Workplace expert: Why managers are big now, senior leaders will be important later

Kyra Sutton thinks a public statement from a company on systematic racism is a must — especially if you’re a corporate giant.

And hearing internally from the most senior leaders in the organization is important, too.

“I hear you … I understand … here are steps I’m taking,” she said. “It’s really important to hear that from the top leaders.”

But Sutton — a professor in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and an expert on human resources and organizational behavior — said the communication that will mean the most to employees this week are the words that come from a different leader: the direct supervisor.

As companies begin their second full week of work since protests regarding race relations following the killing of George Floyd during his arrest by police officers have been prevalent across the state and around the world, Sutton thinks the relationship employees have with their direct supervisor will be key.

As long as supervisors follow one rule: Be genuine.

Most employees don’t have a personal relationship with the top leader. And, that’s when everyone is in the office. With everyone working remotely, Sutton said department heads and team leaders will be called on to give assurance that the company is concerned about both the issue of racism and its personal impact on its employees.

Rutgers University
Kyra Sutton of Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

“The message of the corporate statement is important,” she said. “And, if they don’t give a statement, that says more than a message does. But, it’s fair to wonder if, sometimes, a company comes out with a statement to speak to its consumers — we’re in a capitalistic society — or its shareholders.

“That’s why that message from your manager is going to be all the more important.”

Sutton said the initial message from the manager — which should have been delivered by now — could have come by email or a Zoom call. It’s the follow-up, she said, that’s more important.

“It’s more genuine if it’s one-on-one — even if it’s just to say, ‘I’m here: If you want to talk, I want to listen,’” she said.

Most of all, Sutton said, managers need to say something. And say it consistently.

“Don’t be silent,” she said. “Don’t pretend that it has gone away. Don’t pretend, if you say one thing one time, you have shown support. The support from the company will go back to the individual manager.

“Think of it this way: If you’ve heard from someone in the C-suite, but not your department head, how strange would that be? What message would that send?”

And, when Sutton says these types of conversations already should have started, she’s not just talking about the protests.

“There’s a lot going on right now, between COVID, the unemployment numbers, the impact all of this is having on everyone,” she said. “Managers need to say, ‘Is there something I can do to be supportive?’”

Down the road is when senior leaders come in, Sutton said.

“They’ve made a big statement — but will they follow up?” she asked. “Six months from now, are they still going to be interested in having these conversations? Are they going to be looking at the talent pipeline to see if underrepresented minorities are included in that pipeline? Are they attracting diverse talent from underserved backgrounds?

“Are there going to be any changes in their vision and the goals they set out — particularly going into 2021?”

For now, it’s all on direct supervisors. And Sutton said it needs to stay that way.

In other words, supervisors should shift the duty of discussing the issue to those most impacted by it.

Sutton experienced that scenario herself in the corporate world.

“If you go into a meeting and there is only one underrepresented minority there — whether it’s race, gender, sexual orientation — don’t look to them to answer, ‘How do you feel about the protest?’ or ‘How do you feel about the disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos dying from COVID-19?’

“Other people have an opinion — don’t hyperfocus on the minority in the room. I have been there, done that, and it’s not ideal.”