By Greta Twombly and Maryanne Howland
Rose Marcario, president and CEO of Patagonia, was honored last year by the White House as a Champion of Change for her company’s family-friendly workplace policies.
Marcario believes that a family-friendly workplace is good for businesses and their workers. She says she wants to see these practices become the norm for every company, not just Patagonia. She wants them to become public policies that are encouraged and, in some cases, mandated by law. Her appearance at the White House offered her a highly visible platform for advocacy, and she took it.
Like many responsible CEOs, Marcario believes that a good workplace promotes social justice as well as corporate success. Unfortunately, too many companies join the race to the bottom: instead of orienting themselves around high-road practices, they provide the bare minimum. This creates drag on the entire economy. Stingy workplace practices impose economic, emotional, and physical stress on workers, and that stress ultimately takes a toll on the health of employees and their families. Stressed-out workers are less productive, less creative, and less loyal.
Even when poor workplace policies appear to provide a short-term financial bene t to the company, they damage the economy as a whole. Every worker is also somebody’s customer, and stressed workers buy less, so overall consumer demand suffers. Also, stressed workers impose public costs that are ultimately shouldered by taxpayers, as these employees need more social and health services.
Marcario and many other business leaders are working with the American Sustainable Business Council to support legislation that promotes and requires high-road business practices. Current legislative initiatives include fair wages, family medical leave, and paid sick days.
Opposition to high-road policies comes mostly from business executives and lobbying groups that erroneously believe these policies are “bad for business” — largely because they focus on the higher employment costs that occur in the short term. By doing this, they ignore the long-term benefits of greater productivity and lower turnover, which in turn lead to higher profits and greater return on investment.
To counter this misunderstanding, more businesspeople need to speak out in favor of high road policies. Policymakers need the “bad for business” myth to be dispelled by those who run companies and can credibly speak to the gains that result from high road practices, proving it every day in their own businesses.
DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION HELP, TOO
High-road employment policies like paid leave, a higher minimum wage, and child care are just a few of the ways to promote social justice and a stronger economy through improved business practices.
Systemic discrimination imposes tremendous costs on the economy when talented and motivated people are prevented from obtaining employment, developing their skills, and contributing leadership roles in business. Imagine if every person who is now underemployed because of race, gender, age, ethnicity, or ex-offender status were free to contribute to the fullest of her or his abilities. The talent unleashed would turbocharge our economy. Instead, the status quo imposes a massive opportunity cost.
EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK
Overcoming systemic gender and racial discrimination will require a broad and concerted effort over the long term. For example, we have yet to ensure truly equal pay for women, even though this was nominally guaranteed by the Equal Pay Act of 1963. Instead, women working full-time today receive, on average, only 79 cents for every $1 paid to men. Women of color receive even less: on average, African-American women are paid 60 cents and Latinas just 55 cents for each $1 paid to white, non-Hispanic men.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 closed a loophole from the 1963 law that made it difficult for women to file equal-pay discrimination lawsuits. However, the legislation enacted to date has not been enough. To close more gaps in the Equal Pay Act, proposed legislation called the Paycheck Fairness Act could help break ongoing patterns of pay discrimination and further strengthen workplace protections for women.
REMOVE BARRIERS FOR EX-OFFENDERS
Racial discrimination in the workplace was outlawed more than 50 years ago with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the mass incarceration of African-American men replaced legal discrimination (via segregation) with another civil rights abuse. African- American men are more than five times more likely than white men to be convicted of a crime in their lifetime. Convictions erode their chances of being hired, even for those who have served their sentences and paid their debt to society.
A simple, though partial, solution to this employment barrier is to prevent job application forms from asking about an applicant’s conviction history. A campaign to “ban the box” — referring to the box on many application forms that asks if the applicant has been convicted of a crime — is gaining momentum, but the business community needs to up its support. To date, only 19 states have enacted legislation to ban the box on government employment applications, and a mere seven have mandated such legislation for private employers.
SUSTAINABLE PURCHASING STANDARDS
Another strategy to promote social justice in the workplace is to harness the enormous purchasing power of businesses, governments, and other large institutions. Better procurement policies (regulations that govern the buying and sourcing of products and materials) can create a preference for local businesses, particularly in poor communities.
Strong, transparent, and meaningful standards can drive the wider adoption of high-road workplace policies in general. Sustainable procurement policies can also go well beyond the minimal carve-outs for minority and women-owned businesses to include preferences for companies with more diverse leadership teams and employees. In fact, procurement regulations could lead the way for improved business practices and behaviors across the board.
While there are good reasons for hope, there is much left to do. Together with our members and allies, the American Sustainable Business Council is embarking on the Good Workplace initiative in order to understand the best practices for building social justice and equality into 21st-century businesses and workplaces. We will continue to identify and develop public policies that will encourage these practices to spread and move into the mainstream.