Many black Americans carry with them generations of grief, fury and fear. And all three are frequently reinforced by horrifying spectacles like the killing of George Floyd.
For black employees, “maintaining professionalism in the age of black death is … a lot,” as writer Shanequa Golding put it in this Medium post.
Managers and leaders should appreciate that. But they need to do much more to support black team members, today and going forward.
The very first step: “Acknowledge what is happening. Admit racism exists,” said Crystal Ashby, interim head of the Executive Leadership Council, which is made up of current and former senior black executives who aim to build an inclusive leadership pipeline in companies.
And realize racism exists at your company.
“[It’s] not just ‘out there,’” wrote Erin Thomas, the head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at Upwork, in a Twitter thread titled “Dear Company Leaders.” “It’s hardwired into your organizational structures, team dynamics and individual employee experiences.”
Reach out, but don’t make it about you
As a manager, “you have a responsibility to check in with your black employees,” said Michael Kraus, a social psychologist and professor at the Yale School of Management.
But what that check-in looks like should be calibrated to how well you know the person.
If you’re not close – and especially if you’ve never discussed racism or police brutality – now is not the time to go on about how upset Floyd’s killing made you. Nor is it the time to ask them if they think you’re racist.
“That’s asking someone going through grief to handle your emotions,” Kraus said.
But do let them know you’re there to support them however they need, whenever they need. And then really listen to what they have to say.
Follow their lead
Some people may not want to talk. Some may need time off. Some may want more time to finish a project.
“Protect black employees’ time and ability to heal,” Thomas suggested.
And do let them know about helpful company policies and free resources, such as crisis counseling, coaching or mental health days.
Don’t ask black employees to educate you
It’s not the job of black employees to teach management and colleagues about racism.
“It’s not a black person’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem,” Ashby said.
And just as no executive would go into a meeting unprepared, she noted, “You need to do your own homework. There’s a lot of information out there.”
For example, here’s one bestseller list of books about race.
Adopt a sense of urgency to remedy racial inequities at your company
Employers alone can’t solve society’s deep-rooted problems with racism, but they can tend to their own house. And now is the time.
“We always default to ‘Let’s talk about it,’” Ashby said. Not that there isn’t any need for that, she added. “But the moment has to be short and sweet.”
Black employees want to see action toward eradicating barriers and prejudiced assumptions about them. And they want more professional opportunities.
Tim Ryan, US chairman of PwC and co-founder of CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion, notes that corporate leaders must be transparent and intentional in their efforts to set and achieve these goals.
“[S]tarting this summer, we [at PwC] will be sharing our diversity plan and the progress on our goals with our people annually, so they can hold us accountable if we are not meeting expectations or not doing it fast enough,” Ryan said in a LinkedIn post.
Give black employees as much opportunity as white ones
Black professionals often face a “concrete ceiling” at work because employers underinvest in their development and often think they’re taking a “risk” when they hire or promote a black person, Ashby said. “They have good [black] talent, but they don’t treat it as well as their white talent.”
By that she means leadership will invest resources and time in grooming their white professionals and give them stretch assignments that raise their profiles at the company.
The same needs to be done for black employees so that when a promotion comes up, they can compete for it on a level playing field with their white peers. “Make sure they are allowed to shine,” Ashby said.
And have someone at the table who can speak to their excellence, she added. “If you don’t know your black talent, you don’t know your organization.”
None of this can happen, though, without full buy-in from the corner office.
“It requires the top of the house to lead. This needs to come from CEOs and chairmen of the board, who will say ‘This is how we’re going to do it.’”