Just as we were all feeling optimistic about the reopening of offices from the Covid 19 pandemic, another event impacted the nation. The death of George Floyd has brought racism to the forefront of the American conversation. Regardless of your race, political view, or other identity, the issue of racism is not something companies or executives can ignore. We need to look at what real workplace diversity means.
A recent article from HBR tackles this difficult issue, and it goes beyond traditional workplace diversity initiatives. “While conventional diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives focus on employee engagement and belonging, today’s challenges reach far beyond marginalization in the workplace.”
To provide context, in her blog, Danielle Cadet writes, “And every day, we have woken up and answered the emails and gotten on the Zoom calls. We’ve showed up with a smile, and put the pain and fear behind us. We’ve swallowed the rage while responding to our bosses, and offered the assistance and worked twice as hard for half as much — because that’s all we know how to do. But here’s a newsflash for all the white people unaware of this fact: your Black colleagues may seem okay right now, but chances are they’re not…and you shouldn’t be either.”
These public events are having an impact on everyone’s lives. And this includes our working lives. According to the HBR article, “Research shows that how organizations respond to large-scale, diversity-related events that receive significant media attention can either help employees feel psychologically safe or contribute to racial identity threat and mistrust of institutions of authority. Without adequate support, minority employees are likely to perceive their environments as more interpersonally and institutionally biased against them. Leaders seeking to create an inclusive environment for everyone must find ways to address these topics.”
The research is backed up by the American Psychological Association. According to its president, Sandra L. Shullman, PhD, “We are living in a racism pandemic, which is taking a heavy psychological toll on our African American citizens. The health consequences are dire. Racism is associated with a host of psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety and other serious, sometimes debilitating conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorders.”
The topic is not a comfortable one to discuss, but that doesn’t mean we can avoid discussing it. HBR mentions three missteps to watch out for as you determine the course of action you are going to take. The first is staying silent for fear of saying the wrong thing and being perceived as prejudiced.
This is where leadership soft skills come into play. There is no playbook on the perfect thing to say, and the words used are meaningless if they are not backed up with actions. It’s a leader’s responsibility to speak up and demonstrate empathy and concern for all employees. This is not a time to remain silent. It’s also not a time to be defensive. There is a good chance your employees of color are going to challenge or question your viewpoint, and as a leader you should welcome the conversation. It is an opportunity to listen, discuss, and learn. To be a constructive opportunity for growth, you must remember it’s not personal.
The final misstep mentioned is over generalizing. Making statements that lump everyone together undermines the progress that must be made right now, “When in doubt, ask employees about their individual experiences to honor their uniqueness. Think about how you can allow your employees to discuss what’s happening without putting them on the spot or asking them to speak for everyone in their identity group.”
As a leader, you have the platform to initiate change and for real workplace diversity, you must take action to create both physical and psychological safety for all of your employees. There are three steps you can take – acknowledge, affirm, and act. The first step includes learning about racism and understanding the facts. Per HBR:
- Do the research to fully understand events, using data from reliable sources. Take the initiative to search beyond social media
- Give your black and brown employees the space to be angry, afraid, disenchanted, or even disengaged from work
- Seek out support from your human resources team or office of diversity and inclusion, three we recommend are:
- Race, Work and Leadership: New Perspectives on the Black Experience
- The Person You Mean to Be by Dolly Chugh
- How to Be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi.
- There are also free resources such as the “Talking about Race” web portal from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
- Do not rely on black and brown people to educate you about what happened in order to justify their hurt and outrage or counter “colorblind” rhetoric
- Do not ask your black and brown leaders or employees to comfort or advocate for colleagues or justice initiatives
Leaders should also be affirming the right for employee personhood. “This means offering continued opportunities for reaction, reflection, conversation, growth, development, impact, and advancement.” Let employees know they have the space and support to feel safe at work. And finally we all know the saying, actions speak louder than words. Leaders must act and show support for all people of color. As the founder of Black Lives Matter said on CBS Sunday Morning, “no lives matter until all lives matter.”
As intimidating as it may be, creating real workplace diversity is a core element of your company’s culture. The events of the past month have reminded everyone how important it is to stand up for equal rights. If you have questions or need help developing a more meaningful diversity program, send us a note, as our executive recruiters work with companies across industries to build positive, sustainable cultures that welcome and reward every employee.