Do corporations really care about racism? Should they, even?

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This is a variable, somewhat-nuanced question, and it varies from company-to-company.

Let’s start with a couple of “fun” resources. We’ve got this meme:

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A couple of weeks ago, Joe Rogan had some woke political hustlers on his podcast, and they had this exchange about whether corporations care, and/or if Jeff Bezos is driving 15–20% unemployment:

So again, I don’t know the actual answer. Some companies do care. Some companies do not. If I had to guess or pick “buckets” that most companies fall into, I’d say the primary bucket is “Wait it out and hope normalcy comes back at some point.” This is a chaotic time for individuals and businesses, since racial discord immediately followed (or happened at the same time as, really) COVID-19. Speaking of Bezos, if you look at his announcement that Amazon will stop selling facial recognition to cops for a year, the important thing is for a year. It’s a wait and see play. I think a lot of us realize that in six months to 12 months, we might not be talking as much about “BLM” as we do now.

Should we be? Absolutely. Will we be? Unclear. This whole thing right now is about momentum, and I don’t know if we totally have that.

Should corporations care?

Yes, in that they are a big component of society and often provide political direction (or pay for it) and provide income for others to live their lives. We think it’s this innovative, entrepreneurial time — and in some ways it is — but the reality is that more people are employed by the Fortune 500 than basically in forever. So, because companies play these roles in our lives and societies and now we kind of elevate their founders and leaders to a God-like status (MUSK!), they should weigh in on these issues.

No, because their goal is to scale a product or service and make money.

Those are your essential arguments.

Most biz guys probably lean “no”

Why? Brand protection, compliance, fear of lost customers.

If a CEO goes all Woke Willie on us and starts posting like crazy about black rights, that’s friggin’ awesome. But what happens if he alienates customers and prospects who don’t believe in that, or who don’t believe that businesses should get involved in social issues?

Now he loses money, and he gets replaced.

Woke Willie becomes Semi-Racist Sammy.

No one wins in that context.

So you almost need to avoid being “woke” or “socially conscious,” because if it costs you revenue, you’re going to get #piped, and you can bet your bottom dollar the Board will find someone who is going to toe (tow?) the line properly.

That’s the circular nature of the issue.

“But millennials want to buy from socially-conscious brands!”

We have not really proven this. We’ve claimed it for years, but have not proven it besides a couple of small-sample-size studies.

Here’s the other thing: millennials are into their late 30s now. They often have 1–3 kids. We just hit a pandemic that destroyed the economy writ large, unless you were already rich. A lot of millennials are buying from cheap brands, not socially-conscious brands. There’s a difference.

Not everyone can afford Jessica Alba diapers when Hubby Hank just got the pink slip, you know?

Action vs. thought

Back in 2015, which was a broadly shitty year for me, I used to go for walks on the Trinity Trails (Fort Worth) and think about management and leadership stuff. I was starting to blog more. I thought a lot about this term “thought leadership.” It was getting hot at the time.

Then I thought about what bosses I had experienced wanted. It was usually tasks. Actions. Deliverables. KPIs. Targets. If you went to them and said “I have some thoughts on this…” it would be acceptable the first time. Maybe the second, possibly the third. On the fourth time, you are viewed as a “no-action” guy. Maybe a “snowflake,” even.

Businesses are about action and tasks and things that can be checked off, and pages of revenue growth figures. Actions.

But on this topic we mostly get thoughts, i.e. “We will amplify…” or “We will listen…” or “We stand with…” There are no action items. Maybe here and there you see some donations to a cause. Cool. There’s no real action.

When businesses aren’t committing to action and the whole point of a business is to commit to action, that should make us weary of what’s happening.

Why are these topics avoided?

Brand, compliance, fear of lost customers, as noted above.

Another thing: Managers do not like awkward discussions. Discussions on race are political and awkward and can get very emotional. What manager would want to embrace that, as opposed to moving through his task list?

In fact, here’s a good article from Wharton on having those types of awkward conversations. Look at this pull quote:

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So now we’ve got two problems:

Add those two to these problems:

That’s five — 5 — reasons a manager or a big boss would fear doing anything aside from posting one thing on Instagram about “solidarity.”

Usually in a company, when there are five reasons against a thing, that thing doesn’t happen. Limited liability. Compliance.

If you hate black people and still make money, how do we evaluate that?

Well, we can still think you are a shitty person. That works.

But if you make money, honestly a lot of times that’s all a company really cares about — and ideally the money you make can bring in new opportunities and roles in other departments, and some of those opportunities can go to POC.

I don’t condone racism or hating on anyone, even though I hate on myself daily.

But I had corporate jobs for years, decades even, and oftentimes there are 2–3 sales guys who make the entire place run. Every child of a HR manager going to private school owes a debt of gratitude to those 2–3 sales guys. That’s just how companies work and are structured, and they’ve never thought about different ways to do that — or when they have, like with holacracy, it’s been too confusing to implement at scale.

So if Racist Ronnie is printing you money, do you think CEO Charlie will remove him? In all likelihood, he will not. And you can argue he doesn’t have to. He should, and that would be the “good person” thing to do or the “moral” thing to do, but since when do companies operate according to moral norms? Their responsibility is to make money.

So, do they care about racial issues?

Personally I vote “no,” although I realize individuals within these bigger companies do care and realize it’s important to have these discussions and change things — but they lack the power within the company to do anything on behalf of the company.

I look at it as companies biding their time and trying to move product amid chaos. What say you?

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