"Business as usual" sends a painful message to your Black employees.
My heart goes out to any Black person who had to show up to work this week to a completely tone-deaf management team who said nothing. With four of my six team members being Black, ignoring what’s going on outside of work wasn’t an option for me.
Last Friday, I made the decision to cancel our team meeting agenda and instead make space for sharing and processing the death of George Floyd and pain over the state of Black America.
One of the hardest things to do, especially if you’re Black, is witnessing these events, taking this trauma, and then trying to show up to work the next day and trying to act like you care about what Client X is doing about communication.
Sucking up the microaggressions
For a Black person, if you call out things like racism in the corporate office, you will likely come to work the next day and find that glass ceiling even lower than you remembered.
That reality — having to accept the inequalities or risk jeopardizing your social and professional mobility — is a heavy weight to carry, especially lately. The collective weight of Black trauma and grief really boils over in times like these.
It’s especially difficult when you have to bring those feelings of grief into a place — such as the workplace — which does not create space for those feelings.
Now is the time to create space for those feelings.
Now is not the time for business as usual
What a lot of Black people are doing regularly is pretending everything is OK. They're letting go of that thing someone said to them in the elevator, or that person walking to the other side of the street as they saw them coming.
Black people think, “how much of that do I just need to put a mask over so I can just basically function in my job today?” Everyone is wearing masks right now to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but many Black people have been forced to wear a mask over their pain and anger every day.
If your Black employees aren’t giving themselves permission to stop bearing that burden, it’s up to you to help them do so — to ask them to not do that anymore.
Now is the time to stop for a moment and ask yourself: what is more important than the deadlines in my diary? What is bigger than those Q3 goals I have?
Now is the time to check in on how your employees are as people, and not just employees.
How to support Black people in the workplace right now
Cancel your team’s agenda
Here are a couple of good questions that managers can ask themselves:
- What can I take off my over-burdened employees?
- What can I alleviate from my Black team members who have been carrying an emotional weight in professional circles for some time?
I promise you, you have Black employees who have never felt like their voices or valid feelings were important enough for you to stop and acknowledge.
Move things that are not priorities right now. I told my team, “Do whatever you have to do today and then, sign off. Cancel all the meetings that aren't important.”
Tell them they can change their 1:1
Give your team the power to change how they spend their 1:1 time with you.
If it’s not productive for them, tell them to cancel it.
Tell them you only expect them to be at their 1:1 if they feel they can be their full selves.
Normalize not being “on”
If you’re attuned to the events happening around us, odds are that you don’t expect it to be easy for your Black employees to show up for your clients right now.
Carrying an emotional burden is normal. Not having the mental space to take a customer through product training is OK.
This is something they need to hear from you, in clear, unmistakable terms.
Create space – and make it safe
This is the most important part. Some people use work as an escape. For others, it isn’t easy to compartmentalize what’s happening outside of work.
You need to be willing to meet employees where they are. That means normalizing this kind of coping mechanism where employees don’t use work as a distraction from life. It would be worsening to force them to grit their teeth and carry that weight for another day.
How do you talk about these things without adding to the trauma?
I recognize that there are some mixed messages right now:
- One voice is saying, “Check in on your Black friends”
- Another says, “Don’t bombard your Black peers with questions right now”
It’s confusing, and it’s easy to let that confusion lead to paralysis and inaction.
The good news is that there are some things you can do to create a culture of care in your workplace:
- Vocalize your awareness of what's going on
Do the opposite of what most people are doing — asking their Black peers how they’re doing — and instead share what you are doing and what you are feeling.
The intent of sharing what is going through your mind is not to make your feelings the center of the conversation, but rather to make the discourse between Black and non-Black peers less one-sided. Just be careful not to burden them because that person may not want to be your soundboard right now.
- Give time, not questions
Instead of asking questions, just offer your help: “I understand this all must be quite painful for you. If there is anything you need right now, we're here for you.”
- Read the room
Some people might want to share, whereas others might prefer to internalize their feelings. Sense what’s happening around you, including reading what tone and body language you can on a Zoom call.
- Give options
Let your employee choose whatever they need. For example, I reminded my team that I always create space at the top of our 1:1 meetings to talk about non-work things. If they want to vent then, they can. If they prefer to talk about “normal work things,” that’s fine, too – I told them I am happy to do whatever suits them.
From trauma coaching to ERGs, gently remind employees of what options they have available to them.
- Leave them with an open door
Offer the space right now and any time in the future.
How to move past being paralyzed by fear of saying the wrong thing
Some of my White colleagues voiced their difficulty about knowing what the right thing is to say right now. That’s a good step: tell your people “I’m sorry, I’m still learning myself.”
This vulnerability and sincerity will help create a safe space – let that openness move you past being frozen in silence.
How to create systemic change going forward
This won’t be the last act of police brutality on a Black person in America, nor will it be the end of inequality. What it is, however, is a chance to change. Don’t let your approach to current events be a short-lived, one-and-done response.
How do you continue to make the workplace better for Black employees? Here are a few ideas:
- Create a workplace where Black people can bring their full selves to work
- Build a more diverse leadership team
- Set up unconscious bias training
- Offer more counseling services
- Train leaders on how to respond to something like this in the future
- Be aware of microaggressions
- Show up for your employees. What does that mean? We had a member on our team who was disrespected for what I will call “communication issues.” Our leadership cut the business relationship right then and there. It means putting your employees before business.
Above all, train yourself on these things. Don’t leave it up to your employees to speak up for when they are being marginalized and excluded. Be willing to speak up yourself, rather than waiting for your Black employees to speak up for their own humanity and their own dignity.
Symbolic gestures or meaningful acts?
Posting black squares on social media and other symbolic acts are important and appreciated, but as employers, it’s up to us to go further and think about what we can do for our employees to acknowledge the reality of what is happening inwardly.
The key to creating a psychologically safe work environment for these difficult times and conversations is having a strong foundation of trust in your workplace. If you would like help creating a high-trust workplace where employees trust their leadership, have pride in the work that they do, and enjoy the people they work with, contact us today.