It’s been several weeks since our nation’s collective consciousness was impacted by the visual and visceral death of George Floyd. His death was followed by what seems like a steady drumbeat of injustices, past and present, thrust upon Black people in America. While today, the drumbeat isn’t as loud, it is still steady. Unlike with some previous movements, it is unlikely that companies and the people who work within them will be able to go back to business as usual. The most meaningful question we should all be asking ourselves and our companies is, “What are we going to do with the knowledge we have now?”
Many of us have read the New York Times article “Corporate America has Failed Black America.” Like the author, staff writer David Gelles, I believe that statement to be true. But I also believe that the key to meaningful and sustainable change is best achieved by leaders’ using their leverage to drive it internally and externally. Now is the time for leaders to commit to doing better and to back that commitment with visible change within their company, their leadership teams, their board of directors and their governance.
Throughout my career, the departments that I’ve seen have the most significant impact on behavior within companies have been the human resources (HR) department and, more specifically, the talent development and talent management and performance management functions. Often, the bulk of learning occurs out of these departments. The people who lead these departments and organizations develop and execute training and oversee programs to help employees succeed. They are critical to making internal change visible and building credibility for the entire company by ensuring the words of the leaders and the actions of the company are aligned.
It’s already clear that things aren’t how they used to be. Most likely, you are carefully scrubbing your programs, corporate university courses and the like to root out systemic bias. To help you be more effective, there are a few things you should consider in regards to your employees, especially your Black employees:
Look Beyond Training Programs and Town Halls
Black people are simultaneously hurting, grieving and fearful. Seeing our people routinely mistreated, witnessing proof that the color of our skin is weaponized every day, is hard. While the world is grappling with a pandemic, the coronavirus is killing Black people at nearly two times the rate as white people, and scientists don’t know all the reasons why.
So, as organizations begin to ramp up training programs and demand mandatory implicit bias or sensitivity training programs, or ask Black employees to share their experiences, it’s important for them to remember that their Black employees are not at their best right now and probably won’t be for a long time. We still want to show up for our organizations; it’s just hard.
Executives need to make it OK for people to talk when they are ready — and they should go beyond town hall meetings and a few dialogue circles. They can’t just check the box and move on; this effort requires deep thought and deep compassion. In many cases, Black people are desperate to be believed when they share how they have been mistreated in the workplace or about the microaggressions they face daily. Leaders need to trust and believe them.
Face Systemic Bias Head-on
Systemic bias isn’t new to your Black employees. As your organization reviews its training programs and courses, make sure everyone can see it through their lens. Are people of color represented in your training videos? If so, how? Are they being portrayed as positive examples or negative ones? Has your organization or your vendors unintentionally used stereotypes — positive or negative? (By the way, all stereotypes are negative if they imply that an entire group of people behave in the same way simply because they share similar traits, like skin color.)
Another area that can have a significant, and fast, impact is retooling your recruiting, hiring and promotion practices. Make them transparent; without transparency, there can not be equality. If the rules are known by a chosen few, those few become the most powerful — which is the antithesis of meritocracy and kills opportunity. Some companies have implemented blind reviews of applications and resumes so that race and gender cannot be part of the hiring process.
If you’re white, use your white privilege to make a difference and be a voice for people who don’t have a voice. Mentors are great, but what Black people need are sponsors and champions — people who can advocate for them and for equity when they can’t advocate for themselves. The importance of this advocacy in the work environment can’t be overstated. Black people often are not in the room when employees are evaluated for growth opportunities or when succession decisions are made. A sponsor or champion makes sure they don’t go unseen.
Keep the Conversation Going
It took our country decades to reach where we are today. Change is going to take time, and it’s going to take everyone to make a better society based on justice and equity. Do whatever you can to fight systemic racism. No effort is too small, and small efforts eventually come together and create seismic shifts. At work, at home and in your community, be the spark that leads change, not the door that closes opportunity.