Avoid repeatedly and over time asking black colleagues to share their experiences. Listen well and act on what they have shared. Pay attention to their mental health and wellbeing as well as their psychological safety, whilst at the same time engaging in self-education on your own and intentionally reflecting on how racism has occurred in society and the workplace.
Organisations cannot underestimate the unspoken exhaustion, emotional drain, burden and trauma black employees have been experiencing during this period – overlaid with the covid challenges – even though they may still be turning up to work and being ‘physically’ present via Zoom/Teams/GoTo/Hangout etc.” Petunia Thomas
Black employees and network groups are dealing, at a conscious and subconscious level, with: their own experiences of racism past and present, the external atrocity of George Floyd’s murder and countless others, the impact of the mainstream media narrative around the disproportionate number of `BAME` covid deaths, as well as trying to `show up` and continue to be professional for work. It’s great that a number of companies have been openly inviting feedback and listening to personal experiences and opinions of their black employees at this time. However a word of caution: to be repeatedly and continuously relied upon for voluntary sharing to help educate/lead on teaching for senior leaders and colleagues, on top of their actual day job which they were hired for, must be met with empathy and sensitivity to their wellbeing.
“It is important not to place any new burden of responsibility on internal black employees but it is paramount for them to receive the emotional support they require right now.” Petunia Thomas, June 2020
There are mental, emotional health and wellbeing factors to consider – particularly for black colleagues who, because they have shown willing, have shared their experiences of racism and micro-aggressions at work with colleagues, panels, teams and the organisation. HR, leaders and D&I practitioners and line managers need to focus their immediate action and efforts on support for them as they do, through 1:1 conversations, and employee assistance programmes (EAPs) which have black counsellors. Plus, there are self-care tips for black people experiencing trauma during this period. Remember, black employees in the main just want to be able to work in an environment that feels psychologically safe for them to be authentic. This safety enables and empowers them to share their stories more openly – whether it be via informal chats, conversations, talks, emails, focus/listening groups etc, so the more supportive, open and understanding the environment is for them, the better.
Additionally, it is important to recognise that, just as for other corporate strategic initiatives or operational plans where black staff are not specifically singled out to deliver or prepare these unless it is already part of their role in those particular departments, it is also not, in the case of black lives, the job of black colleagues and networks to suddenly be additionally pressurised into drafting corporate race action plans on behalf of their organisations over and above their current work (find out more about the `cultural tax` or `black tax`). Such work continues to be the responsibility of the leadership who are accountable for delivering these plans, albeit they may receive input and suggestions via listening groups for black colleagues, which they then use to make their corporate recommendations. Leaders can draw in black, external expertise if there is no explicit role in the organisation that already specifically and formally covers this activity.
Seven things you can do to support black employees:
- ACKNOWLEDGE & ASK: Simply acknowledging and explicitly stating the awfulness of the George Floyd atrocity, showing compassion by asking how they are but saying that you know they may not want to talk about it, is a good place to start. Offering a listening ear if they want to talk and listen to understand rather than counter-argue or justify alternative perspectives. Ask if they mind you asking a question, if you have something you’d like to understand from the experience they shared. This is not about general fact-finding which you can check online or research separately but about making that personal connection through compassion and empathy from hearing their stories. Be aware that some may want to share and others may not be willing at this time. Think about how you do support those colleagues who do share in whatever capacity that might be because it takes resilience, strength and some bravery to bare. But beware of repeatedly calling on them to relive their experiences or rely on them as a `shortcut` to your own learning about racial inequality past and present.
- LISTEN TO UNDERSTAND: Be prepared to be led by black colleagues and networks on how you engage them to understand their stories, to better understand their lived experiences. Sharing is good with lots of positives. It can be most impactful for those hearing these previously suppressed experiences first hand and for the first time. Let’s celebrate the opportunity to listen to understand black experiences, engage in conversations, emails, focus/listening groups, articles etc.
- ENGAGE & INVEST: Conversations should encompass asking black employees what the company can do to support them individually, notjust what they can do individually or as a network to help the company at this stage. [The networks have often been built upon in an uncompensated voluntary capacity, with little or no budget by those who want to do well in their day job and who have given additional personal time, energy, passion and sometimes personal sacrifice. This foundation may need to be reviewed, such that hitherto voluntary time given is valued and recognised in some formal way, if it has not been to date, with appropriate budget and investment and formal recognition through internal systems.
- SELF-EDUCATE TO BUILD SELF-AWARENESS: Whilst creating the space for and exercising company care for the mental and emotional health and wellbeing of black employees, and facilitating time for their self-care, it is also an important time for CEOs and leaders, HR, line managers in the majority group to separately take the time to also invest in self-education. There are plenty of resources that have been made available, so beginning a course of study and learning, downloading some of the multiple resources and book lists and working your way through them would be time well spent. Delving into one of the recommended books or films may be a good start.
- REFLECT MORE DEEPLY: Intentional reflection on systemic and structural systems and barriers that have existed for black people, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel at times, is also key. This critical phase for personal reflection should not be overlooked, minimised, ignored or dismissed in place of a corporate response or stance on racial inequality. A personal commitment is also required. Perhaps create a separate journal to capture personal insights and adding to it over the coming days, months and years will help you chart your learning. It is the beginning of a journey, and is the necessary groundwork to authentically come alongside your black employees, demonstrate empathy and a willingness go beyond rhetoric, external media or a moment, and collaborate effectively with other stakeholders to create change.
- AMPLIFY LEARNING & SHARING – A TWO-WAY PROCESS: Now presents the opportunity for line managers, leaders, HR & even some D&I practitioners, to individually and intentionally deepen their own levels of awareness and understanding about racial inequality in the workplace, and reflect on what that means in terms of personal values and potential behaviour change to achieve racial equality. This is key in demonstrating the important qualities of compassion and empathy in active anti-racist allyship. For those embarking on this journey for the first time or more deeply, be prepared to also openly share your insights back with your black colleagues. Tell them what you have found out and are beginning to understand better and what you are still learning, as you think about possibly convening and continuing company-wide focus/listening groups, talks, panel discussions online sharing etc designed to amplify black voices. Demonstration of your continued personal and ongoing reflection, learning and action will be important in maintaining your own credibility and perceived authenticity in the face of your black colleagues over time.
- APPLY THE LEARNINGS & TAKE ACTION: Then, let us diligently, in parallel with all the above, swiftly apply the feedback, findings and recommendations to plan, invest and follow through with committed, coherent, corporate action over the coming years.
And as we create and maintain empowering environments for black colleagues to share, develop and progress – and keep them safe and support them in doing so – we are making room for black talent and potential to thrive and flourish in diverse workplaces. All together we are working to create and maintain more actively inclusive cultures through behavioural and systemic change, for individual, organisational and societal growth and success for now and generations to come.
By: Petunia Thomas MBA CPCC, Independent Consultant, CEO & Director
Petunia Thomas LinkedIn
Petunia works to implement coherent, and systemic approaches with senior leaders and top teams to deliver change at the individual, interpersonal and organisational (systemic/structural) level.She facilitates Inclusive Leadership for Culture Change, Race Fluency Workshops, Black & BAME Mentoring (Reverse & Reciprocal) & Career Sponsorship Programmes, delivers a highly acclaimed Black & BAME Talent Programme, as well as helping organisations proactively implement interventions for Ethnicity Pay Gap Reporting.