Leadership: The antidote to racial injustice

For many African American employees in your organization, these last two weeks feel like they’ve been 100 years long. Along with millions of people around the world, they’ve witnessed the horror of George Floyd being held to the ground by a police officer with such force on his neck that it resulted in his death.

A life was lost right before our eyes, and no one in authority did anything to stop it. Floyd’s homicide follows those of other black men and women, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland and many more, at the hands of those in power or in institutions of authority.

These institutional leaders, the police in this case, control the culture we experience in our neighborhoods, the very same way you control the cultural environment that employees experience in your organization.

Since Floyd’s death and the ensuing protests, company after company have released statements of outrage over what transpired, with renewed pledges of commitment to inclusion and diversity in their organizational practices.

Yet, for many of your employees, especially those who are people of color, these words ring hollow. They’ve heard these pledges before. They’ve sat on diversity committees and participated in affinity groups designed to foster understanding, communication and opportunities for minority employees. They’ve sat through numerous training programs that yielded temporary shifts in interactions with nonminority colleagues, only to watch as the momentum of such training waned because of a lack of leadership follow-through. They’ve been the token person of color on teams, had their qualifications for their job and role questioned and watched as colleagues with less skill and lighter skin got promoted over them.

Is it any wonder that these employees are skeptical, disillusioned or, dare I say, angry at the current state of affairs in our country? Is it any wonder that they question the sincerity of company leaders to finally take inclusion and diversity as seriously as they take the success of a product launch or meeting quarterly financial goals?

Your people are in pain, and as a leader, you play an important role in alleviating it. That will take a lot more than platitudes or hollow promises that fall by the wayside within months of making them. A good place to start is by working to understand what black employees are feeling right now. Perhaps I can offer a real-life personal example.

I am an African American woman with corporate leadership experience. I am also the mother of a biracial son. Because of the reality in our nation, I’ve had to have conversations with my son about his safety, conversations that no parent should have to have with their child. Every time a black person is senselessly murdered, we have that conversation again. It’s like the movie “Groundhog Day,” except a lot less fun.

Consider for a moment that I am not unique. Your employees of color are probably engaged in the same conversations with the people they love. They are worried; they are sick with sadness and losing sleep at night. In truth, they may be struggling to be at their best at work today because they are in the middle of full-blown, heart-wrenching grief, the kind that comes in waves and then oozes out, drop by drop, like some ancient form of medieval torture.

So, what’s the playbook for leaders who are navigating these issues with their teams?

There isn’t one.

So, what’s the playbook for leaders who are navigating these issues with their teams? There isn’t one.

Addressing racial injustice and improving inclusion and diversity in your organization are about more than a prescriptive playbook; what’s required is a sustained mindset shift that leads to real change. To get started, here are five first steps that you can implement right away:

1. Give your employees a chance to take a breath

They’ve just been gut-punched, and it may take a bit to recover. To support this, offer opportunities for employees of all backgrounds to share with you and with their colleagues what they are experiencing. Scheduling a standing audio or web call on this subject is way for employees to feel heard and also offers an opportunity for learning — the rare silver lining that may come from this most recent tragedy.

Pick up the phone and check in with your people on an individual basis, even if you don’t quite know what to say. It’s OK to call a minority employee and admit, “I know I can’t possibly understand what you’re feeling, but I want you to know that I care. Is there any way that I can help you during this difficult time?”

2. Engage your employees in developing a long-term solution

Recognize that what you’ve done in the space of inclusion and diversity in the past may be insufficient for the new norm we are operating within. The perfect storm of a global pandemic coupled with George Floyd’s death is highlighting the pattern of racial injustice in our civil and health care systems, with black people disproportionately affected.

Your employees are experiencing the company culture directly and are in the best position to offer ideas about how to improve it. Invite their voices to be heard, listen to them, and implement their ideas. Get serious about innovation around inclusion and diversity in the same way you’re serious about product innovation. One feeds the other.

3. Lose the platitudes and replace them with action

It’s insufficient to say that you value inclusion and embrace diversity when the representation of people of color on your staff or C-suite shows the opposite. Currently, just four companies in the Fortune 500 are led by African American CEOs. If you want to take this seriously, begin by examining where you are as an organization.

A toolkit created by Paradigm 4 Parity, an organization focused on gender equality in the workplace, offers a simple model and an applicable guide for examining the questions each company needs to ask about the environment for minority employees:

  • What is the baseline representation of diverse employees in our organization?
  • How can we improve the recruitment of diverse people to our teams?
  • What do we need to do to manage with an inclusive mindset so that we retain the people we recruit and support their upward mobility within the organization?

4. Make training more than a “sheep dip” exercise

Implementing broad unconscious-bias training in your organization is beneficial, but only if it is followed up with ongoing measurement of inclusion within the culture of the organization and consistent attention to improving inclusion at the team level. It doesn’t matter whether your team is composed of 40% minority employees if they are not truly included in the networks of communication, influence and trust on your team.

Measuring inclusion on your team at least annually is the most effective way to uncover issues in team relationships and address them before they negatively affect retention of diverse employees.

5. Raise the focus on I&D to the CEO level

When any organization is facing a recalcitrant, ongoing problem that affects the business, it always gets serious attention from the CEO. Unfortunately, inclusion and diversity is the exception to this norm in many companies.

Finance is a serious function that ultimately reports to the CEO, as are sales, marketing and legal in most companies. Why shouldn’t the inclusion and diversity function be the same? When issues get attention at the CEO and board level, they tend to get solved. If you’re taking this issue seriously, raise the focus on it.

This is an unprecedented time in our history that is challenging you as a leader to show up and make a difference. Encased within the combined tragedies caused by COVID-19 and racial injustice is an opportunity for you to create a better workplace and a better world. Let’s not wait for another crisis to finally take transformative action.

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, June 2020.

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