Henrik Poulsen, CEO and President at Ørsted, the Danish wind energy company, wrote a wonderful and moving post against racism on Linkedin on June 11, which I quote in full:
“Across countries, people have taken to the streets in a call for equal rights and in support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement – and rightfully so. It’s every single person’s responsibility to speak up against injustice and discrimination.
The tragic and horrifying killing of George Floyd and the ensuing worldwide protests reveal a sad fact: racism and discrimination still exist in societies and communities all around the world.
What can we do to fight it? Racism is not something you can switch on and off. It’s deeply ingrained in some people, and it is not something that will disappear tomorrow. But we all have an obligation to fight it every single day. To call it out when you experience it on the street, in the local supermarket – or in the workplace.
Diversity should not divide us, it should unite us. It’s a strength, not a weakness. We might not look the same or live our lives the same way – but it’s through diversity that we learn more about ourselves, and it’s in a diverse environment that great ideas flourish. And at the end of the day it is about basic human values; respect, dignity and compassion. Let’s unite against racism. It’s everybody’s fight!”
Who could argue with such noble sentiments? But then one looks at Ørsted itself, a paragon of sustainable energy and a leader in offshore windfarms. It has an executive management team of seven, including Mr Poulsen, which is all white and all European, and a supervisory board of nine, which is also all white and all European (here).
Hardly walking the talk are we, Mr Poulsen? Denmark has around half a million non-white immigrants and their descendants, according to the Minority Rights Group International, but none of them made a senior position in the company. Indeed, a quick look at Ørsted’s Linkedin listing of the first hundred staff shows that the only non-white personnel visible in the listing work for the company in Asia, where it has offshore windfarms under development in Taiwan.
Then, when we look at Poulsen’s own career we see he has only ever worked in Denmark with such august names as McKinsey, Lego, Capstone and TDC. So his experiences of being an ethnic minority in his workplace or society are zero, his experience as an immigrant in a foreign culture are zero, and both his bosses and direct reports are all white, and mainly Danish. So, it is highly unlikely he has ever experienced racism or discrimination at work, especially not when he joined the company as CEO.
Must be hard setting an example like that! We note that Poulsen feels that “deeply ingrained” racism is a problem for “some people”, but presumably not for himself, nor his senior Danish-speaking colleagues. Spouting off platitudes on social media is an easy win for CEOs to garner likes and thumbs up. Unfortunately, it is not going to solve the complicated social and economic challenges of the twenty first century.
Better Mr Poulsen focused on putting up wind turbines safely, than reminding us of his own enormous privilege. Of course, to actively pursue positive discrimination against white, Danish-born staff at Ørsted in Denmark in favour of immigrants from Africa or Afghanistan might provoke a backlash. The company has a quota for women in management in its sustainability goals (here) but none for ethnic minorities or the disabled or the aged or any other historically disadvantaged groups.
Which illustrates the really difficult issues of fairness and equity that the Black Lives Matter movement has raised for both companies and individuals everywhere, and the difficult trade-offs which may need to be made. There are winners and losers in every change, and not everyone is happy with the results. Social, cultural and attitudinal change is threatening for many, and complicated for all, requiring courage and self-examination, as well as clear policies which are both fair and transparent.
It might be nice if Mr Poulsen acknowledged this in his social media activity. Very few today are in favour of racism, we hope, but actually fixing racism in a society like Denmark or the US, is much, much harder; probably harder than attempting to fix climate change through the roll out of green energy like windfarms.
Further to our commentary on Henrik Poulsen’s social media postings above, he announced his resignation as CEO of Ørsted on Monday, June 15 after eight years running the company. When he joined the company, then known as Danish Oil and Natural Gas (Dong), in 2012, it was mainly a fossil fuel producer, but today Ørsted has become the world’s leading offshore wind developer, and has divested from all hydrocarbon production.
In the statement announcing his resignation, Poulsen said, “It’s been an incredible ride over the past eight years, and I have a tremendous amount of affection for Ørsted, its vision, and not least its people.”
He will be appointed to the supervisory board of the company when he finishes as CEO.
This anonymous commentator is our insider in the world of offshore oil and gas operations. With decades in the business and a raft of contacts, this is the go-to column for the behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings of the volatile offshore market.