Three Crucial Mindset Shifts to Operationalize Equity in Any Company

By: Mahlet Getachew, Managing Director of Corporate Racial Equity at PolicyLink

Covid-19 reshaped our beliefs about remote work. Tools like artificial intelligence have challenged assumptions about the future of work. Advancing equity in the business context also requires shifting our beliefs and attitudes — mindset shifts — about diversity, equity, inclusion (DEI), and social responsibility. Why? Because what we’ve done in the past has only nudged the needle and the stakes are too high now to rely on the status quo.

Here are three crucial mindset shifts business leaders can embrace to strengthen their existing efforts, enhance their organizational resilience, and make a greater positive impact for their workers, communities, and society at large.

1. Sustainability and Equity Go Hand-in-Hand

Advancing equity and sustainability are inextricably linked. Just as a healthy climate and a pollution-free environment are integral to sustainability, ensuring we have strong social foundations — including a healthy labor force, an economically secure consumer base, and stable democratic systems — is also critical for a sustainable future. 

With the increasing urgency of the climate crisis, many companies are investing in sustainability efforts to mitigate their climate and environmental impact. It is essential, however, that such efforts prioritize and address the disproportionate impact of climate change, industrial pollution, and natural resource loss on communities of color and low-income communities — all of which are well documented and historically poorly addressed. Doing so will contribute to workforce and community well-being, in turn supporting business resilience and our economic, social, and political stability.

Remember too that there are no offsets when operationalizing equity. Launching an initiative to advance equity in one area of the business is laudable, but it does not lessen the importance of addressing negative impacts arising from other areas of the business. If a company is not considering communities of color and low-income communities in its sustainability efforts, investments in other DEI programs will never be enough. Business leaders should look across the enterprise and consider all the ways the company’s products, services, operations, policies, and practices may be impacting people of color and low-income communities.

2. Advancing Equity Benefits Everyone

Businesses have an incredible influence on society. They offer products and services to meet our basic human needs, provide jobs and opportunities for upward mobility, stimulate local and global economies, influence public policy, and so much more. The outsize influence of business in our society is why everyone needs more equitable businesses. 

Today, widespread racial and economic inequality is a systemic risk to the US and global economies. In the US alone, nearly 100 million people are living in economic insecurity. That is one in three people across our nation. Such widespread inequality is at odds with a strong and resilient economy. When too many people lack the resources they need to live and thrive, our economic productivity and dynamism are directly impacted. This puts society at heightened risk of social and political instability. And as the share of the population struggling to make ends meet grows, so do these risks.

Businesses have a significant role to play in addressing these challenges. For example, by paying all workers living wages — and requiring suppliers to do the same — the positive impact extends to the health of communities, the strength of our economy, and the stability of our society. By offering workers greater wealth-building benefits (such as stock ownership), high-quality health benefits, and better conditions of employment, businesses support worker well-being as well as increase their engagement and productivity. All of these things also deliver greater value to customers and investors. 

In effect, advancing equity is a win-win-win. It is not charity work that benefits a fraction of the population. All of society benefits when businesses operationalize equity.

3. Everyone Has a Role to Play in Advancing Equity

Ensuring all workers have the resources they need to live and thrive is just one of several steps businesses can take to support an economically and socially stable future for all of us. In fact, every department and function within a business has a vital role to play.

While some companies have invested in DEI leadership, the success of a company’s efforts cannot rest on one person or one team. Rather, everyone — from the topmost leadership to entry-level roles — should embrace advancing equity as an everyday part of their jobs. Making equitable and socially responsible business decisions should be integrated into operations, legal, finance, procurement, product and service development, marketing, sales, government relations, investor relations, and more. Advancing equity means ensuring that no stone is left unturned and that everyone is contributing productively. This is the most pragmatic approach to ensuring DEI and sustainability initiatives are not thwarted by conflicting goals and priorities.

This is a mindset shift that may require investing in leadership development and board education to ensure the tone from the top is consistent and aligned across the organization. Spending time with and learning from all of the business’ stakeholders will help surface the ways the organization can deepen its positive impacts and meaningfully address any negative impacts. Also, conducting an enterprise-wide civil rights or equity audit can support businesses in understanding the full scope of how their products, services, operations, policies, and practices are impacting historically marginalized communities. Armed with these insights, all functions and departments can then set the right goals and deploy the right investments to advance positive impacts and strengthen the business for the long-term.

Though it has never been harder, advancing equity is more important than ever. For comprehensive guidance on how companies can operationalize equity within their ranks, communities, and society, read the CEO Blueprint for Racial Equity.