How HR, D&I Practitioners, CEOs & Line Managers Can Support Black Colleagues

By Petunia Thomas, MBA CPCC

Black colleagues and network groups have been dealing with, at a conscious and subconscious level: 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.

'Organisations cannot underestimate the unspoken exhaustion, emotional drain, burden and trauma black colleagues 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/Skype/GoTo/Hangout etc.'

It’s great that a number of companies have been openly inviting feedback and listening to personal experiences and opinions of their black colleagues 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 colleagues but it is paramount for them to receive the emotional support they require right now.'

There are mental, emotional health and wellbeing factors to consider – particularly for black colleagues who, have stepped forward and been willing to share their experiences of racism and micro-aggressions at work with colleagues, panels, teams and the organisation. Non-black HR, leaders and D&I practitioners and line managers need to support 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.

'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 unless it is already part of their role in those particular departments, it is also not, in the case of black lives, the role of black colleagues and networks to suddenly be singled out and 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 inform their corporate recommendations and strategic plans. Leaders can draw in black, external expertise if there is no explicit role in the organisation that already specifically and formally covers this activity.'

Remember, black colleagues in the main just want to be able to work in an environment that feels psychologically safe for them to be authentic and where they feel they can belong. This safety enables and empowers them to share – 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.

By all means, have the conversation about race but also be prepared to allocate and invest resources to engage external black professionals and black-led businesses to expertly facilitate the internal dialogue. This will also, importantly, relieve the stress and strain also on black HR &D&I professionals and networks, who should not be viewed as the sole corporate solution or new source and fount of knowledge for `all things black`. They are overwhelmed at this time and they too need support so they can breathe.

Seven things you can do to support black colleagues over the next six to twelve months:

1. 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 engage in debate or discussion. 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 but about making that personal connection through compassion and empathy from hearing their story. Be aware that some may want to share but others may not be willing or able to at this time. Think about how you do support those colleagues who do share, as well as those who can’t. And beware of repeatedly calling on them over time to relive their experiences or relying on them as a `shortcut` to personal learning about racial inequality past and present.

2. 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.

Secondly, revisit career conversations held with black colleagues to date. What have individuals shared as future roles, support required, training and development opportunities etc which may have hitherto been overlooked by your organisation? Do you understand their current aspirations? Can you see the full range of their skills and talents and potential beyond the current role they are doing? What should you be doing from now to retain and develop each colleague in a way that could help address the disproportionate under-representation gap at senior levels? Line managers and HR together can collect this data.

3. ENGAGE & INVEST: Conversations should encompass asking black colleagues what the company can do to support them individually, not just 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 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 explicitly acknowledged in some formal way, with appropriate budget, level of investment and formal recognition through internal systems to deliver added value to the organisation and its members.

4. SELF-EDUCATE TO RAISE PERSONAL AWARENESS: This is an important period for non-black CEOs and leaders, HR, line managers to separately take the time to 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. It is a willingness go beyond rhetoric, external media or a moment to internalise personal learnings that will make the difference.

5. 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 colleagues.

6. AMPLIFY LEARNING & SHARING – A TWO-WAY PROCESS: Now presents the opportunity for non-black line managers, leaders, HR & D&I practitioners, to individually and intentionally 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. Demonstration of your personal and ongoing reflection, learning and action will be important in establishing your own credibility and perceived authenticity in the face of your black colleagues and in your organisation.

7. APPLY THE LEARNINGS & TAKE ACTION: Diligently and swiftly begin to apply the feedback, findings and recommendations to plan, invest and follow through with committed, coherent, corporate actions across the employee lifecycle and in recruitment. Revisit the McGregor-Smith Review, and establish the organisational infrastructure to implement the actions.

This will involve engaging external black professionals and black-led, black-founded and black-owned businesses to partner with over the coming months and years, particularly for organisations that specifically made public commitments and pledges around black lives. And it will, through external public accountability, measurement and reporting, demonstrate genuine alliance, as well as create the uplift to positively impact broader social and economic justice and inclusion.

As we intentionally 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 their talent and potential to also thrive and flourish in diverse workplaces. And, all together we are establishing more actively inclusive cultures for all through transformational systemic and behaviour change, for organisational, individual and societal growth and success for now - for generations to come and for good.

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