Making the Case for Business Civil Rights Audits

A report out today from Laura Murphy explores why businesses should undertake civil rights audits — and what those audits should look like. Murphy, a civil rights and civil liberties leader, and a recipient of the Hubert H. Humphrey Civil and Human Rights Award, draws from her experience leading audits at Airbnb and Facebook, which resulted in meaningful changes at those companies.

Until now, there has not been consensus on a set of principles to define effective and meaningful civil rights audits. A broad cross section of civil rights and labor organizations contributed to developing principles discussed in the report, including The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the ACLU, Color of Change, Muslim Advocates, Human Rights Campaign, NAACP, SEIU, and Voto Latino.

Today, a confluence of crises — attacks on our democracy, a global pandemic, and horrific killings of Black people at the hands of police officers — have all exposed the persistent impact of our nation’s legacy of systemic racism and inequality. And they are forcing companies to confront their role in perpetuating social harms. More companies than ever before are taking important steps to interrogate their practices, policies, and culture and better align them with our highest values of equity and inclusion.

In today’s increasingly diverse and competitive business environment, corporate leaders should insist on also having a holistic view of how well (or how badly) they’re managing critical civil rights concerns. One way to do that is through a civil rights audit — an independent analysis conducted by firms with civil rights expertise that assesses an organization’s business policies, practices, and products to determine whether those components have a discriminatory effect on people who have been historically subject to discrimination. These audits are the focus of Murphy’s report.

Issues of corporate accountability and transparency hold great importance in the civil and human rights agenda. In 2020, The Leadership Conference, along with other civil rights organizations, released updated “Civil Rights Principles for the Era of Big Data.” The principles urge companies to respect and promote equal opportunity and equal justice in the development and use of data-driven technologies. This framework applies to any company, and civil right audits are effective strategies for helping companies adopt these principles while meeting the needs of stakeholders and enhancing safety, economic opportunity, and fairness for everyone.

Wade Henderson, then our president and CEO, participated in the first ever civil rights audit in 2016 of Airbnb and saw how transformative such an audit could be for reducing racial bias and advancing civil rights in the sharing economy. Later, Henderson also participated in the civil rights assessment for Starbucks as the company sought to advance racial and social equity on behalf of its partners, customers, and communities.

Henderson’s successor, our former president and CEO Vanita Gupta, was a leading voice in calling on Facebook to conduct a civil rights audit. She recognized that as the world’s largest social media platform, it was critical for the company to inject civil rights into its DNA. The audit was hard-hitting and plainly showed the platform’s civil rights shortcomings. Following the release of the audit, Facebook took some important steps to keep our democracy safer. But as the October 2021 whistleblower allegations about Facebook’s knowledge of its platforms’ negative impact on young people and harmful misinformation show, the work is not over. Clearly, civil rights is not yet part of the organic structure and operations of the company, and we will continue to press Facebook and other social media platforms to implement and enforce policies to address hate speech and rampant disinformation on voting, elections, public health, and civil rights.

Unfortunately, far too many companies merely pay lip service to addressing problems of discrimination and inequity. That is why a civil rights audit is such a powerful tool for change — if it is done correctly. The audit demands more structure and accountability for the good work companies are seeking to lead. Further, a properly designed and conducted audit provides clarity and confidence — to the public, as well as to the company and its shareholders — that the efforts the company is making will have the desired impact in the areas of greatest concern to the civil rights community.

We enthusiastically endorse The Rationale for and Key Elements of a Business Civil Rights Audit, and we’re thrilled that Laura Murphy drafted it in response to the urgency — and opportunity — of this moment. No one is better equipped to lead this effort and this report could not come at a more pivotal time.

The private sector has an essential role to play in building an America as good as its ideals. Companies around the globe can, and do, significantly impact society and civil and human rights. And while no one company can end structural inequality and racism alone, when companies make commitments to address the ongoing legacy of discrimination and work across sectors — with civil rights leaders, elected officials, communities, and others — we begin to see meaningful change on an extraordinary scale.