Monday, January 16th, 2017
SOMETIMES, BUSINESS HAS TO HELP FORM SOCIAL CULTURE
Once upon a time, when I was new to Maine and new to the role of Director of Organizational Development, I had a dream. I wanted there to be a formal US holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King. Before we used the term “diversity” and “inclusion” I was the head of EEOC and Affirmative Action efforts in my OD role. I worked with a progressive CEO who felt the same.
Let’s just say we were idealistic. We had the Birmingham Jail letter of Dr. King reproduce for every employee of The Central Maine Power Company—and it is one long letter and costly to produce (no email for all at this point).
And we gave a half hour of paid time for people who chose to, to read it over a cup of coffee in break rooms or offices.
It took ten minutes for most of the letters to hit the trash cans and then spend time denigrating the contents of the letter. Later people would tell me how impactful the moment was because they all heard their fears and injustice with no opposition. The opinions hung in the air and began to change as they new, trusted and respected the CEO and as they saw I cared about fairness for everyone in the workplace. John Rowe, the CEO went on to become an important leader in energy distribution and in his work in diversity.
I cringe at our innocence and lack of paving the way for the action we took. But I cringe more at what could have been our guilt and fear of a bold symbolic action that had us do nothing. Business resides in the larger culture of its time. Usually it is prudent to stay a merchant only with your eye on what the customer wants. However occasionally, It is important to help shape the broader culture to keep it healthy and transforming.