How CEOs, line-managers, HR and D&I practitioners can support Black colleagues

Listen, learn, act and self-educate—just some of the things you can do to support Black colleagues at work.

Avoid repeatedly and over time asking Black colleagues to share their experiences. Listen well and act on what they have shared collectively as well as individually, says Petunia Thomas MBA CPCC, Independent Consultant.

Here Thomas explains why it’s important to pay attention to Black colleague’s mental health, wellbeing and psychological safety, while at the same time educating yourself and intentionally reflecting on how racism has occurred in society and the workplace.

“Organisations cannot underestimate the unspoken exhaustion, emotional drain, burden and trauma Black colleagues have been experiencing during this period – overlaid with the COVID-19 challenges – even though they may still be turning up to work and being ‘physically’ present via Zoom/Teams/GoTo/Hangout etc.,” says Thomas.

Black colleagues and network groups are dealing, at a conscious and subconscious level, with 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-19 deaths, as well as trying to `show up` and continue to be professional for work.

It’s great that several 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, must be met with empathy and sensitivity to their wellbeing.

“It is important not to place any new burden of responsibility on Black colleagues, but it is paramount for them to receive the emotional support they require right now,” says Thomas.

There are mental, emotional health and wellbeing factors to consider – particularly for black colleagues who, because they have shown willing, have shared their experiences of racism and micro-aggressions at work with colleagues, panels, teams and the organisation. HR, leaders, D&I practitioners and line managers need to focus their immediate action and efforts on support for 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.

“It is important to recognise that, just as for other corporate strategic initiatives or operational plans where Black staff are not 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`).”

Thomas adds: “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. 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.

Thomas suggests seven things you can do to support Black colleagues over the next six to twelve months:

1. Acknowledge and 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. Offer a listening ear if they want to talk and listen to understand rather than counter-argue or justify alternative perspectives.

Check 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, which you can check online or research separately but about making that personal connection through compassion and empathy from hearing their stories. Be aware that some may want to share, and others may not be willing at this time.

Think about how you do support those colleagues who do share in whatever capacity that might be because it takes resilience, strength and some bravery to bare. But beware of repeatedly calling on them to relive their experiences or rely on them as a `shortcut` to your own 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 understand their lived experiences better. Sharing is good with lots of positives. It can be most impactful for those hearing these previously suppressed experiences first-hand and for the first time. Let’s celebrate the opportunity to listen to understand Black experiences, engage in conversations, emails, focus/listening groups, articles, etc., but provide wellbeing support in the process.

Secondly, revisit career conversations held with Black colleagues. What have individuals shared as future roles, support required, training and development opportunities, 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. Revisit the McGregor-Smith Review, and establish the organisational infrastructure and interventions recommended for a comprehensive and coherent response to this `listening` phase.

3. Engage and 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.

Take note that networks have often been built in an uncompensated voluntary 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 recognised in some formal way, if it has not been to date, with appropriate budget and investment and formal recognition through internal systems.

4. Self-educate to build self-awareness

While creating the space to care for the mental and emotional health and wellbeing of Black colleagues, and give time for their self-care, it is also important that CEOs and leaders, HR, line managers in the majority group 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.

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 come alongside your Black colleagues authentically. It is your willingness to go beyond rhetoric, external media or a moment to internalise your learnings that will make the difference.

6. Amplify learning and sharing – a two-way process

Now presents the opportunity for line managers, leaders, HR & even some D&I practitioners, to individually and intentionally deepen their levels of awareness and understanding about racial inequality in the workplace, and 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 with your Black colleagues. Tell them what you have found out and are beginning to understand better and what you are still learning. Do this as you think about possibly convening and continuing company-wide focus/listening groups, talks, panel discussions online sharing etc. designed to amplify Black voices. Demonstration of your continued personal and ongoing reflection, learning and action will be important in maintaining your credibility and perceived authenticity in the face of your Black colleagues over time.

7. Apply the learnings and take action

Then, let us diligently, in parallel with all the above, swiftly apply the feedback, findings and recommendations to plan, invest and follow through with committed, coherent, corporate action over the coming years.

And as we 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 Black talent and potential to thrive and flourish in diverse workplaces.

All together we are working to create and maintain more actively inclusive cultures for all, through cultural, systemic and behaviour change, for individual, organisational and societal growth and success for now and generations to come.

Petunia Thomas works with senior leaders and top teams to implement coherent strategies for change at the individual, interpersonal and organisational (systemic/structural) level. She facilitates Inclusive Leadership for Culture Change Programmes, Race Fluency Workshops, Black & BAME Mentoring (Reverse & Reciprocal), Career Sponsorship Programmes, as well as her acclaimed Black & BAME Leadership Talent Programme.

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