The tragic death of George Floyd in May of 2020 prompted an outpouring of statements from companies expressing solidarity with the Black community.
“We conducted a comprehensive review of company websites and social media posts and found that at least 70% of Fortune 500 companies released such statements in the two months following the killing,” said Professor Ashleigh Shelby Rosette of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.
In a new paper, “Sincere solidarity or performative pretense? Evaluation of organizational allyship,” Rosette and co-authors, Rebecca Ponce de Leon, a Fuqua Ph.D., now with Columbia Business School and James T. Carter of Cornell University, wanted to understand how the Black community viewed these statements. They sought to determine whether the statements served their intended purpose of portraying the company as an ally to the Black community.
The researchers predicted that statements signaling high cost (in terms of requiring resources, effort, or sacrifice) and high consistency (showing regularity and frequency) would be seen as the most authentic by Black individuals, effectively conveying allyship.
Costs may involve economic factors, reputational considerations, or can encompass a commitment of time. Rosette said managing reputational costs can be especially challenging, as companies run the risk of distancing certain consumers, clients, or donors who don’t share the values expressed in the statements.
“Being specific, such as naming individuals or expressing explicit beliefs and opinions about race, has the potential to be significantly more costly to a company’s reputation than expressing support for diversity in broader terms,” Rosette said.
But even precise word choice won’t be enough if efforts are perceived as one-off attempts in the wake of racially charged societal events, and not the manifestation of a consistent organizational culture that supports and promotes inclusion.
“If organizations frequently donate to a particular cause that supports inclusion or encourage their employees to contribute community service hours to such a cause, people are more likely to perceive that organization as an ally,” Rosette said. “So, the question becomes whether a statement is the company’s initial demonstration of support or if they have consistently enacted supportive behaviors multiple times before. If it is their first commitment, is there a basis to anticipate ongoing support in the future?”
In a first study, the researchers compiled the statements released by Fortune 500 companies after George Floyd’s death. Independent evaluators rated the statements for reputation and resource costliness. The researchers also evaluated the statements for consistency using a public ranking score that assesses companies’ commitment to diversity and inclusion.
Unaware of these previous assessments of cost and consistency, 1305 Black participants were asked to evaluate the statements for company allyship by determining whether the company “is an ally to, is in solidarity with, supports or cares about Black people.”
In a second study, the researchers took a statement from the first study and altered it for cost and consistency. They recruited a sample of 686 Black working professionals to assess the statement for authenticity and perceptions of allyship.
The participants were presented slightly different versions of the statements, each marked by different elements of costliness—for example, more or less money committed, explicit mention of race, and consistency for how long the company had been ranked among the top organizations supporting diversity.
The results of both studies showed that companies whose ally statements showed some form of cost were viewed as better allies than those without such demonstrations. But the cost effect was most recognized as allyship for companies whose statements were consistent with their past actions.
Rosette suggests that perhaps companies can use the findings to help them better communicate their allyship. Committing resources and doing so consistently signals that the company is dedicated to providing a safe environment that supports workers of all identities, she said.
The issue is even more relevant now as some companies appear to be shifting their focus away from prioritizing allyship and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) commitments, Rosette said.
“History suggests that it’s not a matter of ‘if’ another racially charged societal event will happen, but rather a matter of ‘when,’” Rosette said. “Companies who remain steadfast in their commitments made today are more likely to effectively communicate their genuine allyship in the future.”