A political development from a major institution shakes society. A social controversy takes over the news cycle. A major tragedy, violence, or disaster puts a spotlight on social inequity. After these events occur, your workforce is anxious and distracted. Your customers are no different. These stakeholders direct the same question to your organization’s leadership:
If you’ve felt like the pressure on organizations, especially corporations, to take action on social issues has increased in the last few years, you’d be well-justified in thinking so. The latest data from the Edelman Trust Barometer, an NGO researching trust in societal institutions, shows Business as the sole remaining “trustworthy” institution amid plummeting trust in Government and Media since 2020, worldwide. And while survey respondents indicated low trust in “CEOs,” they paradoxically indicated high and growing trust in “my CEO” — highlighting the increasing expectations among employees around the world that their employer take action.
I’ve seen the same in my work with U.S.- and Europe-based corporations in the last several years as I advised dozens of leaders through crises ranging from reckonings against anti-Blackness to reproductive rights post-Roe. What’s become clear to me is that, despite the increasing urgency from stakeholders of all kinds for corporations to take on a greater role in social change, a large proportion of leaders are vastly unprepared or even unaware of these expectations. If they choose to take action at all, they more often than not follow a long-outdated playbook of one-time corporate donations, hastily delivered unconscious bias trainings, and social media posts that come across as the corporate equivalent of “thoughts and prayers.” These efforts may be seen by stakeholders as not only inadequate, but also as potential indicators that corporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives are “performative,” or similarly done for show but not effectiveness.
What stakeholders want, and that many leaders are yet unprepared to deliver on, is a proactive rather than reactive approach to taking action on social issues, in which corporations take on greater responsibility for not only their impact on society, but society’s impact on corporate stakeholders like employees, customers, and communities.
The paradox many leaders face is the relative difficulty of taking on such a substantial reimagining of 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 out — a reasonable decision in isolation, but a compounding 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 trust they generate to take on longer-term proactive work in parallel. I typically advise my clients to take the following steps if they’re looking to turn their reactive social issue response into a proactive and sustainable strategy.
1. Invest in a “safety net.”
“Safety net” resources and protections support members of the organization from the worst ramifications of social inequity, without requiring the organization to take a public political stance to execute and are often framed as neutral resources available to all rather than only accessible by a specific group. Examples of safety net resources to consider offering and investing in include:
- Funding travel for necessary healthcare procedures not offered locally
- Ensuring consistent levels of accessibility, inclusion, and fair treatment in all physical offices around the world, even where local regulations do not mandate it
- Creating well-resourced and regular community-building efforts with your workforce
- Offering expansive employee benefits like remote work, flex time, parental leave, and Employee Assistance Programs, and designing an inclusive, culturally competent, and trauma-informed healthcare plan that supports a wide range of communities and identities
In the absence of these resources, social inequities inside and outside the company may disproportionately harm members of marginalized communities. However, the presence of these resources provides tangible benefits to all your employees, regardless of identity. Importantly, the rollout of these resources can increase employee engagement and trust in leadership, both important prerequisites to more substantial initiatives.
2. Codify and operationalize your organization’s mission and values into a DEI strategy.
The output and outcome of this process, beyond a feel-good statement that will live on a wall or a website, is a shared understanding of internal and external outcomes the organization is invested in achieving and how it plans to achieve them. When a mission and values are effectively operationalized into a compelling DEI strategy, they serve as a set of “moral guidelines” that enable internal- and external-facing actions taken in their name to be consistent and congruous and to appear so to stakeholders.
The process of creating a DEI strategy should involve a wide range of stakeholder groups, including employees, customers, business partners, vendors, and local communities. These groups should be surveyed to understand their perception of the organization’s identity, what issues they want the organization to weigh in on, and what outcomes they want the organization to achieve. Leaders can then refine these insights into a concise set of organizational priorities and guidelines for their actualization.
Many organizations prematurely celebrate after creating these guiding documents, but their usefulness comes primarily in how they impact decision-making processes and organizational culture for all leaders and employees. To ensure that the effort put into their creation pays off, leaders should follow through by training 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. Pursue internal and external initiatives that align with your mission and values.
The most critical test of a DEI strategy is in its ability to turn what would in isolation be a nebulous or abstract value into effective decision-making at scale.
A value of “empowerment” might be operationalized into a strategy of “supporting stakeholder autonomy.” Internally, this might look like supporting employee agency over their own work and workflow with a generous remote and flexible work policy, training all managers to evaluate results rather than hours worked, and equipping all leaders with inclusive leadership practices to create psychologically safe working environments. Externally, this might look like supporting constituents’ ability to make decisions for themselves and investing in community resources, information literacy, K-12 education, and access to healthcare, especially for underserved populations.
A value of “connection” might be operationalized into a strategy of “cross-group learning and collaboration.” Internally, this might look like normalizing regular cross-department contact and co-working, ensuring that leaders of all Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) regularly meet to discuss their communities’ needs, updates, and initiatives, and creating a rotating mentorship program where junior employees can build relationships with senior leadership. Externally, this might look like connecting customers to local advocacy and community organizations, lobbying against legislation that drives wedges between communities, and divesting from partners and vendors that support hate groups.
4. Act consistently.
Understand that no organization can or should weigh in on every issue. So long as your organization is consistent in the types of issues it gets involved with, consistently sets and meets expectations with stakeholders on how it gets involved when it does, and builds mechanisms to periodically course-correct, it has a greater chance of creating social impact without incurring social controversy or perpetuating harm.
Stakeholder groups play a large role in ensuring accountability. Consider creating compensated advisory boards and cross-functional groups that convene HR, Communications, ERG, DEI, and legal professionals, as well as executives, whose role it is to weigh in on breaking news and social developments as they happen. Create a decision-making process to ensure that your organization is able to respond in a timely and disciplined manner, rather than needing to scramble reactively every time an emergency occurs.
Every six months to a year, consider at least a cursory engagement with customer focus groups and employees to stay on top of stakeholder needs and sentiment. Keep track of responses to internal and external advocacy efforts, especially when your actions miss the mark, and use that information to continually refine your social impact strategy.
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Many of the leaders I talk to are nervous about taking action on social issues. They see the consequences for failure — being excoriated on social media; pundits calling their actions “performative”; being criticized for their workforce for initiatives that weren’t cheap or easy to undertake to begin with — and may wonder if doing nothing is “safer” than trying and failing. But while the old playbook is now outdated, stakeholders now are clear about what they want: consistency, bravery, and a willingness to take a stance on social issues even at the expense of short-term profit. Effective leaders who embrace these new expectations and act effectively will see their efforts pay off.
Lily Zheng is a diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist and executive coach who works with organizations to create high-impact and sustainable change. They are the co-author of Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination and The Ethical Sellout: Maintaining Your Integrity in the Age of Compromise.