June 25, 2020
Former CEO of AT&T
Co-Host, CBS This Morning
The summer of 2020 was filled with nationwide protests against systemic racism and inequality, forcing many companies to rethink their dialogue and stances on the matters.
For example, Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, recently stepped down from his board position, urging the company to replace him with a person of color. His resignation expressed his solidarity and stressed the importance of having a more diverse team — especially since Reddit had developed a public reputation for housing racism, hate, and trolling on the internet.
However, along these same lines, leaders must also be aware of the language they are using when taking a stance and making a change. While it’s rightfully said that actions speak louder than words, words still carry weight.
Businesses Must Understand the Implications of Their Words When Discussing Diversity and Inclusion
It’s no secret that it will take time and continuous effort to address the systemic inequalities in American businesses. Often, leaders don’t notice the implications of their words or how they show their support.
It’s a common practice to incorporate buzzwords when communicating with the public to appease customers, employees, and shareholders. However, even well-intentioned language can sometimes sound harmful.
When discussing Ohanian’s resignation, moderator Gayle King, co-host of CBS This Morning, stated that she found it commendable that he took action the way he did. She noted that he “could have just added a qualified person of color” rather than stepping down and offering up his own position.
Former AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson agreed that Ohanian made the right move, noting that, “your board better reflect what you want all the way down into your company. If you don't affect it at the most senior levels of the company, it doesn't find its way down to the bottom.”
However, he challenged King’s language in voicing her support for Ohanian, specifically in adding the word “qualified” before “person of color.”
“I don't think we ought to feel compelled to say ‘qualified’ with Black,” Stephenson said. “We’re putting a Black person on our board. We don't have to say they’re a qualified person. They're on our board.”
King agreed with Stephenson’s point. This interaction showed how important it is to address harmful language — even when it’s backed with good intentions. We must continue to challenge ourselves and each other, with grace and willingness to listen, so we can make real, sustainable progress.