The third Monday in January is designated as Martin Luther King Day, a Federal holiday honoring the civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1968. Dr. King fought for racial equality, and also economic equality. This year marks the 40th anniversary of when the bill to create a holiday in Martin Luther King Jr.’s honor was finally signed into law in 1983.
Forty years later, it’s clear much progress remains to be made. Inequities persist, such as the racial wealth gap and the lack of representation in top leadership positions (there are now six Black CEOs at the helm of the Fortune 500). Businesses can play a vital role, because business not only has a big impact on our economy, but can also impact society and social justice issues. Moreover, movements sparked during the pandemic around racial reckoning have employees and consumers demanding more of corporations.
Businesses can use Martin Luther King Day as a marker to review their DEI initiatives and commitments. Without regular review, companies can’t know whether or not they’ve made progress, or take action steps on where to go next.
“It’s an ideal time to be reminded to look critically at what DEI commitments your company has made, and, to circle back to Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, to ask, ‘Has the dream been achieved?’” says Kike Ojo-Thompson, CEO of KOJO Institute, an equity consulting firm. “What has changed as a result of your organization’s one-year commitment or five-year commitment? There should be a tangible change in outcomes, such as in the overrepresentation of folks and the underrepresentation of folks, and the disproportionalities and disparities. This is the time to evaluate what you’ve done against those goals. And, if you’re not getting to those goals, to change what you’re doing. Martin Luther King Jr. held people accountable for their outcomes, and that’s the major task for leaders in corporations today.”
Here are some action steps from Ojo-Thompson on how businesses can better set up their DEI initiatives for success.
Step One: Identify And Communicate The Problem
More than half of Americans expect CEOs to be actively anti-racist, but 44% think the business community has done little to address systemic racism, according to a survey by Edelman. Ojo-Thompson believes one reason why so many organizations have fallen short on their antiracism commitments to produce real change is that they’ve made commitments without first identifying the specific problems they’re trying to solve within their own organizations, such as by asking, ‘Why are we [committing to a specific DEI initiative]?’ You can’t build performance indicators if you don’t know where you’re beginning from, and then you can’t know when you’re succeeding or failing. Leaders may have made pledges in June 2020 after the murder of George Floyd without having done internal evaluations to uncover an issue or putting a real strategy in place.
“We received so many calls as a company right after George Floyd, with leaders saying, ‘We’re calling because George Floyd was murdered,’” says Ojo-Thompson. “We prompted leaders to bring that inward by asking questions such as, ‘What’s happening in your space, who is experiencing what, and how is your organization impacting people?’ The first step is to establish the issues. If you don’t do this first, the resistance inside the corporation or the institution is so great when your organization starts to do the work. Some people will feel like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ if you haven’t first defined and declared, ‘We have a problem here, and this is what it is.’ There’s a readying that organizations need to do.”
Step Two: Establish Clear DEI Goals And Monitor Results
Once you’ve identified the DEI issues within your organization and communicated the problem to your people, establish clear goals and know what success will look like for your specific company.
“What’s the North Star in this work? How will your company know that it’s doing well, and how will you be monitoring and tracking progress?” says Ojo-Thompson. “Companies also need to be evaluating, monitoring and tracking people, because people make up organizations. Leaders need to be creating pathways to understand how departments and individuals are leaning into the work or leaning back from the work—whether it’s harmful or helpful. The environment must be safe and accessible for people to honestly tell you what’s going on.”
In order to uncover the true experiences of your people, it requires creating a speak-up culture based on inclusion safety, where people feel secure enough to be able to share what is and is not working within the organization without fear of being penalized for doing so.
Step Three: Incentivize Doing the Right Thing
In order to reach a DEI goal, organizations need to offer corrections as well as consequences. “We’re not prepared to hold certain groups accountable [for DEI outcomes], because people presume a harsh reaction could be something that they would face,” says Ojo-Thompson. “I don’t think people feel secure enough in what they know about this work to then turn and hold others accountable. But everyone has to be held accountable, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be dismissed or terminated. It can also mean courses of correction to support you with new and right action. But we’ve harmed progress by thinking the only answer for all missteps [in DEI] is to educate, because the assumption is that people will always do better what they know better. That has not been proven, because often people don’t do what they know. The answer is an organizational culture that incentivizes doing the right thing.”
For example, if leaders say their organization is anti-racist, but those who bring up instances of discrimination experience consequences for speaking up, there is incongruency there that blocks progress. The key is to normalize conversations about how racism shows up in the workplace so reactions of shock and discomfort don’t perpetuate staying silent, says Ojo-Thompson. She recommends using a tool she calls the “posture of practice,” in conversations where one thanks the person for making you aware of an issue, apologizes for the unintended impact it had, and invites them to continue sharing in the future so you can make corrections.
“The three steps are saying you’re thankful for the gift of correction, because it wasn’t owed to you; then taking ownership by saying, ‘I’m so sorry for the impact I’ve had, which is different from the intention that I’ve had; and finally to say please stay close as I know that was difficult for you to do, and my door is open to hear it again and again for as long as you’ll tell me,” says Ojo-Thompson. “It’s powerful because it solidifies the relationship and builds trust. Institutions, as well as individuals, should leverage a posture of practice to be able to hear from communities who have been telling them for decades, ‘Hey, this is how you’ve been impacting us.’ Imagine if institutions showed up saying, ‘Thank you, we’re so sorry, and our doors open for more of this talk.’ And then they actually changed from there.”
On the 40th anniversary of the Martin Luther King holiday, let us remember that our companies and institutions are made up of people, and people have the power to create positive change. As Dr. King said, “A social movement that only moves people is merely a revolt. A movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.”