Actions Have Consequences: Steps Employers Must Take to Combat Discrimination

Most of us have seen the video taken in Central Park last week.  In response to being asked by Christian Cooper, a birdwatcher and Board Member of the New York City Audubon Society, to comply with Central Park rules to leash her dog in the Ramble, Amy Cooper (no relation to Christian Cooper) called 911, "pleading" for help, claiming she was being threatened by an "African-American" male.  Even before she made the call, Amy defiantly informed Christian: "I'm going to tell them an African-American man is threatening my life."  It can only be inferred through the repetition of the phrase "African-American," that Amy knew that identifying her alleged "attacker" as "African-American" enhanced the severity of the threat.

After the encounter, Christian posted the video to Facebook Live.  Within hours, the woman had been identified as Amy Cooper, head of insurance solutions at Franklin Templeton, and her profile became one of the most viewed profiles on the Bloomberg Terminal.  Franklin Templeton's website crashed on Monday and was intermittently offline on Tuesday.  By Tuesday afternoon, Franklin Templeton fired Amy, asserting that "We do not tolerate racism of any kind," and her dog had been "re-homed."

More and more, society is attempting to hold employers responsible for the actions of their employees - regardless of whether the employee was acting in the scope of their employment at the time of the incident.  In the last few years, Starbucks, Nordstrom Rack, Papa John's, the Los Angeles Clippers, IAC, and now Franklin Templeton have all found themselves caught in the cross-hairs of statements made or actions taken by employees (or management) that explode on social media and create a public outcry.  Employers across the country are asking themselves what they can do to avoid becoming the next Franklin Templeton.  Here are some important items to consider:

1. Review and revise company policies, including discrimination and social media policies.  Employers should review and update all policies and procedures, keeping in mind our changing landscape.  Private lives are rarely private these days.  Statements made while walking in the park or retweeting a celebrity on social media can start trending instantly, reaching millions. Employees should understand that they are representatives of the company, on duty and off, and should act accordingly or face repercussions.

2. Double down on cultural competency. Though employers cannot regulate all individual conduct outside of the workplace, they can nevertheless set the institutional standard for the work environment. How are your organization's values internalized, and equally important, are they reflected in how business decisions are made? It is one thing to have a Code of Conduct or policies that decry the multiplicity of "isms" (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.). It is another to have those values fully integrated into the organization's operational DNA. Consider conducting a culture audit to identify gaps and areas for improvement.

3. Elevate the discussion of culture at the Board level. Though it has long been recognized that corporate culture can be an asset or a liability, it continues to be a stepchild on board agendas. It is convenient (and misguided) to view this subject exclusively through the lens of Human Resources. Culture is a risk issue and by extension, a governance issue.  Among the topics on full board agendas, the two areas that typically are discussed the least are ethics/compliance and corporate culture. Beyond the reputational fallout, we have only to look at the $12 million in sales that Starbucks lost when it closed all 8,000 of its stores for an afternoon of diversity training in the aftermath of the publicity it received, to understand that this is a business imperative.

4. Set the tone at the top.  Employees follow the example set by their leaders.  A strongly worded policy is worthless if senior management is not committed to following through with consequences and leading by example.  And once the tone is set at the top, make sure it filters down. Tone at the top, mood in the middle, buzz at the bottom.

The events over the last week, starting with the Cooper incident and followed by George Floyd's murder on Memorial Day and subsequent days of protests and riots, are signaling a societal shift.  It is no longer enough to simply have passive policies of anti-discrimination in an employee handbook.  A growing majority of citizens are demanding that this country proactively attack our original sin.  Encouraging this shift, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his recent op-ed in the LA Times, "Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible €” even if you're choking on it €” until you let the sun in. Then you see it's everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it's always still in the air."  As Americans become more and more vigilant at calling out perceived prejudice and demanding retribution, employers must also become more proactive in the enforcement of its policies in order to protect their brands and set the example we so desperately need.