Will Occupy Wall Street Occupy Your Front Entrance?

They're angry and growing in numbers. What does your organization have to do to not be a target?

Luke Visconti's Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.

The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement is targeting corporate America. I don't think it's a flash in the pan; rather, it's gaining momentum. That means that getting behind the situation—waiting for the protestors to show up—is an unrecoverable situation that is bound to destroy productivity, market share and investor equity.

It has to be pretty tough on average employees to cross through a crowd that regards them as part of the problem. How about when you're applying for a job? Nobody wants to answer their child's question of "Mommy, why is your company's logo on that piñata?" Management would have to be obtuse to be happy about declaring a record profit when the protestors are right outside; it's not the best way to appear on CNBC. Further, it's never a good idea to make investors nervous. In this kind of market, repercussions are swift and strong.

Although OWS organizers seem to be mostly white, diversity is playing a huge part in the movement because the issues that drive Occupy Wall Street disproportionately impact underrepresented groups. My hunch about the lack of OWS diversity is that although this recession has impacted Blacks and Latinos more than white people, white people are seeing the largest tangible drop in lifestyle. It's a matter of what you expect compared with what's actually happening—and that's why I think OWS momentum will continue to build.

Domestically, U6 unemployment (which includes underemployed people), for the past three years, has averaged more than 16 percent—nearly double the percentage of the average of the 10 years before the crash. At the current rate of job growth, it will take at least five more years to recover the jobs lost in this recession (seven years in total). In comparison, it took only nine months for job losses to be recovered in the 1981 recession. What was the working middle class (people who were not in knowledge-worker jobs but were earning what enabled a decent lifestyle) has been permanently damaged economically. Aside from unemployment, here are some basic facts that point to building momentum in this election year as our nation reels from the following:

  • 3 million home foreclosures
  • 10.8 million mortgages under water
  • 22 million people unemployed or underemployed
  • 45 million people on food stamps
  • 50 million people with no health insurance
  • Trillions spent on Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight
  • $850 billion student-loan debt (now larger than credit-card debt)
  • 13 percent Congressional-approval rating

It's infuriating to many people that nobody has gone to jail for the subprime crisis. We are a country that has less than 5 percent of the world's population but has almost a quarter of the world's prisoners. You would think that this is one area in which we would excel, but we're far better at imprisoning some groups than others. More than 50 percent of prisoners are Black and Latino. Tellingly, Black and Latino households were two to five times as likely to be sold inappropriate subprime loans. In contrast, look at the representation at the Wall Street banks. Nowhere do you find equity.

Traditionally, the way for governments to quash protests is to eliminate means of organization and communications. After Nat Turner's uprising, slave states passed laws prohibiting teaching of enslaved people to write. W.E.B. DuBois estimated that only 5 percent of slaves were literate in 1860. Today, with the Arab Spring, we have seen how oppressive governments, who controlled traditional media, were swept away by people with Internet and cell communications that were unavailable just 10 years ago. Please think about the facts presented above—if the "system" has failed you, and you feel that there is no hope for the status quo to change, it's logical to change the status quo.

How much your company is perceived as being part of a problem is dependent on three factors: values, deeds and communications.

Johnson & Johnson's Credo is the most clear and concise and the best statement of corporate values that I've ever seen. There is a precedence of whom to care for: consumers and the supply chain, employees, communities and stock holders, in that order. The entire value statement fits on one sheet of paper and is written in very human, caring and absolute terms.

Your reputation is dependent on how well you execute your stated values. Most corporate value statements imply equitable treatment for people; some include a statement about valuing diversity, but most companies do not execute equitably. Execution can be measured by outcome, and the closest measure of how well you live up to your values can be found in your human-capital results. For example, do you have equitable promotion by race and gender? Do you make sure the pipeline is what it needs to be to make that happen? How you treat your own people—by outcome—is the critical measurement of your execution of values. It's impossible for me to believe that a company can treat its customers, suppliers and the community any better than it treats its own people. The corporate practices that hold people accountable for equity in outcome are responsible for sustaining an equitable culture. When an organization has an equitable culture, it is far more likely to not make mistakes that damage people.

Finally, your communications must meet the challenges of the times. Most of the companies I meet with are somewhat reticent to discuss their good deeds. Most are also unfocused in their communications. Trusting a third party to manage communications is a mistake. You must do this yourself because it has to be from the heart. (Ever notice that ad agencies don't advertise their own services?) In an era where many people tweet their inner dialogue to hundreds of their "friends," your organization cannot present old-school blow-dried and hair-sprayed "statements" or a robo-Facebook page without creating a target. Your best course of action is to honestly, vigorously and persistently communicate how well you have executed your values. I suggest you put a human face on it by having the CEO communicate with his/her picture on the website. Have you seen Mr. Bill Marriott's blog? It's down to earth, just like Mr. Marriott. In a time when distrust and fear are causing people to take to the streets, an absence of good news can be interpreted as something to hide.



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