Companies are still struggling to understand how to cultivate workplace environments that are built on equity. The excitement and enthusiasm leaders had in the summer of 2020 has started to wane. To complicate matters, there have been multiple attempts by lawmakers to stifle conversations about systemic racism and critical race theory in an effort to conceal the racist origins of the United States, which may have trickle-down effects on what types of conversations leaders welcome into organizations. In spite of all the pushback, Black employees continue to vocalize their negative experiences; social media has become a power vehicle to share workplace traumas. Organizations that are serious about racial equity should consider the points outlined in this article, which contains four specific ways to invest in your Black talent.
1. Advancement opportunities. It was recently announced that Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer would be retiring. President Biden has since announced that he will fulfill his promise to the American people and nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court. Critics have called Biden’s recent announcement “offensive” asserting that focusing on a nominee’s identity will somehow lead to a less competent and less qualified pick. Allegations like this discount the long history of intentional exclusion that Black people have experienced within the United States. Black women have made significant contributions to the country and the world at large, but too often these contributions are unacknowledged and omitted from history books. Black people deserve a seat at the table as well as opportunities to grow, develop, and advance. When examining the experiences of Black employees in corporate America, there is a lack of advancement opportunities and an unclear pathway into senior leadership. Ensure that your succession planning strategies are intentional about creating a pipeline for Black talent. Implement sponsorship programs and provide multiple opportunities for Black talent to develop and thrive.
2. Listen to Black employees. Some may think it sounds too simple; but employers are not listening to their Black employees’ concerns. What are the specific needs of your Black employees? Are you disaggregating the data to parse out how Black employees specifically are feeling? When was the last time you surveyed this specific group? In most cases, employee data is grouped and analyzed based on white versus non-white employees. While the experiences of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) may be similar, Black employees experience unique barriers within corporate America that are not fully understood through the BIPOC lens. Anti-blackness is a very distinct form of oppression that cannot be adequately understood if it is conflated with other forms of marginalization. If the company has a Black employee resource group, ask for feedback from these employees about their experiences. Also analyze the feedback from former employees in their exit interviews and resignation letters. Find ways to continuously be soliciting feedback specifically from Black employees and implement this feedback into your racial equity interventions.
3. Ongoing education. Angela Davis wrote in Freedom is a Constant Struggle that “if we attempt to use historically obsolete vocabularies, our consciousness of racism will remain shallow.” Our lexicon is constantly changing; employees must evolve with society and part of that involves understanding how our language shapes our experiences. Just because your organization had a listening session after the murder of George Floyd doesn’t mean the education should stop. Invest in webinars, courses, trainings and workshops to strengthen employee understanding. Books are a good supplement to employee learning, but books and book clubs alone will not be what liberates Black people. What specific interventions have you implemented (outside of your workplace’s Black History Month or Juneteenth commemoration) that highlight the nuances of the Black experience? Do employees understand things like generational trauma, covering, and the Black tax? Having a deeper awareness about a community’s experience can cultivate conscious and compassionate cultures that create a psychologically safe environment for all employees.
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4. Harm-reduction. Organizations should invest in barriers to racial harm. These barriers could include, but are not limited to, an ombudsman, external consultants, racial equity educators, and psychotherapists. Having an individual who specializes specifically in racial equity (and not just DEI) can create a shield for the harm that racialized employees experience in majority-white spaces. Putting the weight of workplace transformation solely on the shoulders of internal employees can lead to exhaustion and burnout, which can further compound marginalization. How are employees expected to change the people who are signing their checks? While it is not a completely impossible feat, it puts employees directly in harm’s way and can cause undue hardship to the individual. In a centralized organization where the power is mostly concentrated at the top, there must be a checks and balances system that reallocates the power within the organization and redistributes it to employees. This can be done by tying leadership outcomes (performance, pay) to racial equity objectives. Racial equity objectives should not center around simply getting underrepresented racial groups in the door; this can lead to tokenization. Instead, racial equity efforts should focus on the types of environments that are being cultivated. An inability to prioritize racial equity should have far-reaching consequences that leaders are being held accountable for.