Racism and the Workplace: Ten Things Every Concerned And Conscientious Employer Should Be Doing Right Now

This post on racism and the workplace is provided by Ramona Strategies, a management consulting firm that is committed to building happier, more productive, more inclusive teams.

America is in a state of distress right now.  Everyone knows that.  In the past few days, we at Ramona Strategies have been spending time with current and former clients and with colleagues, digging in on how best to engage in our workplaces with the national attention on racism.

Yes, we are all dealing with the implications of covid-19 (isolation, fear, loss, and for some serious and lingering health consequences).  But our black and brown colleagues must also contend with the intellectual and emotional load of the ways in which Covid-19 is harming communities of color even more seriously — highlighting the ways in which racism stresses and compromises black and brown bodies while simultaneously infecting our systems of medical care, resulting in insufficient access to services and lesser care even when being treated.  As a result, BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) are more likely to be at high risk themselves, and they are more likely to have been personally impacted by serious illness or loss in their immediate circles.

As if that were not enough, we as a nation are being confronted with visceral reminders of how racism brutalizes black and brown lives and of how the government often exacerbates or initiates violence rather than protecting and serving.  Again, the weight of all this (grief, anguish, anxiety, exhaustion, anger, and the seemingly impossible choice between protesting — thereby risking more violence at the hands of the police — and taking precautions because of the pandemic) falls disproportionately on our colleagues who are BIPOC.

For all the reasons above, you should expect that your colleagues of color are particularly worn down.  So what is a concerned and conscientious employer to do about racism?  Here are ten ways you can adjust for how this will impact your teams, use this moment as a catalyst for meaningful change, and hold your leadership accountable for truly leading on these issues.

  1. Don’t proceed with business as usual (even in a “new normal”).

Diving into whatever work you otherwise have, as though convulsions of pain have not been racking our nation, is short-sighted and unfair.  This doesn’t mean that managers need to wax poetic about everything that is going on or that white colleagues should feel compelled to perform their wokeness (they shouldn’t).  This does mean that you need to acknowledge that these are incredibly difficult and painful times, even just by opening calls or meetings by saying “Look, these are really hard times.  How is everyone doing?” and then leaving space for folks to talk if they want (but move on if they don’t).  To that same end, you should build more time into planning.  Expect to accomplish fewer things than you might in the same meetings and to take longer to generate product than you might in other circumstances.  A common symptom of prolonged anxiety, exhaustion, and/or grief is difficulty focussing and short-term recall, so spend more management time on communication.  For example, when you delegate something, communicate it in writing in addition to sharing it verbally.  Be proactive about checking in if people have questions or need direction or assistance.

  1. Do accept that long-simmering frustrations and hurts are going to come to the surface.

All the feelings that the present evokes will also bring to the forefront those difficult memories from the past as well.  This means that you should anticipate folks are thinking about what’s going on in their communities, what’s happened recently in your own workplace, what’s happened historically in your workplace, and what’s happened historically in all the other workplaces they’ve experienced.  Don’t get tangled up on whether or not its fair for you to have to deal with history; just accept that that’s where you’re at and that’s the challenge to which you are called to respond.  Trying to parse out what “should” be your issue with what shouldn’t can feel petty to those voicing concerns and is, without a doubt, unproductive if your goal is to actually make things better.  Also take into account that, when people experience racism or race-driven micro aggressions in mission-driven spaces (the majority of clients we serve), there’s a layer of betrayal added onto the underlying hurt.  Taken all together, you should be prepared to hear about A LOT OF STUFF because a lot of stuff has been broken for a very long time.  Don’t get overwhelmed; get resolute to be a part of the change.

  1. Do cut BIPOC a break.

Being generous of spirit is a good idea for all managers right now, but please be extra generous with BIPOC.  In other words, let some stuff slide.  You have a rule that people have cameras on during zoom meetings?  Maybe you have a colleague who was up half the night consoling a child who is scared the police are going to harm them or their parent.  Maybe they can’t get themselves together to put on the brave face for the cameras.  Let it go.  Consider offering time extensions.  Push yourself (and leadership) to lessen administrative duties and other internal tasks where possible.  Focus on what’s actually important to getting your actual work out, and then remember that even more important than that is the people who get it done.  This isn’t a forever thing (unless maybe your TPS reports should just go away forever); it’s a humane thing for right now.

  1. Don’t rush or short-change your response on this.  

The standard listening session or statement from leadership is unlikely to accomplish what is needed here.  Be prepared to contend with the reality that racism has shaped and is still shaping your workplace.  That doesn’t get fixed quickly or easily.  We know that budgets are already tight due to the pandemic, and we aren’t saying you need to bankrupt yourself to do all the things all at once.  In fact, even if you had the money to do it, real change isn’t instantaneous.; it takes the investment of time and effort as well.  So reframe how you approach all this around three questions: a) Where do we start/focus first? b) How much can we do in the remaining year? and c) What will we commit to for 2021 and 2022?  The answers will be different for each place, but those questions demonstrate you aren’t looking to check the box and move on.  And when figuring out the answers to those three questions, please make sure you are including and weighing heavily the perspectives of BIPOC on staff.

  1. Don’t make BIPOC staff be the educators and guides for everyone else.  

Look.  If you have black or brown folks on staff who feel they want to and are able to take on the load of educating their white colleagues about this, they’ll step forward.  If you’re worried they won’t, create a mechanism (they can email) for people to volunteer to be a vocal and visible part of whatever your reform and education efforts are going to be.  But for the love of any and all gods, please do not just assign whatever BIPOC you have to the task. Do Not call out the one black or brown person in the meeting to publicly share how they are doing/what they are feelings/whether and when they’ve experienced racism before (they have, but they aren’t obligated to share it with anyone).  Don’t expect BIPOC to be comfortable speaking openly in large forums; create different spaces for your BIPOC and your white folks to process separately and then come together after.  Hire people who do this work to come in and take on much of this burden, even and especially when you have BIPOC on staff who have volunteered to do some of the work.  And think about who you are hiring; where possible, it can be best to have a combination of BIPOC and white facilitators/trainers/educators.*

  1. Do push your organization to do hard things that are both internally and externally facing.  

Amorphous statements about valuing diversity, abhorring racism, and/or being committed to an equitable and inclusive future is not what change looks like.  Get concrete and real about what you’re going to do internally to grow — specific actions not platitudes.  Be public about what you’re doing internally to create external accountability.  And then start thinking about what you — as an organization — are going to do about racism in your industry or part of the mission-driven world.  Be specific there too, and be ready to spend some resources.  Fund scholarships and recruit at HBCU’s.  Call out problems when you see them.  Donate to other organizations that support BIPOC in the communities where your employees live and/or your offices are located.

  1. Do require your white managers and leaders to take responsibility to learn more.  

In many professions, there are ongoing education and learning requirements.  There is no reason that you can’t expect your teams to do some work to understand how white privilege and systemic racism has shaped and continues to shape American society and American workplaces.  There are SO MANY good books that you can encourage your staff to read.  And however big your executive or leadership team might be, it isn’t going to break your bank to purchase books for them and then require them to read it.  Support some authors of color; support some independent bookstores.  Put the onus of becoming more versed in the language of privilege and systemic injustice on your executives.

  1. Do create formal expectations for senior leadership and management that go beyond this moment.  

People prioritize those things on which they will be evaluated and judged.  It’s human nature.  So if senior leadership and managers aren’t evaluated or assessed on what they are doing to create and maintain diverse, equitable, and inclusive teams, then it isn’t a priority for the organization and it won’t be a priority for them.  It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned they are; we’re busy people, so we all have to triage.  Aspirational values remain just that — aspired to but not realized.

  1.  Do be proactive and aggressive about diversifying executive leadership and boards.  

We don’t want to erase the BIPOC leaders who exist, but the fact is that the majority of organizations – mission- or profit-driven – are run by predominantly white leadership teams.  Telling folks that the organization is going to use a 3/6/9 or 4/8/12 or 5/10/15 year timeline to diversify executive leadership and boards is — more often than not — received as a commitment to do as little as possible in the present with a hope that people forget in the future.  Similarly, pointing to the one or two BIPOC on a board or in leadership will likely do little to convince your employees that the organization is meaningfully committed to doing better.  Instead, go back to that framing of what can we do in one year, two years, and three years and also push yourself to engage with how you can empower the black and brown individuals already on staff with meaningful authority and a voice to make change.  And rather than thinking about what you can do to avoid legal liability, think about what you can do to be the banner carrier for diversity and inclusion.

  1. Don’t treat concerns about systemic racism as a distinct or separate issue from whatever it is that your organization does.  

Too often, we hear leadership discussing issues of racism in the world as if it is entirely removed from whatever their organizational mission or brand identity is.  Drawing distinct lines between combatting racism and the work of your organization tends to ignore the ways in which racism and white privilege shapes nearly every facet of American life — whether you’re selling a product or fighting climate change or promoting access to reproductive care or developing technologies or educating students or organizing voters or advocating for legislative change or ….  Rather than thinking of DEI (diversity, equity, inculsion) as an internal HR initiative and local, state, and national anti-racism efforts as a civic issue, take the time to connect the dots.  Make it an explicit part of your organizational identity, strategy, and plans moving forward.

*There are many aspects to this — enough that we could write a whole other post on it.  But two quick considerations include that (i) white trainers can leverage their privilege to push and hold other white people accountable, taking up the burden of education that should sit solely (or even predominantly) on black and brown shoulders, and (ii) BIPOC trainers can help create space and give voice to experiences of discrimination and oppression in an authentic and direct way that white trainers (however knowledgeable) can’t fully capture.

Ramona Strategies

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