A five-step framework for addressing systematic racism at work
The world has changed in the past few weeks.
We're watching corporations and organizations across the world come out in support of Black lives in droves. Many of those organizations are doing so for the first time in their history.
But supporting Black people goes beyond sharing a mission statement or putting out a press release. It requires dedicated, ongoing work and resources.
As leaders in the Diversity and Inclusion space, PowerToFly has been getting questions from business leaders on what else they can do. How can they make Black employees feel supported at work? What kind of analysis should they be doing on their own processes and policies to root out systematic racism they may be perpetuating? And how can they keep these conversations about race and racism going even after the media coverage has died down?
A few weeks ago, in my role as PowerToFly's Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion, I held a chat-and-learn two weeks ago focused on how individuals could be better allies to their Black colleagues and friends. (You can watch a recording of our conversation here and read my summary of takeaways here.) Two weeks ago, I held another webinar, this time focused specifically on what leaders—whether CEOs, executives, HR managers, or frontline team leads—can do to support their Black employees. You can watch a replay or read on for my summary of key points and advice on the subject.
A reminder: none of what's going on right now is a Black problem. This is an American problem and even a global problem. Black people cannot end systematic racism or white supremacy, and we need white Americans and other allies to work together to end it. We need everyone in the boat with us, rowing together, if we're to see any real change. I know that fighting for that change isn't always comfortable or easy, but it's vital that we do it. It's especially important that all of you leaders, who have seats at the table to change policy and be actively anti-racist in your organizations, do it.
Thank you for joining the fight.
A five-step framework for addressing systematic racism at work
Most of us were taught not to discuss race, politics, or religion at work. But times are different now, and ignoring how race and racism impact work is the wrong thing to do. It's vital to address racism in the workplace not just for your employees, but also for the general public, who are noticing which companies are speaking up for what's right and which companies aren't. It'll be increasingly important in the future for leaders to commit to this change as workers and consumers alike seek to align themselves with organizations that share their values.
To aid you as you start doing that work, here are five steps you can take to start addressing racism at the workplace.
1. Get comfortable with having candid conversations about race.
There's no such thing as being colorblind. Saying so is problematic. We can't address the things that need to be fixed if we don't see color. Start by acknowledging that there are certain groups of people who are treated differently or haven't had the same opportunities. Start by accepting that you don't have all (or even any) of the answers, but that you're committed to working towards them.
2. Do regular, mandatory training on inclusivity, sensitivity, and other race-related topics.
Most workplaces have certain courses that are required, at least for managers and leaders, like sexual harassment courses or compliance training. If you want to make it clear that race is important and that racism won't be tolerated at your workplace, you need to invest in mandatory inclusivity training.
It has to be more than just a check-the-box activity. Your approach can't be, "Oh, everybody took unconscious bias training, we're good to go."
Just like anything else in your business that you really care about, you'll need to devote money and time to actively dismantling systematic oppression. That looks like monthly or quarterly workshops, having a speaker series where you invite SMEs to take on diversity topics, and investing in a D&I leader or in a resource group and partnering with them to regularly train and educate your workforce.
3. Address systemic issues in how you hire, pay, and promote employees.
A Black Lives Matter press statement is necessary but not sufficient when it comes to addressing racism at your company. It's a great first step, but if you don't start addressing and making changes beyond the company values section of your website, it's all for naught.
Start by looking at your salaries. Is there equity in what you're paying Black employees compared to white employees? Don't assume that there is without taking the time to analyze the situation.
Do the same for employee promotion rates. Who is moving up into bigger management jobs—and who isn't?
Look at project allocation, too. Are the same people getting the same chances to appear and present in front of executives? Are your Black employees getting opportunities to work on stretch projects?
Once you understand where the inequities are in your business, address them. These issues have deep-rooted causes and won't go away overnight. You'll need to come up with an action plan and start working against it.
4. Review your employee referral program.
While employee referral programs can be great, they are often not the best way to attract diverse candidates. If you have a mostly male white workforce, then your employee referrals are going to reflect that. The majority of companies don't have diverse workforces, which warrants a closer look at how these programs are implemented.
Consider running specialized referral programs through employee resource groups for underrepresented minorities. If you have a Black or Latinx group, for instance, work with your HR or Recruiting teams to source referrals from those pools.
5. Create executive sponsorship opportunities for Black employees.
Sponsors can make or break a career path. They can fast-track someone to a leadership role, create opportunities, and give an employee cover to try something new. But if Black employees haven't had a chance to get in front of executives—if they aren't playing golf with them, going out to dinners and lunches with them, or working with them on high-priority projects—they won't get those benefits. Add an explicit diversity focus to current sponsorship initiatives, and if none exist, create them in partnership with ERGs.
Tips and guidance to inform your approach
In implementing the above five steps, you may find yourself feeling unsure or uncomfortable. That's natural, especially if discussing race is something you haven't done before. Remember that to do this work well, you need to be willing to listen and to learn. Below, I've provided answers to some community-sourced questions on how exactly to do that.
How can I navigate a conversation with Black employees in a way that makes them feel supported?
As business and HR leaders, you might be wired to be very solution-oriented and to want to fix things for your employees. But you can't immediately fix racism or fix an employee's experience with it at work.
When talking about race with employees, do not make it about you. If an employee is talking to you about what they're feeling or going through, you can say things like, "I'm so sorry you're going through that" or "I hate that you're feeling that way" or "I care about you." Do not say "I know what you're going through" if you don't. Do not apologize on behalf of the white race or in any other way make it about what you're feeling, whether that's guilt or frustration or anything else. Just listen.
How can I—or should I—check on Black employees without disrupting their privacy?
Keep in mind that Black people have been taught to assimilate and blend in as much as possible, especially at work. Being called out at work specifically for being Black is not going to be a comfortable thing for many people. Do not zero in on the one Black person on your team in a meeting, for instance, and ask them how they're doing with everything that's going on.
If you are going to do a check-in, do it in a one-on-one setting. Give your employee an opportunity to give you cues. Are they bringing up what's happening in the news? Are they sharing that they went to a protest? If not, maybe they don't want to talk about it.
If you decide to check in anyway, don't direct the conversation. Tell them that you're there to help if they want to talk and that you want to know how they're feeling. But if they don't want to engage, let it go. Remember, this is not about you and what you think you need to do to be a good or inclusive leader. This is about your Black employees and what they are feeling.
How can I address colleagues who have implied or explicitly stated that they are not allies?
Be conscious of your energy. There are policies to create at work. There are protests to attend in your neighborhood. There are kids to raise and jobs to do. Investing time in someone who does not care or opposes who you are or what you believe in is not good for you, so minimize those debates and focus on what you can change.
That being said, don't change your message to make people comfortable. Now is a time to take a stance. If your colleagues aren't willing to do that, it might be time to leave them behind.
How can a primarily white team or organization support the Black community right now, especially if financial levers like expanding hiring aren't available?
It's important to move towards creating a more equitable workplace and culture even if you don't have a Black employee on your team. It's the right thing to do. Remember that allyship is essential, and that white allies can have huge influence within organizations and communities. So start with the five steps above. If you have a budget beyond that, invest it in additional D&I training. Provide resources for doing anti-racist work in-house. Dedicate time every week in your team meeting to talk on topics relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement, whether that's defining what being an ally is, learning about systemic oppression, or brainstorming ways to get involved in your local community.
How can I use levers to make sure my internal and external recruiting is as diverse as possible without being discriminatory?
First of all, there's nothing discriminatory about asking for a diverse slate of candidates, whether you're asking an external recruiter or an internal team. You're not promising anyone a job based on their identity; you just want to make an effort to see a range of candidates. Hiring diversely doesn't happen by chance. You don't post a job and then just see a flood of resumes that perfectly represent all races and identities. That's called the "post and pray" approach and it's destined to fail.
If you're hiring internally, start by going to employee groups and encouraging group members to apply. Ask if they have anyone they'd recommend for the position. Make an effort to ensure that people know about open opportunities and what you're looking for.
If you have a recruiter or sourcer working with you, tell them that you want to look at a diverse pool of candidates.
These are tough subjects to tackle and doing so will require sustained focus and resources. Thank you for doing this work. If there's anything we at PowerToFly can do to help as you continue down the path towards becoming an actively anti-racist organization, please feel free to reach out to me and my team at firstname.lastname@example.org!
A Q&A with Our Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion
It has never been an easy time to be Black in America, and the last few weeks have been harder than most. The recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers during a time when Black Americans are dying of COVID-19 at three times the rate of white people renewed energy in the Black Lives Matter movement and has led to protests across the nation and the world.
This energy is good. It is vital. It is late in coming, but it is here, and it's time to make the most of it.
As leaders in the Diversity and Inclusion space, we've received an outpouring of questions from our community. What can you do as an individual in your company to support your colleagues? What resources can help catch allies up to what's been going on in the lives of Black Americans for years? And how can we support our teams, friends, and communities?
As PowerToFly's Director of Global Diversity and Inclusion, I led a global chat-and-learn last week to start the conversation on those topics, and I'm writing this now to share the resources and takeaways discussed during that event with all of you.
This talk was focused on individuals and what actions they can take. Please join us again tomorrow for a chat focused on what business leaders can do to support their Black employees.
I want to be clear that I am one person sharing my experience, and that true change will require listening to and lifting up the Black community as a whole—not just me. But let's get started.
Is there a preference between saying Black people, African American, or people of color within the community?
There's not one right answer. There are people who would prefer to be called Black. There are people that prefer the term African American and also people who would hear you say that and say, "You know I'm American, right?" Usually in formal work conversations, we tend to use "African American." Lately, because of the movement, we're using "Black" a lot more than is typical. "People of color" tends to include people of many different ethnicities and minority groups, and the current conversation and this movement is about Black people, not all people of color. It's okay to distinguish between the two.
Overall, just listen and ask. Listen to what the person is using to refer to themselves. Ask them if they have a preference.
How can I initiate conversation with my Black colleagues about recent events without just saying "How are you feeling?" How can I let them know that I support them?
Lead with the fact that you care. Don't be so concerned about making a mistake or saying the wrong thing. I know these conversations can make you feel uncomfortable. But it's far more uncomfortable to have a knee on your neck than it is for us to have these tough conversations. Worry more about just being a good, caring human.
Whether you say, "Hey, I know a lot is happening right now, so if there's anything I can take off your plate, please let me know," or "I wanted you to know I'm thinking of you and will be educating myself further on how to better be an ally in the future," or something else, just make sure you're not centering yourself or whatever emotions you're feeling. Remember that your Black friends may not be able to serve your needs at this time. And think about ways you can support them without them having to ask, too. For example, if they're participating in protests, can you offer to help with childcare? Drop off dinner for their family? Make a recurring donation to their favorite community organization?
If you end up getting into a discussion about the movement with your Black colleagues, do be careful of your language. Referring to protests as riots or protesters as looters is insulting. And don't make this about you. To some white people, Black Lives Matter might feel like "all white people are bad." But remember that if you are not a white supremacist, the only other option is to be an ally. There's no in between.
Also be careful of what you're sharing or saying. Watching video after video of people who look like you being beaten and killed is traumatizing. Be considerate and conscious of what you're sharing and whether it could be triggering for your Black colleagues.
If I feel like I haven't done a good job of creating space for my Black colleagues in the past. Should I reach out to apologize now, or just double down and do better moving forward?
Think about it from the perspective of the person receiving that outreach. Will it feel to them like you're unloading your conscience and making it about you? If you haven't talked about these things with them before, it might. Focus on doing better going forward.
How can I support my Black colleagues even after the media storm dies down?
It's vital to think of this as a long-term issue. If you're in a position of being able to influence policies and procedures at work, or if you have people reporting to you, continue these conversations with your team. Lead a diversity-focused review of your hiring practices. Create a book club around race. Ask for funding to do racial sensitivity and inclusivity training with your team.
What to do with fellow white people who do not want to engage in the conversation about white supremacy or police brutality?
Remember that Black people cannot end white supremacy—it's up to white people to do that. As a white person, you might have a seat at the table in conversations that Black people do not. Know that this work is not comfortable. Keep engaging those difficult people. Share information and call them in.
But at the same time, be cognizant of your energy and whether the person is even listening to you. If you've done your part and provided information, and that person is still not interested, you have to decide whether you can keep that person in your circle. If they are not on the side of what's right, are those the kind of people you want in your life?
How can other minority groups be allies to the black community while also understanding the privileges and biases held against them?
Acknowledge that Black people have demanded the distinction of saying that this is about Black lives right now. That's not to say that other minorities don't experience similar discrimination and that it's not important to come together, but this moment is about standing up for what's right in terms of white supremacy against Black people.
I know that Latinos are suffering. And that the Asian community is experiencing terrible racism right now around COVID. As a Black woman, I am rooted in solidarity to help with those fights. But right now, we're focused on moving the needle for Black people. Try to have that conversation with your community and help them to see that.
How can I influence leadership in my company to be more inclusive and diverse?
If you ever had a fighting chance to have your company pay attention to Black issues and how it affects a company, it's now. Don't give up easily on this. There is no middle road on this, and you have more leverage than ever.
If you're sitting in board meetings, add this topic to the agenda. If you're in team meetings, add it to the agenda. Reach out to your HR rep and ask them what your company is doing specifically to support Black people and employees. If your HR manager is a no, go to your director. If your director is a no, go to your VP. If you were ever able to get on the calendar of someone really high up, it's now. Take advantage of that.
How do I, as a white person, start to have this conversation with my children?
Today's children have an opportunity to grow up more aware of this conversation and to help create a better world as a result. And there are tons of resources out there—books, cartoon programs, movies that have diverse characters—to get started with.
Think about your circles of friends in your community. Are your kids getting exposed to people of different races?
When talking about the history of race dynamics in this country, it has to include a history lesson that's appropriate for each child's understanding level. We don't want white children to feel like they're a bad person. But we do want to start the conversation.
How do I create safe spaces to talk about issues around race at work?
Lead by example. If you're a manager, you can ask your team to read a book about race and lead a conversation about it in your next team meeting. Show your team that you care about this and are willing to put in the work. Don't expect your Black employees to show you the way. Don't assume that Black people on your team want to be the spokesperson for these conversations. Adding more work to them is not the way to do this. Invest that time yourself, and share resources that you've found helpful with the rest of your team.
Remember that Black people who work for you might not be okay. They're carrying trauma. Don't pretend it's not there—or that you can fix it.
You'll know you've created a safe space when your employees feel like they can send you an email or knock on your door to talk about why this is important to them. Until then, keep working.
More questions about how companies should be responding to the current movement and how leaders can ensure they are supporting Black employees and creating a diverse and inclusive work environment?
Join me tomorrow for a chat focused on how leaders can support their Black employees.