Gloria Spittel discusses how businesses can support workers who are in need of help

Social unrest and to a lesser extent revolts are rather common around the world. People who’re frustrated by systems and processes that are illogical, shackling, discriminatory, illegitimate and even life-threatening are taking to the streets in protest. Often, these actions take the form of demonstrations, which sometimes transform into rebellions.

Rather than argue about the absurdity or inconvenience of protests and demonstrations, it’s prudent to acknowledge the need for space where people can air their concerns. This is especially important when grievances are misconstrued by those in authority and the aggrieved parties don’t have communication channels open to them.

Many will point to the power of social media as being an effective means of conveying messages and airing grievances rather than the physical discomfort of participating in protests. But the staying power of physical protests isn’t only amplified when transmitted on social media platforms because their impact lingers far longer in people’s minds than ad hoc posts on Facebook.

So how do organisations fit into social unrest?

Enterprises don’t operate in a vacuum and are bound to be affected by the environments they operate in, due to legislation or the discomfort and concerns faced by their workforces. They fit in by the very fact that they exist in a specific time and place – and to deny this is akin to turning a blind eye.

Organisations have a duty to their shareholders, stakeholders and the larger environment. The latter usually benefits from CSR initiatives.

Similar to Corporate Social Responsibility, companies now have to grapple with Corporate Social Justice (CSJ), which produces measurable positive impact programming for groups that are ostracised by society through existing structures, systems, processes and divides.

It is important to realise that these groups aren’t only defined by race but also gender, disability, religion and religious attire, income and class, sexual orientation, education and language abilities – to name a few. These programmes too must be more than mere PR stunts or marketing strategies and be rooted in the social good as a necessity.

For instance in 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) erupted – first in the US and then in many countries around the world – businesses large and small took to their social media platforms and other means to pledge solidarity with BLM. But organisations faced a backash when their solidarity messages didn’t match their policies as Amazon soon learnt.

The company faced criticism for its message of solidarity with the BLM movement while selling its facial recognition software to US law enforcement agencies. In addition to which there’s a stark underrepresentation of black professionals in the company – the very people it was claiming to support.

Amazon was later forced by the police to suspend the use of its facial recognition programme for a year.

Since CSJ is a new concept, how can companies be expected to implement programmes and policies?

Injustice and social issues in any society aren’t new; and as organisations grow in value, importance and societal impact, it can be argued that responding to social ills is a responsibility. However, CSJ is neither new nor is it for the use of large organisations only… particularly in countries that have vibrant histories and a culture of trade union activity.

In Sri Lanka too there are many examples of corporate action in support of social issues such as the many hartals at various times in different parts of the island. Of course, some may dismiss this corporate behaviour as being an inevitable response born of fear rather than support due to the presumption of violence by protesters or corrupt authorities. While this may be true to some extent, it is not the entire picture.

So how else can organisations lend support to social movements?

They can do so by creating space and opportunities for employees to seek help regarding negative emotions and discuss difficult topics in a safe manner while adhering to previously communicated rules of engagement set out by the company.

Let’s face it, employees will talk anyway; but guiding those conversations could help alleviate fears, bridge divides, foster learning from different experiences and produce creative responses or an action plan that addresses the enterprise’s role in society.

But to do all this, the organisation needs to be receptive to the issues on the ground, take a stand, and create a goal or vision for an equitable and just society, to which it can contribute.

It also needs to draft a plan that is inclusive of employee contributions – especially those affected by a specific issue or passionately advocating for solutions to a more global problem such as climate change.

Lofty goals are great; but smaller and more adjustable targets – which can be regularly measured and evaluated for their intents and purposes –will have a greater impact.