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Talk of Racial Injustice Tapers in Recent Earnings Calls

By Payne Lubbers

Executives at public companies are talking less and less about race-related issues during earnings calls, more than a year after the murder of George Floyd forced corporate America to reckon with its own systemic bias.

The usage of terms including “racism,” “equality” and “social justice” peaked on earnings calls for S&P 500 companies in the third quarter of 2020. Of those 500 calls, “racial injustice” was mentioned 36 times. Of the 118 calls that have taken place during the second quarter of this year, only one company — Adobe Inc. — used the term. There are 382 more calls left this earnings season.

Photo by Ono Kosuki from Pexels

On an earnings call last month, Adobe Chief Executive Officer Shantanu Narayen said that as Juneteenth approached, “we have so much left to do.”

Earnings calls do not provide the full picture of a company’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, but if firms touted those issues as central tenets of their organizations, “you would think you would put that forward to show that,” said Karen Boykin-Towns, a senior counselor at Sard Verbinnen & Co.  

“I would say if any company is back sliding their commitments, their pledges, whether or not this is a focus, that’s really to their disadvantage,” she said. “The issue is not going away any time soon.” 

Some companies have provided updates on their progress outside of quarterly reports. BlackRock Inc. CEO Larry Fink pledged  on an earnings call last summer to diversify the asset manager’s ranks. In an interview this April, Fink said the firm, which is offering subconscious bias trainings and had agreed to a third-party racial audit, wasn’t “moving as fast as I wanted.” BlackRock settled a discrimination lawsuit with a former employee earlier this month.

Companies still have a long way to go in meeting many of their self-prescribed diversity goals, particularly in their upper ranks. An analysis published by Bloomberg in March found that of 37 large U.S. companies, four had Black people in 10% or more of executive and management roles. Many also lagged in Hispanic representation. 

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