There is an underlying current that runs through the lives of Black people, one that managers or coworkers of other races may never know about, no matter how well-meaning your engagement may be with your team.
The everyday lives of Black America have long been affected by institutional and systemic racism, the latest examples are the horrific murders of George Floyd, Breona Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery — three African Americans senselessly killed in separate acts of racism. Unfortunately, their deaths reflect a systemic issue affecting the African American community at large.
Alongside these painful incidents, Amy Cooper threatened to place a call to the New York police department and then did so while claiming fear for her life as she was filmed more than a dozen feet away from her supposed attacker. This is just a sliver of the violence and does not include what’s happening to Latinx, Asian and Native American communities regularly, from micro and macroagrressions to state violence.
In professional spaces, business is going on as usual with video meetings, emails and calls that are required to keep projects moving forward and increase the bottom line. As Danielle Cadet said in a Refinery 29 article, your Black coworkers may seem like everything is “normal,” but more than likely they are not okay and are living in a constant state of fear and grief. We may all be living in the same times but we’re not experiencing its effects in the same way.
On a regular day, receiving news about the threatened and enacted violence against Black and brown people is disturbing for these communities. Put against the backdrop of a pandemic that is disproportionately affecting their health, claiming jobs and decimating the small financial improvements made since the 2009 recession, and the impact is magnified. Stress, anxiety and a sense of dread can bring down even the most optimistic among us. Now try putting on your best face and performing normality to those whose silence can feel like a rejection of your experiences and pain.
How leaders can meaningfully address racism
Leaders may be asking themselves how they can meaningfully address the national crisis without coming off as insincere or putting the emotional labor on Black team members. Here are the top recommendations for compassionately and authentically addressing racism:
- Check in in a timely manner. Don’t wait until the Zoom meeting or group call to reach out and inquire about their wellbeing. Call or text directly. Leaders and companies should also make an announcement directly denouncing racism and police violence as antithetical to your company values to ensure all employees know that racist behavior is not acceptable. Some may think doing so is inappropriate and think things like “I don’t want to alienate some people by talking about my “political views” or “I want to say something, but I don’t know what to say,” but silence may be interpreted by your employees as betrayal or complicity. Further, racism is a sociological fact, not a matter of political belief, so all companies should be denouncing it.
- Give space for the reaction. Recognize that some people may not want to express their emotions and respect that need for space. If they want to talk, just listen. Don’t center your own reactions, emotions or need to apologize.
- Avoid denial. Saying “I can’t believe it” may not seem like an unusual reaction but after decades of having heard stories from family and friends, experiencing incidents themselves, and now viewing readily-available video evidence of racist incidents, the last thing a Black or brown person likely wants to hear is your disbelief about what they’ve known to be true for years.
- Stay informed. It’s easy to avoid bad news when it seems like it’s happening elsewhere and far away from you. Instead of looking away, keep up as much as you have the emotional capacity yourself. You may not have all the answers so be honest about what you don’t know and ask for guidance and how you can best support your team. It’s important not to make assumptions about how employees are feeling. Ask questions to understand where your employees are emotionally.
- Skip the “not all white people” defensiveness. As much as you may feel defensive about the idea that your ethnicity or race is associated with racism and state violence, there is no need to provide rationale or try to excuse the actions of one person.
- Invest internally. If there was any time to invest in and deploy the employee resource groups (ERGs) and diversity and inclusion initiatives, it’s now. ERGs and DEI initiatives help meaningfully connect employees across multiple offices and countries and provide structure for intracultural support.
- Do more than issue public statements. Companies should evaluate their policies and procedures to ensure that their systems are not continuing to perpetuate inequity in their workplace, including any employment practices that appear facially neutral to ensure that such practices don’t have a disparate impact on certain demographics (e.g., valuing in-network referrals over applicants who don’t adhere to the typical profile of an employee, resulting in the hiring of similar teams). Companies must ensure that any employment requirement is truly job related and consistent with the necessity of the job and, to avoid subjectivity and implicit or other bias, ensure that any policies related to compensation or upward mobility are based on objective and measurable performance criteria.
- Read and listen. There are many well-versed, empathetic and amazing leaders who have provided guidance on how to support Black employees when addressing racism in the office: Society for Human Resources Management, How to be a Strong White Ally, Anti-racism Resources and Race Forward.
Most importantly, acknowledge the humanity of your Black employees, fully and completely. See it and don’t turn away from it. It is not lost on Black team members that what they are faced with on a daily basis — concerns for themselves, spouses, children and family and friends due to unseen and seen threats — is unique to living as a person of color in America.
Kanarys is a technology platform that fosters collaboration between companies and employees on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. At Kanarys, we honor the diversity of our country and our platform is designed to help companies support their diverse employees and create more inclusive, fair and equitable workplaces. If you have experienced racism since the pandemic, your voice is needed as a Kanarys community member. Create an account, rate and review the company where you work/worked, and then find others to connect within the Kanarys Forums.