will not see prioritising each other as a core part of that.
Thread inclusion into all your HR, IT and communication processes by doing the following:
- Measure and reward employee performance against inclusive objectives and behaviours. For example, by identifying innovative ways to meet diverse employee and customer needs and recommending changes that improve accessibility.
- User experience test your people policies and processes, systems, and marketing and online content, from the perspective of users with different needs, consulting those with relevant lived experience to provide unique insights and ideas that enable your organisation to provide better experiences.
- Ensure diverse employee and customer needs are considered from the outset by making inclusion a fundamental design principle in all your systems, processes, ways of working and services. As a minimum, the needs of each protected characteristic should be considered at each stage, breaking this down further in relation to characteristics such as disability, race and religion.
- De-bias your processes, systems, services and communications, and look for new ways to do things that limit subjective judgment. Ensure that you use inclusive language in job adverts and recruitment packs, and that your recruitment panels are diverse.
Define what "good" looks like. Inclusion standards help establish criteria by which to measure and monitor equality progress and performance. But what "good" looks like in one industry may look quite different in another. Seek diverse perspectives to inform inclusion priorities that go beyond legal minimums.
- Seek advice from experts to help understand how inclusive your organisation is now, and what it needs to do to improve. Equality charities, social enterprises, membership and employment organisations are good sources of information on meeting the needs of diverse populations.
- Work with benchmarking and award bodies to help inform your organisation's strategy. Research the most respected benchmark, award and accreditation bodies in your industry, and in relation to inclusion more generally, eg protected characteristic employment benchmarks such as the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, Business Disability Benchmark, Race at Work, and Working Families Index.
- Develop your knowledge of the local population where your organisation operates geographically. Compare it against the composition of your workforce to help inform recruitment aims.
Communicate with transparency. Consumers and employees appreciate honesty and clarity now more than ever. They are also often more educated and understanding than many leaders give them credit for. Having a pay gap is not unexpected, but not talking about it, or not explaining what you are doing to close it, is. Sharing diversity information and data is a delicate process. Doing so is positive, but by addressing topics that can be emotive, political and divisive, you invite debate and criticism. Being open to feedback is vital. People are demanding change at a faster rate than political and legislative processes can deliver. Rather than waiting to be told, some businesses are truly leading the way. The few that voluntarily report their ethnicity or disability pay gaps stand out from the crowd because there is no current legal requirement to do so.
- Proactively share diversity data, plans and testimonials. Show your potential employees and customers that you take inclusion and equality seriously by giving them an insight into the make-up of your workforce, and the initiatives you are putting in place to tackle inequality.
- Consider your audience and use your communication channels appropriately. Think about sharing information with affected populations first. Remember that social media channels are not always appropriate, utilise internal channels and your website instead.
- Keep an updated inclusion key message register, highlighting your priorities and progress, for example, your gender pay gap or boardroom gender targets. Share this information with sponsors, networks, leaders and employees and publish it on your website.
- Give diverse employees, role models, sponsors, mentors and allies a voice. Encourage them to share honest insights into working with and for you. Invite customers into the conversation. Explore new ways of improving your business, and how you serve and employ people.
Respond, don't react. Outside events can put a spotlight on any aspect of your business, or industry. Good leaders recognise that when they do not possess a particular perspective, they sometimes need to listen rather than act, even in the face of scrutiny - whether that is perceived or real. Some businesses reacted rashly to BLM and harmed the efforts of protest organisers, and as a result, their own reputations.
- If you are not sure what to do in relation to a diversity or inclusion issue, seek expert advice from your diversity or HR team.
- Work in partnership with your communications, press and executive teams to ensure that the right people have access to the latest diversity information whenever they need it. Ensure that your diversity data reports are easily accessed and regularly updated.
Listen to employees and customers. Your employees and customers will always be best placed to tell you how it feels to work for you or do business with you. Talk to them and listen to what they have to say before making changes.
- Support the creation of employee networks. Work with them to educate leadership and identify and understand different perspectives and lived experiences in order to influence and inform strategic change. Support for networks could include access to budget, expertise and leadership, as well as time off for duties.
- Where possible analyse employee and customer survey responses based on protected characteristics to identify themes, and areas of commonality from under-represented and minority groups.
- If you make a reasonable adjustment for an employee or customer, remembering that adjustment the next time they visit, or when they visit another location, is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate real inclusion.
Hold suppliers and partners to the same high standards. There is little point in building a culture where all your employees and customers feel safe if all your efforts can be undermined by an individual with whom you work who does not demonstrate your values when representing your organisation.
- Build ethics and inclusion clauses into all of your supplier management agreements and tendering processes, informing potential suppliers who want to work with you that they have to meet specific demonstrable standards such as having a published diversity and inclusion statement on their website, or publishing certain diversity data.