By Laura W. Murphy
President, Laura Murphy & Associates
In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Americans started asking corporations what they were going to do to help eliminate structural racism and other barriers to equal opportunity. Companies are hearing the urgent call for justice from millennials, who make up the future of the workforce and politicians and legislative bodies that regulate businesses. Since 2020, some two-thirds of the largest corporations in the United States made various supportive statements about the need for racial justice and more inclusive practices. They ranged from vague and non-committal statements to multibillion-dollar efforts that aspire to eliminate systemic racism.
Now, an increasingly vocal and diverse coalition of civil rights leaders and members of Congress is asking for proof of those commitments. This coalition wants corporations to end racist and discriminatory practices and to facilitate the participation of people of color and marginalized groups in the economic, social, and civic structures that will make our economy flourish. For example, are companies using biased algorithms for hiring in a way that exclude people of color, women and older workers? Are they unfairly disapproving mortgages to qualified purchasers? Are they denying delivery services to low income neighborhoods? Are they using facial recognition software that cannot tell one brown-skinned person from another? One way to identify and resolve these kinds of problems is through a civil rights audit.
As a longtime civil rights and civil liberties advocate, I have led some of corporate America’s biggest civil rights audits with Airbnb in 2016 and Facebook in 2020. I know that there are clear actions that companies can take to meet today’s demands for equity that will help them become better businesses. I recently wrote a report, The Rationale for and Key Elements of a Business Civil Rights Audit, that gives clear guidance on what civil rights audits should include. If corporate America is serious about addressing the issue of racial equity, they must use consistent criteria for evaluating a business’s civil rights profile, just as financial accounting and evaluation became standardized and transparent decades ago.
A civil rights audit is an independent analysis conducted by firms with civil rights expertise that assesses an organization’s business policies, practices and products to determine if those components have a discriminatory effect on people whose rights have been historically and systematically abridged. While one of the most pressing issues from a civil rights perspective are issues of anti-Black racism, other forms of bias are also far too prevalent. We must also fight discrimination across identities including immigration status, gender, gender identity, ability, sexual orientation, age, religion and race. Bias rooted in these characteristics also requires the attention of corporate leaders.
We must seize this moment to establish criteria for evaluating a business’s civil rights profile to find out where they are falling short and how they can advance equity. Civil rights audits should have a clear timeline; involve consultation with community stakeholders (including civil rights advocates and organizations); have the support and active engagement of senior company executives (including the CEO); publicly report the findings; and cover the essential components of the company to include products, policies, services, personnel, and contracting.
Fortunately, some corporations including State Street Global Advisors and Citibank have recently agreed that a civil rights audit has many business benefits. They will be joining the ranks of executives at Airbnb, Facebook and Starbucks who have publicly stated that the civil rights audit processes made them better companies and that their leadership has become wiser from the effort. There is no evidence of any adverse impact on those corporations’ profitability because of their engagement in these audits. In my report you can see how these audits achieved tangible outcomes across a range of business operations and go further than diversity and inclusion practices. The goal of the civil rights audit process is to make companies less discriminatory and more inclusive, to make them better able to serve all of their customers, and equip them to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse society.
We must make the most of this moment to address the egregious and subtle forms of discrimination that hinder the full participation of people of color and marginalized groups in this economy and in our society. That is why the commitment of business leaders to this process is essential to building a future where everyone can work with dignity. Businesses and civil rights groups need to work together to confront the challenges resulting from systemic racism and other structural forms of discrimination by addressing real problems and implementing thoughtful solutions.
We cannot wish it, pledge it, talk it or tweet it into existence. We must roll up our sleeves to have the difficult conversations and do the hard work to make tangible changes in our behaviors, in our laws, in our workplaces and in our products if we are going to meet today’s civil rights challenges.
Laura Murphy serves on the board of the AFRO-American Newspapers and is a great-granddaughter of its founder.