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How companies can pull up for Black employees during a race crisis

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
Listen to Black voices.
  • Erin L. Thomas
By Erin L. Thomas

Head of diversity, inclusion & belonging, Upwork

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s been more than two weeks since Americans first flooded the streets—during a viral pandemic—to protest their country’s 400-year history of brutal subjugation of Black people.

This isn’t the first time citizens are marching in solidarity with Black lives. But this time, something’s different, particularly in our workplaces. This is the first time we’ve seen company executives outwardly accept accountability for their organizations’ roles in our racial divide. More than acknowledging that racism is wrong, they’re finally acknowledging they have work to do to build antiracist company cultures, and publicly so.

Moments like this can feel overwhelming. As a leader, you might be asking yourself what you can do. While you can’t repair centuries of racial injustice in the domains of health, law enforcement, and education, you can leverage your power to leave a legacy within your organization. You can begin to rewrite what the future of work looks like for 13% of Americans—the 13% who are Black.

Here are a few places to start.

Center Black employees

Every time images of racism and police violence inundate our news feeds, Black employees experience trauma. These acute episodes also surface the toll of chronic racism we endure every day. On top of this, Black employees are some of the most likely to be grieving losses from Covid-19.

When you remember this, remember also that what you’re seeing demonstrated out in the streets is a workplace issue.

This is a workplace issue because your Black employees can’t simply turn off these impacts when they clock in.

This is a workplace issue because Black people (hopefully) comprise a portion of your client and customer base.

This is a workplace issue because, for too long, corporate America has failed Black people.

If you haven’t taken action yet, it’s not too late to ally with your Black talent, which will strengthen your company culture for everyone. Before making any corporate commitments, begin by giving Black employees the space they need right now for healing:

Validate our humanity. Communicate with Black employees directly and personally. Avoid common mistakes, such as singling out Black employees during team meetings. The wrong approach can do more harm than good.

Curate a private space for grieving. Demonstrate that you see your Black employees by creating a private memorial for the many Black lives lost over the past month. At Upwork, the freelancing-platform company where I oversee diversity, inclusion, and belonging, we curated a loosely structured virtual space for Black employees to share, process, listen, and grieve after the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s killing was released to the public. This helped our Black employees cohere as a community and provided us with insights into how—or if—they wanted colleagues to respond to such tragedies in the future. Little did we know that our colleagues would have another chance to respond just three weeks later with the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

Protect our time and ability to heal. This may include arranging external community gatherings (we covered the costs for our Black employees to attend one hosted by Liberate Meditation), covering costs for coaching or therapy, and offering paid time off (PTO). Upwork views the acute racial traumas of late as potential losses to Black employees’ extended families. Employees are invited to take time off work as they need under our bereavement-leave policy, not as mental health leave or typical PTO. We’ve also adjusted key performance expectations for employees who need it so that their choice to take time off is unconstrained.

Build an army of solidarity around Black employees

Black employees have always quietly endured feeling like an outsider at work, but now, we’re feeling more vulnerable and isolated than ever. This is why it’s imperative that companies collectively show support from the top down.

You can help us feel supported by equipping managers to engage in meaningful conversations about racism and inequity. To do this, managers must understand what their Black talent needs right now and in the future to excel at work—from our sense of belonging to our ability to see advancement opportunities. Yes, it’ll be uncomfortable at first as conversations about race are historically avoided as too “hot” and controversial. But that silence only keeps us feeling undervalued, as if our concerns don’t matter, which may cause us to become less engaged over time.

Managers must also enable every team member to show up in ways that are meaningful to Black employees. You can help our colleagues overcome their fear of “saying the wrong thing” by educating them on how to broach “third-rail” conversations and know when they shouldn’t. To that end:

Coach them to check in with Black employees asynchronously. Instant message, email, or text gives the employee time and space to respond without feeling put on the spot. If an employee does want to talk, equip managers with the skills to hold that space.

Consult Black employee resource group (ERG) leaders. Gauge their energy levels and whether they’re able and willing to be consulted on aspects of your response. The leaders of Upwork’s Black Initiative Network, our Black ERG, recommended the external community organizations to which we directed $200,000 in company giving. They also met with our CEO and senior vice president of human resources to discuss our path forward.

The crisis that’s consuming America right now is a Black one. It may be tempting to lump other racial groups into the short-term supports you build, but resist that urge. This is a time to stay focused on generating solutions that specifically address Black employees.

Ally out loud

As business a leader, you must be public and bold about your stance on Black equality. Be transparent by sharing tangible commitments to create an antiracist workplace. Backing your talk with actions solidifies your accountability and cultivates trust.

Respond to the acute crisis and also keep sight of the fact that real change must be systemic and ongoing. Consider these tips when responding:

Message the whole company. Take care not to position racism as a Black people problem or one that is removed from the workplace experience.

Host an expert-led conversation. Have company-wide conversations on how to be antiracist.

Be quantitative. Set measurable goals for Black diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Include specific targets for Black leadership representation, internal mobility, and Black employee engagement.

Maintain accountability. Put recurring time on the calendar now to assess progress later against these quantitative goals.

Investigate the root cause of inequity. Nearly every organization has systemic inequity baked into its organizational design. Invest in uncovering it now. Upwork was fully prepared to make some of our organizational commitments when we did, only because we already had spent months uncovering our Black employee experience and identified the data points we must move.

Get in touch with your Black talent. Stories are data, too. Add depth to your understanding of employee experiences by hosting a summit for your Black employees, leveraging surveys, and facilitating conversation.

Consider long-term implications. Your messaging should reiterate the moral imperative for an antiracist culture while also articulating what it affords everyone: more accurate and objective decisions that benefit all employees.

Share solutions with other organizations

“We’re all in this together” is a resounding tagline for the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic. We can also apply it to our race pandemic. Companies tend to be proprietary about their diversity efforts, holding tight to the solutions they’re building. What if, instead, we approached racism as an issue for the business community to tackle collectively, open-sourcing our practices, trials, and errors?

To create effective change, it’s critical that you harness the passion you feel now against racism. Use it to maintain momentum toward building a company culture where Black employees feel they belong and are valued as their true selves. Invest time upfront to get granular, so you know which needles should move and by how much. If no movement occurs, you should have a clear understanding of why and what to do next.

Whatever you do, don’t let your proclamations become empty words that fade away as protesters clear the streets and the media move onto other headlines. With openness and a willingness to learn, we can help each other effect change that can finally turn around America’s 400 years of subjugation against Black people. It’s long overdue and if it doesn’t happen now, I fear it never will. You have the power to change history. I—and surely your Black employees as well—hope you take the steps to see it through.

Erin L. Thomas, PhD, is head of diversity, inclusion & belonging (DIB) at Upwork and a former managing director at diversity and inclusion strategy firm Paradigm, where she worked with clients to embed DIB strategies into their organizations through culture transformation and people development.

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