Mass emails, supportive tweets aren’t enough — here’s what your Black employees need right now

By Kyra Leigh Sutton, Rutgers
Piscataway | Jul 23, 2020 at 5:40 am
Op-Ed

George Floyd. Rayshard Brooks. Breonna Taylor. Elijah McClain. Tony McDade. Their names will never be forgotten, thanks to the recent protests.

Ask any of your Black employees, and they will tell you that, when the police kill one of ours, it’s personal. It’s an attack on our family, on our rights, and it hurts like hell. Worse yet, we know that another member of our community will die as a result of police brutality. And we know this with certainty because, sadly, history repeats itself, even with police reform.

Lately, I think about racial inequalities every day. It often crosses my mind at work, and I am not alone. If you’re a corporate executive or a manager, you can be sure that your Black employees are still processing — and struggling with — the events of the last few months.

By now, most organizations have issued a clear statement to their workforce that they stand against systemic racism and police brutality. Several companies have made financial commitments, including donations to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Black Lives Matter. And some companies are eradicating symbols aligned with racial inequality.

That’s a good start, but it’s not enough. As business leaders and managers, you must also think about the individual needs of your black employees. There is no single action or initiative that works like a magic wand. And, frankly, we deserve better from leaders — including the acknowledgement that our needs can (and often do) change.

Here are five examples of the ways in which your Black employees may be coping, and how you can best support them.

  • The Silent Processor wants to keep work and home separate. This employee may not wish to discuss racial justice issues with their colleagues. If you manage this employee, reach out and ask if there is anything you can do to support them. If they ask for time off, don’t ask why. Just honor the request. They may need time to decompress.
  • The Visionary has strong opinions, loves verbal debates and frequently comes up with solutions. They likely have more than a few ideas the organization can implement to help eradicate inequality at work. If you manage this employee, it’s imperative that they feel heard. Listen to them. Partner with them and help them prioritize their recommendations. Figure out which of their ideas can be implemented, and devise a plan.
  • The Go-Getter is taking part in the protests and trying to juggle their work responsibilities. Have an open discussion with them. Help them consider the goals they want to meet at work and outside of work. Remind them of what’s most important to accomplish right now. Don’t make them feel guilty just because they have interests outside of their job. Act as their ally if others at work describe them as “trouble employees.”
  • The Feeler is not protesting, but they experience the pain, frustration and fear of the unjust treatment of Black Americans. It’s essential to listen to this employee at a close level. What they say is important, but what they do not say may be a better indication of their feelings. For example, if you see a change in this employee’s behavior from outgoing to closed-off, don’t express your observations. Instead, make a mental note and reach out to them more frequently.
  • The Detective is taking a closer look at your organization. They are thinking about measurable ways to ensure equality in the workplace. They are looking for specific metrics representative of an equitable workplace. For example, they are curious about the number of Black employees who have been promoted to leadership roles. They’re interested in understanding the turnover among Black employees and, most importantly, why they left. Be prepared to share data and figures with this employee.

On most days, I fall into the “detective” category. Throughout my career as a human resource management professional in Corporate America and a faculty member in higher education, I’ve always wanted to see evidence that my employer is working to ensure equality. I need to know that my organization is fair, just and decent to all workers.

Your own Black employees deserve nothing less. It’s up to you, as executives and managers, to create a safe space that embraces them as a Black, gives them a voice when they want to be heard and gives them space when they want to be left alone.

Blacks have been fighting against racial inequality for more than 400 years. For some leaders, the journey is just beginning. Your actions now could resonate for years to come.

Kyra Leigh Sutton is an HR expert in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University.

ROI-NJ Staff | editorial@roi-nj.com | @roinjnews