Photo Credits: Scott Heins/Getty Images/AFP
George Floyd, the name on everybody’s lips at the moment, the handcuffed black man who was murdered whilst in police custody. This incident has precipitated the worst national civil unrest in years, due to the inequality that occurred during the incident leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. The riots represent the disdain that has boiled over after years of inequality, not just in terms of police brutality but as a macro societal issue. People have had enough and rightly so.
The morality of the protests are as clear as day: that police who abuse their authority be held against the same law they chose to uphold, that African Americans can live their lives freely without having to be paranoid about an encounter with law enforcement prematurely ending it all. However, it has turned into something much uglier than anyone could have envisioned. From news clips of protestors being needlessly assaulted by police in riot gear to videos of opportunistic individuals looting retail stores. Society has reared its ugly head and it is there for all to see.
Furthermore, there have been anarchists who are not there for political reasons, but rather are in the masses to run amok, engage in the chaos and provide fuel for sensationalist media outlets to latch on. Such individuals paint a distorted view of the situation, many protest marches have been nothing short of peaceful, but no one wants to see that. People want to see violence from both sides, they crave bloodshed and brutality. Rhetoric from the American Government has certainly not helped matters, in fact days after George Floyd was murdered, the American President, Donald Trump, comes out to urge police to "get tough". Could such rhetoric be the catalyst for even more violence?
Similarities between Civil-Rights Protests in Hong Kong?
The ongoing situation in America draws parallels with the current protests taking place in Hong Kong. Hong Kong protestors are campaigning against an issue they believe to be a gross matter of inequality against them. They are standing united against the legislation of the anthem law-which criminalises insults to the National anthem of China. Both groups are taking action against perceived inequality and injustice, they are taking a stand and holding those responsible accountable.
Unfairness is a deep-rooted human emotion and something we can all resonate with. Have you ever felt like you were unfairly treated? Put yourself in their shoes, and perhaps you may better empathize. Both groups are standing up for what they believe in and I have the utmost respect for them in doing so.
Photo Credits: Lam Yik/Bloomberg
All across America, the words “Justice for George Floyd” echoes through the streets. With the worst national civil unrest in years taking place, it should serve as a learning experience for all, but what lessons can organizations learn from this? The riots are not only in protest against racial inequality and police brutality but also against human rights violations and shines a light on organizational issues that have long been neglected. Is this a wider issue of systematic racism that could possibly occur in organizations? Are organizations complicit?
During the riots, large businesses and governments were targeted as they are the largest sources of social and political disenfranchisement. Many of the anarchists have focused on chain businesses such as Target and luxury cars as symbols of corrupt institutions that have made their money through exploitation of their workers.
Target: Being Targeted?
These specific group of protestors have been dubbed as revolutionaries, the people who are willing to challenge emblems of oppression. Target’s relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department has come under scrutiny with some claiming that employees closed the store to prevent protestors from purchasing suppliers.
However, Target spokesperson Daniella Schumann refuted the claims by insisting that the store was closed in an attempt to keep employees safe. Subsequently, news of a $300,000 donation from Target to the city in 2004 surfaced, which is believed to be meant for the set-up of surveillance cameras throughout downtown Minneapolis. Subsequently, Target has momentarily closed 175 stores in 13 states - around 9 percent of its domestic stores - due to protests spreading nationwide which originated from Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered and the giant retail institution is headquartered.
Photo Credits: Richard Tsong-Taatari/Star Tribune via Getty Images
Price of Efficiency?
Businesses say they want to listen, but these institutions are not built for listening, only for optimal efficiency and profit-maximization. An article by Harvard Business Review discovered that increasing efficiency actually leads to decreased systematic resilience. It explains that resilience systems primarily function on diversity and redundancy, the very elements that efficiency looks to remove.
Organizations need to determine what the price of efficiency is, gone were the days where companies can push their workers to breaking point without any backlash. Efficiency comes at a price and that is Resilience. Leaders need to start adopting a Democratic Leadership approach rather than a Transactional one where rewards and punishment are used. They need to start hearing their employee out and do away with the stone-age top-down approach.
Are Organizations designed to change?
Businesses need to start listening, in the current debilitating climate, with unemployment rising, tensions are running high and the human element in their workers should not be ignored. Workers need to be treated more than just a means to an end – like actual human beings who have their personal goals that are separate from the organisations. Corporations have been obsessed with their balance sheet and have neglected the fact that their workers are humans and not robots. Punitive practices must be eradicated to make way for more collaborative and inclusive working cultures.
Organizations say they want to be inclusive, but look how they are to voices that oppose them. Many a times, organizations want alignment, they want their employees to blindly follow the corporate culture. They look to brainwash and seek to suppress the discerning voices. As an organization, ask yourself how do you treat those who are oppositional?
Organizations are guilty of cognitive dissonance, when they refuse to believe that they are part of the problem. But I am here to tell you they are. Organizations are representative of society and inequality runs deep within. Many employees that we have come across have felt like they were not treated equally, be it in terms of remuneration, recognition or opportunities.
The disdain is prevalent, employees are not happy and organizations need to possessing corporate agility to adapt to the evolving landscape. They need to start prioritising employee welfare to make them feel like they are more than just a cog in the machine. In the past, they have refused to adapt, continually prioritizing their bottom line. This time, it needs to be different, a shift in corporate governance and organizational culture shifts must be precipitated. So make no mistake, organizations are very much part of the problem.
The Covid-19 situation is likely to have played a role in the visceral outrage witnessed. The financial uncertainty attributed to the pandemic has caused unrest for many and given that people have been holed up at home, emotions were already riding high before the shocking footage of the latest incident of police brutality surfaced. In combination with the medium to long term implications that the outbreak will have on corporations, the onus is on entities to adapt their organizational culture to the current climate.
History is marked by significant moments and is this one of them? The voiceless are finally being heard. The oppressed are rising up. The figures of authority are finally being held accountable. Will those in power and privilege actually speak up for those who have none? From an organization standpoint, inclusion needs to have a full and rightful place in corporate conversations rather than being a token employer branding strategy.
Outfits such as Proctor and Gamble have been implementing the celebration of diversity into their corporate culture for years. They have done so by organizing an annual Diversity & Inclusion Week where they come together and celebrate being unique individuals. Hopefully, this time others will start to take notice of the importance of such work and see that is more just about improving their brand image.
Will permanent change actually happen? Are people really going to change? If this is the start of an era of equality, there needs to be consistent effort on the part of management teams at organizations.
Optics have and always will be a pivotal concern for organizations. It is very simple, show that you genuinely care for your workers and goodwill will be generated within the community. On the other hand, show that a fat profit & loss account is your only concern, and be ready to be greeted with vitriol.
ShengSiong: The Billionaires with a moral conscience?
A case in point would be ShengSiong, a Singaporean low-cost supermarket chain, who much like other essential service providers, have greatly benefitted from a financial standpoint during the pandemic. Despite this, they would have been well within their right to simply keep the revenue due to the uncertainty of the future. In fact most companies are cutting costs. However, the management took the risk and rewarded the employees, displaying a moral conscience. They were mindful that their financial success would not be possible without the dedication of their floor workers and thus rewarded all workers with an additional month of wages. This act of goodwill was met with nationwide praise and is an example that more should follow.
The story of ShengSiong is an insightful one, the owner, Mr Lim Hock Chee, is a self-made billionaire that started off as a pork seller in the local neighbourhood who pitted himself against large domestic organizations such as NTUC. He is a leader who firmly believes in looking after the welfare of his employees and he does so by providing one free meal a day for all of his staff. Organizations should be taking note of such acts of care, in such a precarious circumstance, any act of kindness towards their workers would be treated with applause.
Photo Credits: The Straits Times
Orgnanizations turning a blind eye in their own backyard
Some organizations may still maintain that inequality does not occur in their own backyard. Instead of getting defensive, explore the possibility that inequality does exist in your place of work. Injustice comes in all shapes and sizes, it may not be of the proportion of George Floyd's murder, but any and all inequality should look to be eradicated.
It may seem idealistic, but all I am asking for are for organizations to have a moment of introspection, to stop and think: "Does this happen here?" That bit of self-reflection could make a world of difference. It may very well be that your organization is free from any form of inequality, but simply looking inwards and asking yourself the question is an act of progression. Companies can either use this current backdrop as a PR spin or make some actual change, what happens when the dust settles, will change be permanent?
So What can Organizations do?
For change to happen, companies have a role to play. Moving forward, employee welfare should be a priority for organizations, understandably alongside profit margins. No one is asking for organizations to even put employee welfare on an equal pedestal to profitability, that would be all too utopian. What people are asking for is for employee welfare to be a close second, for employers to truly care rather than pay lip service to pander to the masses.
As demonstrated by ShengSiong, it is not difficult to show your employees that you care about their well-being. If you are a manager, take that first step, ask your employees about how they are coping during this difficult period. These are trying times, we could all use a little care and concern.
Another way that organizations can reach out to their employees would be through a workplace stress survey. Many a times, the management would not be aware of the stress-related issues their workers may face. Hence, an anonymous survey would be an ideal way to gauge their workplace satisfactions whilst not violating their privacy. Anonymity would also ensure employees that they are able to share their concerns in a constructive space.
Starting today, organizations need to revamp their stance on employee welfare. It can no longer be an afterthought, it should be at the forefront of every decision-making process. Organizations should expect any exploitation of workers to be called out, every human right valuation flagged and every tyrant held accountable. Only then, will permanent change take place. Be the catalyst for change.