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Four ways to avoid ‘woke-washing’ and get real about equity in your workplace

In the world of business, there is a myriad of organisations that have linked their products or services to social justice. Remember when Pepsi had to pull that advert with Kendall Jenner? When Co-op launched a gender-neutral gingerbread biscuit person? Or when Burger King faced backlash for linking their #FeelYourWay campaign to mental health?

Such examples highlight that brands have appropriated social activism by using progressive values as a marketing ploy to communicate what they stand for. However, people working for these companies may have a very different lived experience of the brand.  Therefore these attempts to connect with consumers backfire and the reputational and financial costs for organisations can be high. Erin Dowell and Marlette Jackson share 4 ways to avoid ‘woke-washing’ your company and get real about equality.

Go beyond the public declarations of your commitment to equality, and take action…
… by evaluating and changing your internal policies, practises and procedures. Are they designed and executed in a manner to provide equal opportunity for all? It is in these areas companies can build equality into the system and help ensure inclusivity is there with a purpose. Raising the public profile and donating money to social justice causes is a step in the right direction. However, these standalone open gestures render a company guilty of ‘woke-washing’.

Understand the intention and the goals behind the action
“I think one of the things that companies can look out for is their motivation. Are you motivated by a recent resurgence [for example,  societal interest in a subject-matter] or is your intention to promote and drive a better culture, where all employees can be their full, authentic selves?” Jackson says. “Inclusion is making sure that once people are at work they feel valued, which is the antithesis to ‘woke-washing’ because organisations are working with employees to determine what would make for a more enabling environment professionally,” says Dowell.

Ask the question, is this a priority or a value? 

Jackson explains, “Priorities tend to shift and priorities can be priority number 1 or priority [number] 10, and oftentimes priorities on advancing social justice, anti-racism, inclusion and equity are often priority number 10. However, core values are embedded into the institutional fabric of the organisation and they are something that are the guiding principles of what you do.” If your public messages and internal actions do not align with your core values, then there is further critical work to do before promoting your company as one that cares about social-justice causes.

Watch out on putting pressure on underrepresented employees

When inviting underrepresented employees to participate in DEI conversations and actions, Dowell cautions that extra emotional baggage can be created through open-ended statements. “It’s perfectly fine to maintain a level of curiosity about each other and our experiences, but make sure that you’ve at least done some kind of threshold reading and then try to engage”. Remember that in addition to their job, underrepresented employees are also navigating the daily onslaught of exclusionary practices. Jackson recommends ensuring that they are empowered in a manner so that the company is not exploiting their resources, background, insights and identities when taking a critical look at how to improve DEI practices.

It is understandable for companies to be responsible for woke-washing sometimes. They want to change, they aspire to practise inclusion and want equality for all. But wanting is not enough. They need to commit the time and invest the resources to critically assess and better themselves. This starts with understanding that inequality does not serve them in the slightest.

Learn more here:

The Fix Podcast: Erin Dowell and Marlette Jackson: Woke Washing Your Workplace

Harvard Business Review:  “Woke-Washing” Your Company Won’t Cut I